BREAKING IN: Diversity in Hollywood - Black (and Hispanic, Asian, and Native American) Scripts Matter!

Why was there so little "diversity" in the Oscars awarded this year? Staton Rabin drills down into the diversity in Hollywood controversy, and comes up with surprising answers.
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Staton Rabin is a screenplay marketing consultant, script analyst, and "pitch coach" for screenwriters at all levels of experience. Her new photo-illustrated book is the long-awaited autobiography of the Yankees' famous Double-A affiliate (Trenton Thunder) Bat Dog: DERBY! My Bodacious Life in Baseball. Staton is available for script reading/analysis and consultations and can be reached at Cutebunion@aol.com. Follow Staton on Twitter @StatonRabin.

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Unless you were cryogenically frozen over the winter, you probably noticed that there was a lot of controversy during Academy Awards season this year about the lack of Oscar nominations for actors of color (especially African Americans) and the films they appeared in.

BREAKING IN: Diversity in Hollywood - Black (and Hispanic, Asian, and Native American) Scripts Matter! by Staton Rabin | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Certainly, the average age (63) and racial composition (overwhelmingly white and male) of Academy voters may be factors in why there wasn’t a lot of “diversity” in the movies nominated for Oscars this year. Were there any deserving movies created by-- or starring-- people of color that got unfairly overlooked by the Academy for the major awards in 2016?

I honestly don’t know.

But as someone who evaluates and writes scripts for a living, it seems to me that Academy Award week is much too late to start addressing the larger issue: a shortage of “diversity” in American movies and the people who create them. Like everything else in the movie business, it all begins with the screenwriter.

If American screenwriters aren’t writing scripts with great starring roles for African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, or Native Americans (or for women, for that matter)— or those movies aren’t getting made very often-- how can these actors get big roles in Hollywood movies, much less win Oscars for their performances?

I used to read scripts for the major movie studios and a top film agency. Nowadays, I evaluate hundreds of scripts a year for a major screenwriting contest, and also for the writers and directors who hire me to read and evaluate their screenplays. It may be a skewed sample, but in the scripts I read each year I don’t see a lot of great starring roles for people of color. Interestingly, when I do, it’s usually also an excellent script, perhaps in part because it’s so specific in other ways too.

I do, however, read a lot of scripts that feature Asian prostitutes, Russian mobsters, terrorists of vaguely “Arab” origin, and black or Hispanic drug dealers, in the usual stereotyped supporting roles-- which to me does more harm than good for “diversity” in movies.

SO, WHY ARE MOST AMERICAN MOVIE SCRIPTS SO “WHITE”?

There are many reasons why there seems to be a shortage of great starring roles for people of color in movies, and perhaps also in many of the scripts that land on film executives’ desks in Hollywood. I’ll touch on just a few of them here (leaving aside for the most part the plight of females in the film industry, of all racial backgrounds).

One reason there are so few good starring roles for people of color in American movies (especially in non-comedies) is that, unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of big “bankable” American movie stars under 40 who are African American, Latino, Asian-American, or Native American.

Of course, the problem becomes a vicious circle, because one of the best ways to get a movie financed is to “attach” a movie star to the screenplay. But how can people of color become movie stars if few American screenwriters are writing great, juicy leading roles for them in the first place-- or those films aren’t getting made?

As for why that is, I truly don’t have the definitive answer.

The lack of racial and ethnic diversity in Hollywood films may stem in part from unconscious bias on the part of film industry decision-makers (who at the highest levels of the industry are mostly white males) in choosing which writers get hired for open assignments, and also in deciding which subject matter appeals to them.

Recently, for example, the Writers Guild of America West reported that since 2012, only 7% of its members who were hired to work on films were “minority” writers. And according to the Bunche Center’s “2015 Hollywood Diversity Report,” minorities in general, who combined make up 40% of the U.S. population (and growing) as of 2013, “remain underrepresented on every front” in Hollywood film and TV employment, and “Film studio heads were 94 percent white and 100 percent male.” This is despite the fact that more than half of all frequent moviegoers are minorities, and that movies that have a "diverse" cast tend to make more money.

But are there really-- proportionately-- as many minority writers who are attempting to break into Hollywood, as there are white writers?

I’m not so sure, and I don’t think there’s a way to keep stats on this, since “aspiring” screenwriters don’t qualify for membership in the WGA.

Of course, you don’t have to belong to a “minority group” in order to write great movie characters who aren’t white-- though it probably helps. But my theory is that writers of color may be at least somewhat more likely to write more starring and supporting roles for people of color than non-minority writers are.

