Screenwriter Michelle Amor can remember the moment that she decided she wanted to work in the movie business.
She was a 17-year-old high school student on the westside of Chicago and was starting to think about her future. In school she’d taken a TV production class where she shot PSAs and music videos and dabbled in short narrative films. She enjoyed the class immensely, but she never thought of it as anything more than a hobby.
Then, toward the end of the class, there was an awards ceremony, and James Taylor, the famed leader of the Community Film Workshop of Chicago, a nonprofit that offers film and media instruction to young people in the inner city, came to speak. Suddenly, Amor recalled, “There was this older Black man telling a little Black girl, ‘You can make movies.’ It changed my life.”
Amor went on to study film at Columbia College in Chicago, and then received her MFA in screenwriting at UCLA. Today she is not just a successful Hollywood screenwriter (Playin’ for Love, Of Boys and Men), but also an important voice in the Black Lives Matter movement that has been sweeping the nation—and the entertainment industry—since the brutal killing of George Floyd.
A co-chair of the Writers Guild of America’s Committee of Black Writers, on June 12, Amor and her CBW partners published an open letter to Hollywood, demanding “systemic change” in the way the industry hires writers. “The entertainment industry needs to implement forward-looking project development and staffing practices, including attracting, developing, mentoring, hiring and retaining the next generation of diverse writers, directors, producers, and executives, at all levels,” the letter read.
The letter came in the midst of a tumultuous several days in Hollywood, where agents took the streets to protest; town halls were quickly organized by major media companies like WarnerMedia to reflect upon, and discuss taking action against, racism; and entertainment companies showed their support of BLM through Twitter hashtags and financial pledges to support social justice.
The overall effect, as one Black agent put it, has been “a shock to the system.”
Though as Lorrie Bartlett, co-head of talent at ICM Partners pointed out, “It hasn’t been a shock to Black people.”
In the wake of all of the upheaval, which continues on through peaceful protests around Los Angeles, Hollywood is now grappling with what to do next—i.e., how to turn all of its good intentions and vocal support into meaningful action.
In other words, how to turn “this flashpoint into a turning point,” says Gerard Bush, who along with Christopher Renz is the writer-director of the upcoming horror film Antebellum.
Change starts before showing up in Hollywood
Amor’s recollection of meeting Taylor points to an issue that many say is tantamount to that evolution, and, more specifically, to widening Hollywood’s almost exclusively white talent pool of agents, writers, directors, producers, and executives.
Change, they say, needs to come not just from altering how Hollywood runs—and how, say, writers are hired for a film or TV project—but how Hollywood markets itself to young people of color before they even set foot in Los Angeles.
Amor, after all, was lucky. Her high school happened to offer a TV production class, and happened to have a connection to an esteemed film and media community center. But for the most part, kids who are even aware that there is such a thing as a Hollywood career path—let alone think that it is attainable—come from exclusive enclaves, where families have the resources to support a child’s unpaid internship (the typical stepping stone to a studio or agency job) and where kids have the luxury to consider a career path that isn’t just about putting food on the table or paying rent.
Leaders in the Hollywood BLM movement say this needs to change, and that if Hollywood can be more aggressive about recruiting a broader base of entrants, it will start to feed and grow a more diverse ecosystem.
“First and foremost, it’s going to sources and places, whether it’s HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) or maybe even going to high schools and working-class areas or underserved areas and making kids aware of what opportunities exist in this business,” says Bartlett. “If you don’t grow up in Hollywood or in the business, do you really know what an agent is? Do you know what all the potential jobs you could have on a set or at a studio are? It’s about creating an avenue for people to learn what those potential jobs are, and then creating a system, whether it’s having interns and creating a real pathway that mentors people and helps people who aren’t as exposed to our business.
“We need to go into the community and actually set up programs to teach kids how they, too, could work in the industry,” Amor says. “We need to plant those seeds much younger for people coming from a family of need. We might set up a camp or a separate program for kids from the inner city who may not have access. Imagine if all the Boys and Girls Clubs across the country had a film component sponsored by Netflix or Disney. Or a summer program where you get to learn how to be a writer or make a little film on your phone. That’s the hope.”
