October 24, 2023
BLACK PUBLIC MEDIA
By Leslie Fields-Cruz
Pursuing the Film Industry’s $10B Opportunity
When LaTondra Newton left her post as chief diversity officer at Disney this summer, the company said she was leaving to “pursue other endeavors.” Newton is just one of several senior Black women film executives who called it quits this year. Their burst of departures came not long after the The Supreme Court ruled against the use of affirmative action in college admissions; a ruling many analysts anticipated would put corporate diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs at risk. The question now is, how serious is the film industry about updating itself to reflect the ever-diversifying audience for its content? An article by McKinsey & Company asserts that the industry’s failure to take DEI seriously amounts to leaving $10 billion in annual revenues on the table.
Newton’s cohort includes Jeanell English (Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences), Karen Horne (Warner Bros., Discovery and a former BPM board member), Terra Potts (Warner Bros. Discovery), and Vernā Myers (Netflix). For several of these executives, leading their company’s DEI efforts was central to their role. In a recent Los Angeles Times article, English recounts being the “recipient of a steady flux of micro- and macro-aggressions” as she pursued her work at the Academy. She said the stress that accompanied those aggressions contributed to her decision to vacate her position. Based on findings in the McKinsey report and my own lived experience, I am sure she’s not the only one who’s had this experience.
While the McKinsey article doesn’t specifically focus on the documentary film sector, those of us who’ve been around for a while will recognize many of its findings, which include:
- Black professionals are severely underrepresented in executive decision-making roles throughout the industry.
- Black talent tends to be shut out of projects unless senior team members are Black.
- Breaking into the industry is often only possible following years of work without pay or for pay that is insufficient to cover basic necessities.
- Agencies, unions and guilds respond more favorably to people who look, act, sound and write like they do and roughly 90 percent of the agents and executive staff at the industry’s top three talent agencies are white.
- Black professionals in the industry have much less room for failure than their white counterparts.
The article also notes that “the demand for shows where at least 40 percent of the cast is diverse is outpacing the growth in the number of these shows that have made it to air.” So what gives?
The Way Forward
Lackluster commitment to meaningful change, insufficient funding, and the persistence of closed talent networks are just a few of the of the factors McKinsey cited as thwarting DEI efforts in the film industry. Where there has been progress, most of that is on the public-facing side of the industry. Little of it is evident in the corporate ranks.
The article notes that “Overcoming the hidden barriers and cozy networks that still dominate the complex ecosystem will require sustained collaboration among many different organizations.” That’s where organizations like BPM, our NMCA partners, Firelight Media, and Color Congress come in. As the nonfiction sector of the film industry continues to grow, I hope the observations and recommendations from McKinsey will influence change. After all, since when is our industry in the business of leaving money on the table?
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