- LOS ANGELES
Paramount chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos, Marvel Studios producer Kevin Feige, Funny or Die CEO Mike Farah, TriStar Pictures sr. VP Nicole Brown and director Paul Feig, principal in Feigco Entertainment, were among the speakers at this past weekend’s (6/9-10) Produced By Conference who touched upon the importance of diversity and inclusion in the industry workforce, advocating increased representation for women and ethnic minorities in all phases of the business. The Producers Guild of America presented the confab which was held on the Paramount Pictures studio lot in Los Angeles.
Gianopulos affirmed that diversity and inclusion initiatives are “good business” considering that women comprise “half of our audience.” Moreover, the Paramount exec simply stated, “Diversity is the right thing to do.”
Gianopulos’ comments came during a Saturday morning session which had him and Neal H. Moritz, principal in Original Film, exchanging experiences and observations about the industry. This was followed by a conversation with Feige who was interviewed by Pete Hammond of Deadline.
During the course of his session, Feige promised that more female directors will be hired for Marvel’s slate of blockbuster films in the years to come. He noted that Anna Boden is co-directing with Ryan Fleck the upcoming Captain Marvel, making her the first female filmmaker to be at the helm of a Marvel movie. Feige also pointed with pride to the critical and commercial success of Black Panther, attributing much of that film’s stellar showing to its African-American director, Ryan Coogler.
On the next day of the Produced By Conference, there was a morning session dedicated to diversity issues titled, “Producing an Inclusive Industry: Where Do We Go From Here?” The panel discussion was moderated by Gail Berman, chairman and CEO of The Jackal Group, who along with Lucy Fisher was recently elected president of the Producers Guild. Berman and Fisher’s election is historic for the PGA as it marks the first time two women will serve as presidents of the Guild. Panelists for the Inclusion session were: Nicole Brown, sr. VP of TriStar Pictures (Baby Driver); Mike Farah, CEO of Funny Or Die; director Paul Feig, principal in Feigco Entertainment (Bridesmaids, Spy); writer/producer Stacy Rukeyser (UnREAL, The Lying Game); Rachel Shane, chief creative officer, MWM Studios (Hell or High Water, National Geographic’s Genius); and attorney Nancy Solomon of Solomon Law, who helped craft the Producers Guild’s Anti-Sexual Harassment Guidelines, which were released in January and distributed to all attendees at this Produced By session.
Farah shared that a Funny Or Die goal is for the company demographics to match the country’s demographics. In that vein, Funny Or Die is close to a 50-50 mix of men and women in career capacities. However, there’s still much work to be done at the company relative to attracting and hiring people of color.
Director Feig meanwhile assessed that his Feigco Entertainment has performed well in terms of women in front of the camera but still needs to better address opportunities for females behind the camera. Efforts are being made on that front, including his having positive experiences with three different female cinematographers on three recent projects. Feig noted that his partner at Feigco, producer Jessie Henderson, is a woman who is helping to promote gender equality at the company.
Shane related that MWM Studios is female driven, her partner in the venture being Gigi Pritzker. She and Pritzker are instinctively looking to develop ethnically diverse and female-driven stories. Towards that end, she said that the box office success of Wonder Woman and Black Panther have helped accelerate the quest for inclusive stories and getting them bringing them to fruition in film and TV.
Still, there’s a long road to travail before anything resembling equality takes hold, observed Rukeyser who noted that some 80 percent of TV showrunners are men.
Often overlooked in the diversity/inclusion discussion are those who are physically challenged or disabled. TriStar’s Brown noted that a deaf character in director Edgar Wright’s feature Baby Driver was among the most popular in the movie based on audience feedback. Brown said that Wright insisted on casting a deaf person in the role to add to the film’s authenticity. Sign language services were made available during the table read.
Solomon said that having a person to report abuse or harassment to is key to helping victims. Such a point person needs to be someone of authority and clout identified at the outset of every project. Alternate people to go to also need to be established in case those higher ups at the company to whom incidents should be reported are themselves perpetrating harassment or abuse. The Producers Guild’s Anti-Sexual Harassment Guidelines offer different resources including attorney-finding services from the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund which is housed at the National Women’s Law Center, a SAG-AFTRA hotline for reporting sexual harassment or abuse (323 549-6644) and the Women In Film sexual harassment help line (323 545-0333, an integrated program to refer victims of harassment to designated mental health counselors, law enforcement professionals, and civil and criminal lawyers and litigators.