Another Black agent who wished to remain anonymous admitted that he “stumbled into this,” saying the only agent he’d ever heard of was an older white man. “I personally didn’t know anything about agenting. I’m not from L.A. I was lucky because—I was just lucky.” He added that just being an agent is tough for anybody—the long hours, the required doggedness, the competitive landscape—regardless of your race, making it all the more important for mentoring opportunities to exist at agencies for African Americans and other people of color, who are dramatically underrepresented at all of the major talent agencies. “You realize it most at big company meetings,” this agent says. “You’re like, yeah, there’s a lot of white people here.” He pauses. “In fact, there are almost no Black people here.”
When Bartlett, who is also a board member and partner at ICM Partners, first started in the industry, she says, “I saw zero Black people.”
ICM Partners says that 35% of the agency identifies as a person of color. And the agency has appointed Bartlett as chair of its newly formed task force Diversify ICM, a group of 75 employees who are discussing changes within the agency in the wake of BLM. “I think there is a real sense of purpose,” Bartlett says. There’s a feeling of, “Okay, we’re not going to lose this moment. I feel like it is a real shift of the company and the people in the company who feel very strongly. This is a moment we are going to not let go.”
Ava Greenfield, another ICM agent, says that she knew in high school that she wanted to be in the entertainment business and was able to make the leap, but primarily because her family was able to support her. “I was lucky to live at home and have an unpaid internship in college,” she says. “But I think we need to invest in ways for folks who don’t necessarily have the financial backing to take on an unpaid job, which is an important first step to getting exposure and getting your foot in the door” in Hollywood.
Creating a new system that’s not in service to white people
By bringing people of color into the Hollywood at an earlier stage, the hope is that a system and culture that is in almost exclusive service to whites will be, if not brought down, then at least destabilized. Hilliard Guess, a writer, producer, and director who is also co-chair of the WGA’s Committee of Black Writers, says that as a writer, his everyday reality is seeing agencies draw up lists of writers for TV shows where “nine are white—usually male.” Before he found a Black agent (a challenge in and of itself), he says that he was only asked to write on shows that had a Black character, the assumption being that that was the only voice he could write.
“You have all these shows that have a Black character in a supporting role, so they need to bring in a writer who’s Black to speak to that character. But when they have an all-white show, they think we can’t write those characters. I once sat down at my (former) agent’s office and I said, ‘Please do not categorize me as the Black guy who can’t write a white character.
“‘Here’s the thing you guys need to know. We can write you, because we live in your world. You guys can live your entire lives and not even deal with us at all. I’m amazed when you nail us. Don’t be amazed when we nail you. I’m Black and gay. I live both worlds. Believe me, I can write you.'”
Guess noted that TV networks have made strides over the years to bring more young writers of color, but their efforts have in some ways backfired. Programs like NBCUniversal’s Writers on the Verge and the Disney-ABC Writing Program all help talented, young writers from ethnically diverse backgrounds get staff jobs on TV shows. They even subsidize their salaries for the first season of the show.
“They groom these writers to be ready to get on staff, but when they get on the staff, the sense is ‘these writers are here because they’re diverse.’ They don’t have the respect,” says Guess. “They always have to work harder as Black writers. They’re the ‘diversity hire’ person. They have to fight in the room to prove how good they are in order to earn that spot to come back season two. People assume they just got the job because they were in the program, but they forget that in order to get into the program they probably wrote a really great script.”
Gerard Bush said that Black artists can start building up a deeper talent pool themselves in Hollywood by hiring Black talent on to their productions, something he and Christopher Renz did on Antebellum, whose major departments are led by a person of color. (The film’s star is Janelle Monáe.)
“We have a new opportunity to create a talent pool of people of color to tell these stories from a myriad and dynamic point of view. That is crucial,” Bush says. “Once we do that and we are effective in that, then Hollywood will understand that it’s good business.
“We have a personal responsibility as artists not just to look to studios and executives to do what we should start doing ourselves. Talk about a white savior. I don’t need some outside entity to save me. We can already start these meaningful steps right now for ourselves.”
Bush says that he’s been “heartened by the fact that everyone in Hollywood is rah-rah” about changing things, but that the media should “check back with us in a couple of months.
“This whole business is about show and not tell. I’m not interested in town halls. I’m not interested in continuing to talk about the same thing ad nauseam. If you’re talking about having a conversation about meaningful next steps, it needs to happen this afternoon.
“Enough of the talking. We need more action.”