American Film Market Delves Into Diversity, Inclusion
Mo Abudu, CEO, EbonyLife Group
Insights shared at discussion sessions "Changing the Narrative" and "Consumption of Black Culture, Rejection of Black Stories" 
  • --

The American Film Market (AFM), which moved its 2021 edition entirely online with hopes of reconvening in person next year, still managed to facilitate business and delve into issues of relevance during its recently wrapped five-day (11/1-5) event.

Among the topics/issues addressed was that of bringing more diversity and inclusion into the entertainment industry, as reflected in a couple of panel discussion sessions: "Changing the Narrative: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Film"; and "International Film Market: Consumption of Black Culture, Rejection of Black Stories."

The former, moderated during day two of AFM by Madeline Di Nono, president and CEO of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, featured filmmakers Iram Parveen Bilal, Wendy Guerrero, Christopher Kahunahana and Alysia Reiner. 

Bilal, who grew up in Nigeria and Pakistan, is about to embark on her fourth feature film, with director/writer credits that include Josh, winner of the Viewers Choice Best Independent Film at Pakistan’s 2014 ARY Awards, and I’ll Meet You There, a nominee last year for the SXSW Grand Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature. The mystery thriller Josh became Pakistan’s first film on Netflix and attained permanent selection status at the U.S. Library of Congress.

Guerrero is president of the Geena Davis-led Bentonville Film Festival, which recently wrapped its 7th annual edition in Bentonville, Arkansas. The festival aims to amplify in the entertainment field the voices of women, non-binary, LGBTQIA+, BIPOC and API content creators, as well as people with disabilities.

Kahunahana’s feature film Waikiki, which he directed, wrote and produced, recently earned Best Hawaii Film distinction from the Hawaii Film Critics Society, and was a nominee in the New American Cinema Competition at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival.

Reiner, an actor known for her work on such shows as Orange Is the New Black and Better Things, has diversified into producing with credits such as the feature Equity, a Wall Street drama which was the opening feature at the 2016 Bentonville Film Festival.

During the AFM panel discussion, Reiner shared that she likely wouldn’t have taken on a producer role if not for the Geena Davis Institute which greatly heightened her awareness--and statistically detailed the underrepresentation--of women and minorities in the industry, fueling her desire to help change that for the better. And in order to be that agent of change, Reiner realized she had to create content rather than just act in content created by others. This led to her serving as a producer/actor/writer on the Meera Menon-directed Equity, telling a story about women in high finance with characters that included an ethnically mixed married gay couple. Amy Fox wrote the screenplay based on a story by her, Reiner and Sarah Megan Thomas. But beyond the narrative, Reiner wanted Equity to be true to its title behind the scenes, hiring women and others who are underrepresented in the industry. She recalled the Geena Davis Institute reporting that 77% of background extras on average were men. She made it a point to level that gender playing field, for example, in Equity. Reiner said that as a producer she could rectify such disparities, with her personal focus being on “creating opportunity for women.”

Bilal meanwhile initially studied to be an engineer to make her parents happy. But she wound up pursuing filmmaking, her first love. She felt a common bond between both career pursuits in that the odds are stacked against both a woman engineer and a woman filmmaker. Acknowledging those odds, Bilal knew early on that she couldn’t wait for Hollywood to discover her. She instead had to move ahead for herself in the indie film community, figuring out how to gain “funds and eyeballs.” On the funding front, she learned from her first film, Josh, that “the right money will care for your message and not just ROI (return on investment).” In that vein, she observed that a filmmaker starts to build audience for a project from the very first word on a script. Telling a story from the heart can engage an audience, engendering empathy and in turn impacting many people. There’s an audience appetite for such human experience-based narratives from otherwise marginalized voices, exposing viewers to new worlds.

Kahunahana’s Waikiki is believed to be the first narrative feature-length film written and directed by a native Hawaiian. Kahunahana said he was both surprised and kind of disappointed that Waikiki has that distinction, noting that there are many talented filmmakers of Hawaiian descent. Out of necessity, he turned to a Kickstarter campaign to initially generate funding for the film, which later landed some other strong independent financial backers. Key in helping people realize that this was a serious project was Waikiki getting accepted into the Sundance Indigenous Film Lab. Once the film was made, the next hurdle was getting the right distribution. He recalled some dismissive feedback on the distributor front that the story was “so niche.” It was “disheartening,” said Kahunahana, “to hear that our life experience was relegated to being a sideshow or unimportant.” But he persevered, overcame the “niche” stigma and Waikiki has gained momentum on the festival circuit. Kahunahana assessed that more people are “coming to recognize the value of indigenous stories” and that such narratives have a humanity that is capable of achieving universal appeal.