It’s possible that there simply aren’t as many minority screenwriters (whether WGA members, or not) as one would expect to see, given that the “minority” is quickly becoming the majority in the U.S. Assuming that’s true, what could be causing this?

COULD THERE BE AN INDIRECT LINK BETWEEN THE SHORTAGE OF OSCARS FOR PEOPLE OF COLOR, AND THE HIGH COST OF GOING TO COLLEGE?

Assuming my premise is correct-- that there may be even fewer African American, Hispanic, and Native American screenwriters than one would expect given the percentages they represent of the general population-- could one factor in this be the high cost of getting a college education?

I haven’t seen any data on this, but my guess is that most aspiring screenwriters who succeed these days have a college degree (not necessarily in film). Having a college degree is an advantage for a screenwriter-- not because your college degree will matter to anyone in the film industry (it definitely won’t), but rather because successful screenwriters are usually pretty well-educated and have written language skills that are easier to acquire in college than if one stops going to school after high school.

It’s not just a question of learning how to write a screenplay, since almost anyone can get the basics of this from reading books, taking courses, or even just doing research online. Having a broad education and a good command of the language one is writing in, can be important factors in a successful screenwriting career. And while spending two or four years in college isn’t mandatory, it can help.

A college degree may also allow you to get a better job-- and you might not have to work two jobs in order to make ends meet, leaving less time for your screenwriting ambitions.

I’m not an economist, but I would guess that there may be more white kids than black, Hispanic, or Native American kids whose families can afford to send their children to college, and scholarships may not be enough. The recent research I’ve seen shows there’s still a gap in the U.S. between the percentage of white and Asian (or Asian-American) kids who graduate from college, and the number of blacks and Hispanics who do.

Plus, despite working for a living, a lot of aspiring screenwriters may have benefited at some point in their lives from getting a little financial help from mom and dad so that they could continue their screenwriting habit-- or direct their first movie-- until Hollywood comes calling. That may not be as possible for many minority families as it is for whites.

The good news, however, is that it no longer necessarily requires huge sums of money to make a "presentable" movie-- the way it did when I was in film school-- and this may open up opportunities for more minority writer/directors, as well as actors who are people of color.

SO… ARE HOLLYWOOD DECISION-MAKERS REALLY “PASSING” ON SCRIPTS THAT STAR MINORITY ACTORS-- DUE TO BIAS?

I don’t believe that professional script readers (of which I am one), movie studio heads, independent film producers, and casting directors sit around figuring out how to keep people of color out of the movie business-- whether as writers, directors, actors, or screenwriters. And I don’t think there’s a grand scheme to keep them from winning Oscars, either.

But I do think that since many of those who make the final decisions in Hollywood about which films get made are “white,” they may, in a subconscious way, have more difficulty relating to stories about people whose backgrounds-- racially, ethnically, culturally, or religiously—are vastly dissimilar to their own.

Yes, they can “relate” if it’s a story about, say, the Civil Rights Movement, or anything with an important message that makes everyone feel virtuous; or if the story is set in some exotic locale. But what if it’s a great story about Americans who “just happen to be black”? Or “just happen to be Hispanic,” Asian, or Native American? Then, maybe not so much.

Compounding the problem is that fewer spec scripts in general are getting bought and made into movies. Since many movies today are financially low-risk adaptations of successful-- and possibly old-- franchises, such as comic books, this leaves less room in the marketplace for original and more "diverse" material by writers, especially writers of color.

To Hollywood's credit, however, it's making strides in including some minority characters of both sexes in its "superhero" movies (Alexandra Shipp in X-Men, for example, and Will Smith as Headshot in the upcoming Suicide Squad, to name just two. Chadwick Boseman will star in Black Panther, to be released in 2018). But in general, American movies based on original material-- especially spec scripts-- are increasingly rare, and original movies about people of color are even rarer.

PROFESSIONAL SCRIPT READERS’ ROLE IN ENCOURAGING DIVERSITY IN HOLLYWOOD FILMS

Script readers (or story analysts as they are often called)— even ones who have been evaluating scripts for decades as I have-- don’t have much “yea” power in the movie business, just “nay” power.

In other words, if we “pass” on a script, it’s usually (not always) dead at that particular studio. If we love it, however, it’ll get passed up the line for further consideration, but the final decision-makers at the top have other factors to take into account, and have their own criteria for deciding which scripts get bought and made into movies. A positive report from the staff or freelance reader who sees it first and gives it a “recommend” can help keep a script “alive” and give it a boost, but isn’t the deciding factor.

