Hollywood is taking steps to diversify behind the camera. How is it going?

For the TV and film industries, one area of progress is an increase in initiatives that help underrepresented groups train and network.

Laurie Bishop/Courtesy of Netflix
Vernā Myers, vice president of inclusion strategy at Netflix, says, “Our job is to look at the current situation and think about what we want the future to look like.”

Sarah Cho knew that she wanted to be a writer from the age of 3. But after completing her studies at the University of Pennsylvania in 2017, Ms. Cho had no connections in Hollywood, and no idea how to get into the industry. 

“I didn’t know if I’d ever get a chance to be a writer,” she says. Then in 2019, the yearlong writers program from NBCUniversal – part of its Global Talent Development & Inclusion initiative (GTDI) – set her up for success. “Near the end of the program, they send your samples out. I got a manager who helped shepherd me through the next steps.”

Ms. Cho was soon hired as a writer on the upcoming Hulu drama series “The Girl From Plainville,” and currently has projects in various stages of development. To her, it’s clear why diversity programs being created by some studios are so important. 

“When you look at the industry, it is a business of relationships. When you’re from a population that hasn’t traditionally been included, ... these diversity schemes are really the only chance,” she says. 

Hollywood’s aim to be more inclusive, behind the camera as well as in front of it, is being pushed along by its own efforts and by younger audiences for whom the issue is nonnegotiable. The results are sometimes uneven: Few Black or Indigenous people were nominated for directing or writing at this year’s Emmys, for example. 

Courtesy of Sarah Cho
Sarah Cho, a writer on the upcoming Hulu drama series “The Girl From Plainville,” is an alumnus of one of NBCUniversal's inclusion programs. This year, the company added an animation writers program to its roster of writing, directing, and composing initiatives that have debuted or been revamped in the past four years.

As they find their footing, entertainment companies are starting to invest in equity overall and to launch programs meant to help the industry shake loose from its past. 

NBCUniversal this year added an animation writers program to its roster of writing, directing, and composing initiatives that have debuted or been revamped in the past four years. (Parent company Comcast made a multiyear commitment in 2020, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, to spend $100 million to fight inequality.) Netflix has also announced new initiatives, including one earlier this month, in conjunction with advocacy group IllumiNative, that will offer a fellowship to Indigenous producers to develop film and TV projects.

“Our job is to look at the current situation and think about what we want the future to look like. ... We discovered that everybody had to put on an inclusion lens,” says Vernā Myers, vice president of inclusion strategy at Netflix.

In March, a report by McKinsey & Co. revealed that Hollywood loses out on more than $10 billion a year in revenue because it undervalues projects by Black creators, for example. Audiences are demanding such changes, says Yalda Uhls, founder and executive director of the University of California, Los Angeles-based Center for Scholars and Storytellers. “Especially younger audiences, who are more multicultural. It’s a business imperative.”

Moderate improvements have been mostly driven by the streaming platforms, says Darnell Hunt, co-author of UCLA’s annual Hollywood Diversity Report. “Streamers don’t care about ratings as much,” explains Dr. Hunt. “They’re more influenced by subscribers. So they can take risks on new shows from creators of color, like [Netflix’s] ‘Squid Game’ and so forth, that would never get a shot on broadcast networks.”

When Ms. Myers was hired in October 2018, Netflix had already established inclusion as one of its core values. But it needed a strategy to really progress.

The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative conducted Netflix’s first comprehensive study of diversity and inclusion in February 2021. The analysis of original, live-action film and TV series across 2018-19 showed that the studio surpassed the industry standard for women in front of and behind the camera. Improvement was made overall with including underrepresented groups in programming. But the study noted specific groups that are still not featured as often compared with their populations in the United States, including characters from the Latinx (the gender-neutral term) and LGBTQ communities, and people with disabilities. The number of Latinx directors, writers, producers, and series creators was similarly low.

In February, Netflix announced it will spend $100 million over the next five years to fund organizations that help underrepresented communities find jobs in TV and film. In September, the studio announced it will also spend £1.2 million ($1.59 million) on a new program that will help develop and support the careers and training of up to 1,000 people, particularly those from diverse backgrounds, across Britain. 

Ana-Christina Ramón, co-author of the UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report, says studios need to communicate what they are doing and be self-reflective. “Recently there have been a lot more programs from the studios for the behind-the-camera positions,” she says. “In the past they’ve been solely aimed towards historically Black colleges and universities. But they’re also understanding that they need to broaden their approach and they need to make sure that they’re more transparent about what kind of outreach they’re doing.”

Dario Acosta/Courtesy of NBCUniversal
Craig Robinson is the chief diversity officer for NBCUniversal. After various media companies approached him for tips on how to improve in May 2020, Mr. Robinson shared everything he and the company had learned and used.

After various media companies approached Craig Robinson, NBCUniversal’s chief diversity officer, for tips on how to improve in May 2020, he immediately gave them everything he and the company had learned and used. “This isn’t a company secret that we want to keep to ourselves. We’re trying to improve diversity, equity, inclusion for the entire industry,” he says. “If we can break in a new, diverse writer, director, or producer and keep them on our projects, that’s great. If they get their first credit with us, but that enables them to make a big deal with one of our competitors, that’s great, too. It’s not a competition. The work is too important and too large.”

Since the 2017 launch of the company’s GTDI effort, 30% of alumni from the writing, directing, and composing initiatives have secured credits on NBCUniversal TV shows and films. Mr. Robinson also says the industry needs to do more to get underrepresented groups into top management – and into situations where they can be heard. At NBCUniversal, the chief diversity officer reports directly to the CEO, he says. 

“If you look at Hollywood right now, yes, there’s a lot of diversity happening at lower-ranking positions. That’s because of these diversity programs,” says Ms. Cho, the writer. “But there’s still so much more work to do.”

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