The ‘unfortunate catch-22’ that might be holding back full inclusion in Hollywood


On the set of 9-1-1 created by Ryan Murphy, budding directors can learn the process of making television. It’s one of the few programs giving new talent the experience they need to succeed. (Justin Wu)

Some major studios have announced inclusion programs to help give under-represented filmmakers a foot in the door. The catch? You have to have experience, which is often part of the problem in the first place.

Canadian fashion photographer Justin Wu has a growing portfolio of celebrity snapshots, videos and commercials. But when he wanted to make the jump into directing television, he hit a glass ceiling.

“There is an unfortunate catch-22: How can directors direct without experience? How can you get experience without directing?” said Wu in an interview at his Toronto photo studio.

“The bottom line is that executives tend to prefer the safer choice and the safer choice historically has been white male directors just because they’ve had more experience.”

It’s a cycle that’s been difficult to break.

Canadian fashion photographer Justin Wu was part of showrunner Ryan Murphy’s director mentorship program, which has opened doors for him after years of trying to break into television. (Nigel Hunt/CBC)

Hollywood has been grappling with criticism over a lack of inclusion for years.

The 2019 Diversity Report from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) analyzed 167 of the top-grossing films in 2017. About one in 10 directors were people of colour. That number would have to more than triple to reach proportional representation in the U.S. The level of diversity was marginally higher for TV productions.

The report came on the heels of a memorable speech at the 2018 Academy Awards by best actress winner Frances McDormand, who emphatically used the words “inclusion rider.”

The phrase, coined by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative director Stacy Smith a few years prior, refers to a provision in a filmmaker’s contract that can call for a certain level of diversity among staff and crew on a production.

Frances McDormand sparked big conversations after using the words ‘inclusion rider’ in her speech to accept the best actress award at the 2018 Oscars for the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/Associated Press)

It soon became an industry catchphrase — after it was heavily Googled immediately following McDormand’s moment on stage — but it remains unclear how widely it’s been used since. Instead, major studios have announced other initiatives.

Warner Media, which includes Warner Bros. and HBO, hired a chief diversity officer and implemented a policy last year to improve inclusivity in front of and behind the camera.

Disney announced earlier this week a seven-month incubator program to help under-represented, experienced filmmakers take the next step in their careers.

While these kinds of programs indicate progress, they don’t address how to bring in a new generation of talent that still might feel the entertainment industry is off limits, critics say.

That’s where a program like Ghetto Film School comes in. The non-profit, supported by filmmakers like Academy Award-winner David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook), gives high school students from diverse communities a chance to learn the business from the inside.

Actors such as 12 Years A Slave’s Alfre Woodard and The Wire’s Lance Reddick were among those participating in a script reading for the Ghetto Film School mentorship program. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

“They operate in the Bronx. The Bronx is not the most affluent neighbourhood,” said Jourdain Pita,18, who will be directing one of the productions on location in Italy this summer. “They strive to choose people who they know don’t have these kinds of opportunities … give voices to people who wouldn’t otherwise have them.”

Pita said he attended a high school focused on science and technology and never even thought of a career in filmmaking. But since starting GFS — an intensive program done in addition to Pita’s regular school work — he’s changed course. Pita will now attend New York University’s prestigious film program in the Fall — after winning a full scholarship.

“It’s inspiring to see people who are excited to tell stories,” said Russell. “We’ve come a long way.”

David O. Russell, the filmmaker behind Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, talks to CBC’s Zulekha Nathoo about mentorship to foster inclusion in Hollywood. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

The program is one of several being supported by filmmakers themselves. And many of them launched even before big studios started making changes.

Ryan Murphy, the creative force behind shows like Glee, American Horror Story and the Emmy and Golden Globe winner The People v. O.J. Simpson, committed his production company in 2016 to ensuring 50 per cent of all directorial slots go to under-represented filmmakers. That includes women, people of colour and those from the LGBTQ community. In 2017, he also started an internship program to encourage young people to get to know the industry. 

“When I was starting out, I felt completely alone and isolated,” said Murphy in a video on his website explaining his first experiences on set. “This was in … a very different era, and I was the only gay person in that room.”

Ryan Murphy, multiple Golden Globe winner and the creator of shows like Glee and American Horror Story, started his own mentorship program to foster inclusion in Hollywood. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Murphy recently began an inclusive director mentorship program to give promising but inexperienced talent a foot in the door.

After years of trying to break into television, the program gave Wu his way in. He scored a spot, spending about a month in Los Angeles learning what it takes to run one of Murphy’s dramas, 9-1-1. He might also soon direct an episode.

“Because of his pioneer work, a lot of the other studios have now developed their own minority programs as a result,” said Wu.

“Once there is the belief in the need for more of these diversity programs, then I believe the entire industry as a whole will begin to move in the right direction.”


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