When I was reading scripts for film studios-- and now as a judge for a major screenwriting contest-- I tried to use what little power I had wisely, and if I thought a script was truly great, the fact that it had starring roles only for non-white actors was not going to cause me to change my mind. In fact, if I can do my part to encourage diversity in movies, without ever compromising on the quality of the script and the story, I am glad to have that chance. I’ve given a “recommend” to many scripts about African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and other minority groups.

I also care about films' power to discourage-- or encourage—racial, ethnic, and gender stereotypes. I believe that everyone has responsibilities to society at large, and that those responsibilities don’t end at the door when one heads to work in the morning. They matter in one’s job in the film business, as well-- and film has enormous power (for good or for ill) to mold opinion, or change people’s hearts and minds.

I hope that when you are writing your own scripts, you will think about this too.

Although I’m white, my open-minded attitude toward people of other racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds stems in part from the fact that my parents treated everyone with equal respect. And when I was growing up, Sidney Poitier was a big movie star, Diahann Carroll was starring as a nurse and single mom named Julia on TV, little girls danced the twist with Chubby Checker, and Sammy Davis, Jr. was ubiquitous on TV and in movies. “Black Power” and “Black is beautiful” were the catch phrases of the time, and black athletes like Ali, Frazier, Willie Mays, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson, Wilma Rudolph, Wilt Chamberlain, and Jim Brown commanded the airwaves on TV. My first record album? Not Elvis or the Beatles-- I was really too young to be interested in them back then-- but Harry Belafonte.

Growing up, I watched revisionist Westerns like Little Big Man, which showed that Native Americans—not Custer and the 7th Cavalry-- were often “the good guys” in the Old West.

Sayonara-- an excellent movie released the year before I was born-- showed the evils of anti-Japanese prejudice.

The bossa nova, and other Latin music—sometimes sung in Spanish for a general American audience-- was all the rage when I was a little girl.

So during my childhood, even though I lived in the “white” suburbs, through the magic of movies, records, and TV I got exposed to a lot of different people, from different backgrounds. And I was also very conscious of the Civil Rights Movement.

But despite the fact that I have a pretty open mind, when reading scripts for my work as a freelance story analyst I know I have to be vigilant, constantly questioning whether I might like some of them more than I do if I could “relate” more easily to the background of the characters in it. It depends on the script, of course. But I always have to work at remaining conscious of, and compensate for, any potential biases I might have against American stories that are outside of my own cultural milieu.

What if the story is, say, an American Hip-Hop movie, which to me seems more “foreign” than a Bollywood musical set in Mumbai? Will I truly “get it”?

Maybe not.

Still, when reading scripts about characters whose racial, ethnic, or religious heritage differs a lot from my own, if I’m about to “pass,” I always ask myself, “Could I be missing something here?” before making a decision. Whether that helps or not, I don’t know-- but I try.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF "HAMILTON"

If Lin-Manuel Miranda's libretto and score for Hamilton, the mega-hit Rap/Hip-Hop Broadway musical with an interracial cast about the life of Alexander Hamilton, had been a script that I was assigned to evaluate, would I have recognized its genius and commercial potential?

For the Broadway stage, at least, I'd like to think so. I have formal training in writing for musical theater, and know great work when I see it. So hopefully I'd have spotted the quality, craftsmanship, energy, and bracing originality of Hamilton, even if I might not have been able to predict its humongous mainstream commercial success.

But if Hamilton-- which is almost certainly going to be made into a movie eventually (and when it does, will probably win a boatload of Oscars for its highly "diverse" creators and cast)-- had come to me as a well-adapted screenplay, and I read it "cold" without knowing anything about the show's history of success on Broadway-- would I have recognized its commercial potential and popular appeal? To be honest, I'm not sure I would have. Though, to be fair, nobody in Hollywood would be considering making any stage musical, let alone one like this, into a movie if it hadn't already been a huge hit on Broadway.

Though readers' personal background and taste sometimes plays at least a small role in which screenplays they "recommend," my working theory remains that a great script is always about the human experience, regardless of our differences, and any competent reader should be able to spot stories like this. If a script isn’t relatable for just about everyone, then it’s not a great script. According to those who have seen Hamilton (I've seen only excerpts, so far), its ability to make history personal is part of the secret of its success.

