Five years ago, Universal Filmed Entertainment began a more concerted effort to diversify not only the company internally, but the kind of work in film and television it was producing. This included establishing programs for writers, directors, and composers to identify up-and-coming and experienced talent with unique points of view to tell stories and creating films that reflect the vast diversity of its audiences.
Writer Juel Taylor is a graduate of the program, and is now one of the writers on Shooting Stars, an upcoming film based on the book by LeBron James and Buzz Bissinger. The still-in-production film is the cornerstone of a four-year, first-look deal that Universal signed with James’s SpringHill Company last year. Speaking at Fast Company‘s Most Innovative Companies Summit on Wednesday, Universal chairman Donna Langley and SpringHill CEO and cofounder Maverick Carter also pointed to this film and their partnership as prime examples of tapping into the power of underrepresented people and stories.
“Looking at a movie like Shooting Stars, our intention is to treat it like a mainstream movie,” says Langley. “If you look at a movie like that only through a niche lens, and say it’s designed for only a certain type of person, then it has no opportunity to break out. Where we’ve won is in our ability to find the universality in a story like that, even though it’s a specific story about a certain socioeconomic and cultural arena.”
The successes for Universal with films like Straight Outta Compton and Get Out, as well as Disney’s Black Panther, have smashed traditionally held notions about the marketability of Black-led stories to broader audiences. Carter says Hollywood has taken major steps toward acknowledging that representation—both in front of and behind the camera—but there’s still a lot of work to be done.
“We’re at the point where everyone has admitted this is a problem, but then how to fix it becomes really deep because it’s not just about putting a few Black people on the board of this company or that company,” says Carter. “I call that a pump fake. But [it’s] about how you get kids that come from where I come from the job opportunities. I didn’t even know the job I’m doing now even existed. So you have to acknowledge the problem and then start really digging into the systems that have been in place.”
A big part of the problem isn’t about people necessarily being racist, Carter says, but it is a result of bias. “We all as humans have innate bias inside of us, and the issue becomes [how] bias gets you the same results as being racist,” says Carter. “They’re two different things, and those people are very different, but in America and in big companies, you still end up with the same type of people, who grew up the same way, went to the same types of schools.”
Ultimately, diversifying the stories Hollywood tells and the people who tell them isn’t an altruistic move, but one that is good for the bottom line. “It’s good for business because it’s what the consumers want, it’s who the consumers are,” says Carter. “You have to be intentional about not sticking to just the same type of people in the room and making the decisions. Because it was very intentionally set up to exclude Black and brown people, and women, so it has to be intentional to get them included.”
Langley agrees and says it’s partnerships like the one between Universal and SpringHill that will help continue that progress.
“Because we’re not overly reliant on intellectual property, we actually look at content creators as franchises,” says Langley. “In the content space, [SpringHill] can really scale and quickly, because of the way they bring things to their audience, who they have a direct relationship with. It means something. It’s already branded. So even though we’re talking about movies that, from a budget perspective, may be on a small to medium scale, these are stories that feel very authentic to SpringHill, to the people making them, and that is going to resonate with the audience. So when you marry that with what we bring to the table, we think that’s a winning combination.”