Guerrero shared that her desire to promote inclusion came early on. She remembered at the age of 8 realizing that stories for people like her--”a brown girl with a mixed race background”--were nowhere to be found on television or in film. Her career grew “organically” from that as she first studied acting at the American Conservatory Theater. But finding the kind of inclusion-promoting work she wanted to do on camera or on stage proved elusive as she was deemed too exotic looking or not American enough. Guerrero thus turned to producing, working with playwrights in New York to nurture original work by women on stage. After a long tenure doing that, she moved to Los Angeles and became partnered in the launch of a production company, Publicly Private, focused on creating content by women, particularly women of color. During the creation of that production company Guerrero met Davis, who introduced her to the work being done by the Geena Davis Institute. This led in turn to they’re discussing the launch of a film festival that could champion inclusion for underrepresented communities. Thus the Bentonville Film Festival was born, the first to have an inclusion qualifier for entrants.

Black Culture, Black Stories
The aforementioned "Consumption of Black Culture, Rejection of Black Stories" session, held during day 3 of AFM, was presented by AFM in partnership with the NAACP.

Moderated by Kyle Bowser, SVP of the NAACP’s Hollywood bureau, the discussion featured panelists Mo Abudu, CEO of EbonyLife Group; Dr. Darnell Hunt, dean of the division of social sciences, and professor of sociology and African American Studies at UCLA; Johnny Jones, executive director of worldwide marketing content, Warner Bros. Pictures; Gabriel Lerman, board member, Hollywood Foreign Press Association; and Tirrell D. Whittley, CEO of Liquid Soul, a brand marketing agency specializing in advertising, marketing, social media, influencer marketing, branded content and publicity for entertainment, sports and corporate brands.

Abudu shared, “For me it’s been a real struggle, getting our foot in the door with African stories that are also Black stories. Even if I’m knocking on the door of an African American, it’s kind of tough going because they’ve got African American stories they want to tell.” 

She added, “So yes, we’re getting our foot in the door, and we’re being listened to, and we’re having to work twice as hard. I keep saying that there are three levels of discrimination for an African woman--number 1, you are a woman, number 2, you are a Black woman, number 3, I am an African Black woman trying to sell an African story to either a white person or an African American person.” 

As for those gatekeepers who contend that there’s not enough demand to justify the investment in Black narratives, Hunt affirmed, “Well I’m here to tell you that it’s all a myth--it’s not true...First of all, the thing you have to remember is that the global audience looks a lot more like American diversity than Europe, I mean Europe is only about 18% of the world’s population and maybe 22% of the world GDP – all the rest of it is this rainbow around the world who want to hear diverse stories. And one of the things we’ve seen in the US context is that, as diversity has become more common on-screen, diverse audiences flock to it, they want to see that. They’re not going back now.” 

Bowser observed, “When you have these distributors who have this reticence to greenlight projects that need to travel internationally, I don’t think it’s simply because they’re not good stories or because there’s some shortcoming in the casting or whatever it is, I think implicitly, they are supporting a norm that was established long ago.” 

Hunt added, “White supremacy is real, and it works in many different ways--some of it is intentional, some of it’s implicit bias...some of it’s lack of imagination to appreciate and recognize a quality story when you see it because your experience does not support it. That’s why it’s important to have diverse voices in the executive suites for greenlighting these stories and we just don’t. All of our data shows that 92% of studio heads and CEOs are white, and about 87% are male--that freezes out a range of voices.” 

Jones noted that “different content works differently in different markets.” He added that it’s important to be in the room where the decision-making process is taking place, affirming “you need a voice--you need a strong voice and you need leverage. And the people who have leverage, believe it or not, are some of these actors.”

Whittley said, “So when creators come in and producers come in and they’re talking to a room full of white executives that don’t know their perspective, there’s no champion on the other side of the table, no one to translate at times what certain things mean; it is a very uphill battle.” 

Whittley added, “With young people, I really try and encourage them to learn about the system, own the system, participate in the system--from an executive perspective. Understanding the financing, understanding the greenlight--the more women on that side of the table the more stories you’ll see, because they understand that women’s stories matter.” 

Abudu related, “I often say that [Nigeria] is only six hours from London, you’re not going to the moon or something, but a lot of the times, just getting large corporate to set up a department that’s even going to have an African unit can take years and years.” 

She continued, “Netflix has trailblazed that, they’re on the continent because, you know what? They don’t want to leave anything on the table. There is a massive audience there, there’s a billion people living on the continent, the internet is spreading around the world, they are getting subscribers, so they are deciding to invest in local stories for local and local stories for global.” 

Abudu affirmed, “We have to, as Black content producers, find our Squid Game, and find those big projects that make studios realize that we are worth investing in.” 



MySHOOT Company Profiles