Is it Time for Some Affirmative Action in Hollywood?

Is it Time for Some Affirmative Action in Hollywood?

By Ahmed Younies
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HR Unlimited Inc.

Will you be tuning in to Sunday night’s televised Oscar Awards ceremony? It would seem that the worlds of federal government contracting and Hollywood could not be further apart. After all, what could government contractors and film and television possibly have in common? What if any concerns could they share? Diversity, for one—and in that area, the federal contractor community might have something to teach Hollywood.

You may have heard that, for the second consecutive year the Oscar nominations do not include a single person of color— Selma, a well-received movie (released on the Christmas day of 2014), depicting racial discrimination and segregation in Alabama received no nominations. You may also know that while Chris Rock, an African-American, will be hosting, other persons of color are calling for a boycott. Some may be tempted to shrug it off and ask of what relevance the demographics of Oscar nominees is to them. The Oscars is merely the tip of the iceberg. Let’s look a bit below the surface and for some answers.

Is it simply that not enough people of color or women receive Oscar nominations or awards? Are there simply not enough qualified female and minority performers, directors, producers, writers out there? Who chooses the nominees? The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the composition of which is 94% white, 77% male, 2% Black and 2% Latino. Let’s look a little deeper. How about the film industry in general? Five of the six major studio heads are white; likewise five of the six major studio heads are male. Whatever reasons one might be able to offer, one cannot get around it: the film industry does not begin to reflect the demographics in the United States or the world. Citing a lack of diversity is merely pointing out the painfully obvious.

Movies, however are only part of Hollywood. What about television? If there is any consolation, television is faring better than the movies – but still has a long way to go. According to the UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report of 2015, women since 2014 have made small gains among film directors and as creators of scripted broadcast shows, and actually regressed in the areas of film writers and broadcast scripted leads. Minorities, which are estimated to compose 40% of the U.S. population, made small to modest gains since 2014. While television shows do reflect more diverse programming and casts, according to some statistics, there are three non-white people in America for every non-white movie character, and seven non-white people in America for every lead character in broadcast television comedies and dramas. While films feature half as many women as real life, female lead characters in broadcast television shows seem to be on the increase.

The UCLA study, in addition to finding that women and minorities are grossly underrepresented among actors, filmmakers, writers and the like, also takes a look at agencies. Agents are known to serve as “gatekeepers” of the industry—and the bigger agencies are not known for keeping a racially diverse client list. Minority actors and creators tend to be represented by smaller agencies, whose clients tend to find less high-profile work. In other words, the “plum jobs” are going to nonminority directors, writers and actors, because that is who is making it into the pool. Federal contractors as well as many other businesses have faced and addressed similar issues.

Here is where Hollywood can learn from the federal contractor community. A strong argument can be made that Hollywood highlights the need for Affirmative Action. To the extent that Hollywood is comprised of employers, it is, arguably, already subject to EEO laws. EEO laws essentially tell employers “Thou shalt not discriminate”, but do not, by themselves mandate that employers take affirmative action to ensure diversity in their workforce. Affirmative Action does. For the same reason that Affirmative Action makes good business sense in the federal contractor community (and those other sectors that adopt it) so too is it good business sense for Hollywood.

If the film and television industries are serious about attracting the best talent and about offering the programming that best satisfies its audience, they cannot afford to take diversity concerns lightly. Films and television shows with diverse casts, and diverse programming in general tend to get higher ratings from audiences and gross more money, according to the UCLA study. Films with all-white, all-male characters, casts, creators, writers, directors, etc., are not getting the best talent in the world, they are merely getting the best from a limited pool, i.e. mostly white actors, directors, creators, etc., and mostly male actors, directors, creators, etc. Many of us have either complained or hear others complain that Hollywood is “running out of new ideas”. But Hollywood to date has only been represented by a very small part of the global population. The more accurate statement then, is that a small portion of the global population is running out of new ideas. Diversifying the pool can only help bring in the new ideas Hollywood so badly needs. As ratings show, diversity sells—and, if for no other reason, that is why Hollywood should care about it.

So, after all is said and done, assuming Hollywood does hear the wake-up call, what should it do? What can it do? Where does Hollywood turn for guidance? It can start with the federal contracting community. No, it may not need to be so heavily regulated, but it can use similar recruitment methods, and look for actors, directors, writers, cinematographers, creators, producers, etc. in places where female, and ethnic and religious minorities—and the disabled and veterans-are likely to be found. It can offer training and apprenticeship opportunities and can set goals, tracking its efforts and developing action-oriented plans, and helping to market films written, created, directed by and starring women and those of minority background. Perhaps in some indirect, modified way, Hollywood can benefit from Affirmative Action efforts.

Will Smith in a recent interview on Good Morning America may have said it best, when he said, “I think that I have to protect and fight for the ideals that make our country and make our Hollywood community great. So when I look at the series of nominations from the Academy, it’s not reflecting that beauty”.

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