Is the average film studio executive's personal background, taste, and experiences-- including their own race-- a relevant factor when they evaluate certain types of material? Yes, I think it probably (subconsciously) is. The best readers and story executives are aware of this possibility, and work hard to evaluate material with a truly open mind, and to stay up-to-date with the cultural and political landscape.

Do they always succeed? Perhaps not always. And the closer a script gets to the true decision-makers in Hollywood, the more likely it may be that a great script with lead roles for “minority” actors might hit a wall-- particularly if it’s not a comedy, doesn’t have obvious “crossover” appeal, and it doesn’t have any lead roles for white male stars.

Professional script readers are your friends. They are the people in the film industry most likely to give a fair and open-minded reading to scripts focusing on people of color. They are interested in finding great material for their bosses and for film audiences. But they are also at the bottom rung of the ladder when it comes to having power in the industry, even when their bosses respect their opinions, as they usually do.

Readers do take commercial and practical considerations into account when evaluating scripts, including the script’s potential to attract A-list “attachments” and financing, as well as its marketability and audience appeal. If a script is slam-dunk commercial, they’ll give it a “recommend,” whether they personally like that kind of movie or not. And if it’s not especially “commercial” in any obvious way, but is a superb screenplay that would make a great movie, they will also give it a “recommend”-- perhaps with a caveat or two. Of course, “recommends” are extremely rare.

The higher up a script rises in the "food chain” at a Hollywood studio, the greater the chances that practical considerations such as the availability of A-list actors for the script’s lead roles, the film’s budget, and the broad marketability of any movie made from the script, will become more important factors in the studio’s decision about whether to option/purchase the screenplay and make a movie out of it.

I guess this is why the “Black List” (which doesn’t refer to race) is filled with scripts that film industry readers absolutely loved, but which the final decision-makers apparently vetoed, or had trouble attracting financing for. Nearly a third of Black List scripts do eventually get made into movies (examples include this year’s Best Picture, Spotlight, and The King’s Speech, which also won the top Oscar nod—in 2011 ).

"THE BLACK LIST" DOESN'T HAVE A LOT OF "BLACK" SCRIPTS

The annual Black List, which you can find online, is an interesting read, by the way. To my surprise, judging by their concepts, most of the scripts on that list seem to me like pretty commercial movie ideas, and nearly all already have at least some high-level people attached, including top producers, A-list directors, and sometimes financiers as well. These are generally writers with top film agencies representing them.

Some of the Black List scripts are historical stories or sports-related, which, traditionally, can be a tough sell. But most sound like any other interesting commercial movie that got made. So why many of those scripts didn’t get made (at least not yet) is a mystery to me. I’d have to read the screenplays, and also find out more about the circumstances, in order to know.

Though the race or ethnicity of the lead characters in the Black List scripts is not mentioned unless it’s relevant to the story, I skimmed the Black List from 2014 and 2015, and didn’t see any obvious prevalence of scripts that are about people of color. Assuming these are truly great scripts, it seems to me the most common reason these scripts didn’t get made was probably not related to the race or ethnicity of their protagonists-- since most of the scripts seem to be about white people-- but rather that they are in tough-to-sell genres: historical or sports movies. Some also have quirky subject matter in general, or are scripts about the movie business itself.

So, apparently, the Black List is not where all the great scripts about racial or ethnic minorities are hiding.

MINORITY CHARACTERS AND STEREOTYPING IN MOVIES

When I read scripts with roles for minority actors, I consider how the characters are depicted. To me, more important than whether the script has any “diversity” in it, is what kinds of roles minority characters play in the story. Is the script promoting racial stereotypes—which is really just an example of lazy writing? Are the African Americans in the story all drug dealers and killers, the Asians all prostitutes or computer nerds, the Muslims depicted as terrorists, the women presented as hookers and helpless victims of violence, and do the Native Americans all sound like “Tonto”? I won’t automatically reject a script simply because its characters promote racial, ethnic, gender, or religious stereotypes. But if they do fit the usual negative stereotypes in some respects (such as the type of work they do, perhaps), they'd better also have a unique personality, fascinating dialogue, and unpredictable behavior.

All this brings us to how all this applies to what you as a screenwriter can do to make sure that when Oscar night rolls around in the years to come, the host doesn’t have to spend half the show explaining why there are so few black, Latino, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American actors nominated for awards.

To find out exactly what you can do to create more "diversity" in movies, keep an eye on this blog for Part Two of this article.

Keep pitching. See you next month.

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