Gianopulos’ conversation with Moritz extended beyond diversity and inclusion. Moritz discussed his work on the Fast and Furious franchise, sharing that the hardest part of that experience was dealing with the death of Paul Walker in a tragic one-car crash during his time off from filming Fast and Furious 7. At that point, some 60 to 70 percent of the movie had been shot and Moritz felt he could not go on with the production. But at the behest of the Walker family, production continued. “We did it to honor him,” affirmed Moritz who admitted that at first he was “scared as hell” to show the film to an audience. At a test screening in Chatsworth, Calif., Moritz received direct viewer feedback, which included many thanks for completing Fast and Furious 7. At this point, Moritz realized fully that Walker was someone whom people grew up with and they needed to close the circle on his life via his final film. Moritz shared that the positive, warm, inspiring response the movie received that night represented a career highlight for him.
Moritz and Gianopulos talked about their collaborations on varied projects over the years, with both expressing excitement over continuing that working relationship on a Sonic the Hedgehog movie. Gianopulos confessed that he initially wasn’t enthused over the prospect of a film based on a popular videogame of yesteryear. But that all changed when he saw the “rip-o-matic” Moritz put together.
Moritz explained that there were so many incarnations of what the Sonic movie could be, he felt the need to define its “tone and attitude” up front with a three-minute piece, which wound up selling Gianopulos on the project. Moritz contended that the Sonic presentation is a good case study attesting to the potential benefits of deploying a short to convey a creative vision in order to get a film greenlit.
Another Saturday session of note was titled “Powerful Voices: Telling Stories That Rewrite The Rules,” moderated by Marcy Ross, president of Skydance Television. Panelists were Nnamdi Asomugha, principal/producer, Iam21 Entertainment (Crown Heights, Beasts of No Nation); Dan Bucatinsky, partner, Is Or Isn’t Entertainment (The Comeback, Who Do You Think You Are?); Mel Eslyn, president, Duplass Brothers Entertainment (Outside In, Room 104); Justin Simien, writer/producer/director (Dear White People); and writer/actor/producer Lena Waithe (creator of The Chi, producer of Dear White People).
The panelists talked about what gave rise to their voices, a key dynamic being those people whom they chose to come together with. For example, Simien and Waithe found themselves together in a writers’ group. Simien recalled Waite telling him that she was obsessed with him, that they would become best friends so “deal with it”--and then she left the room. Waithe noted that she could see Simien’s talent and felt simpatico with him. She stressed the importance of surrounding yourself with greatness to help bring the best out of yourself. She saw that possibility with Simien.
Both have come a long way as Simien recollected that just six years ago he was a PR assistant at Paramount while Waithe was on the lot as a writer’s assistant. They kept honing their craft, developing content, at times with no idea where it would lead or even if the projects would come to fruition. But over time, work developed. At one point a prospective financier declined to back Dear White People. But a video for the prospective film went viral, and Simien developed additional online content to keep viewers interested, to the point where a website generated a significant following--so significant that a year and a half later, the same financier decided to invest in the feature film, which scored critical acclaim and commercial success before being adapted into a TV series on Netflix.
Similarly, Bucatinsky found a partner who lifted his game, actress/writer/producer Lisa Kudrow. The two first became friends before later embarking on a business relationship which is now 16 years strong and counting.
Eslin meanwhile bonded with Mark Duplass on the film Your Sister’s Sister. Duplass starred and Eslin was a co-producer on the feature which was written and directed by Lynn Shelton. From there, Eslin and the Duplass Brothers built upon their rapport, turning out varied projects spurred on by what she described as a “let’s do it” attitude.
Bucatinsky, Simien and Waithe said that integral to finding their creative voices was getting in touch with what made them different and unique. For Bucatinsky, coming out of the closet was a major breakthrough. Earlier he felt that as an actor he would never work if people knew he was gay. But as soon as he became “truthful” to who he was, Bucatinsky said he began to flourish creatively.
Simien chimed in, “You brand yourself about what makes you different,” which sometimes requires you reveal “the things you’ve been hiding.”
Waithe observed, “People want to buy what I have to sell,” which include such hidden traits as vulnerability, the truth about one’s self, feeling broken at times. “The dark stuff,” she said, “is how you get to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”
Asomugha played in the NFL for 11 years. Acting in a Nike commercial directed by Peter Berg proved to be his major entertainment career break. Berg thought Asomugha was a natural actor and cast him in the primetime TV series Friday Night Lights. His entertainment career took off as he diversified into producing, perhaps most notably at first with the feature Beasts of No Nation. Asomugha also produced and acted in Crown Heights, a film which delved into the true story of Colin Warner, a man wrongfully convicted of murder, and his best friend Carl King who devotes his life to proving Warner’s innocence.
Asomugha said he follows his heart, which led him to Crown Heights. He was drawn to the story and the real-life characters. He had no expectations beyond that. But when you go after what deeply moves you, good things can happen, he affirmed, noting that Crown Heights not only proved successful commercially and from a critical standpoint, but it also translated into him being selected to serve as an ambassador for the Innocence Project.