November 17, 2008

Diversity at the Red Nation Film Festival

Saturday afternoon I drove downtown to moderate a panel on "Diversity and Media in the Obama Age." That was my intent, anyway. But while thousands marched in the streets for gay rights, no one but the panelists showed up to talk about diversity.

We decided to have a roundtable discussion among ourselves. Present were Joanelle Romero, founder of the Red Nation Film Festival (RNFF); Armando Gudiño, program director at public radio station KPFK; Yvonne Russo, a producer representing the Producers Guild; and me.

We agreed that the studios were making efforts: appointing executives who monitor diversity issues, setting up workshops and mentoring programs, creating paid internships to give on-the-job experience. But the big question remained: Why aren't Natives getting jobs in proportion to their percent of the population?

Three hours of prime-time programming a day time five major networks (CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, CW) times seven days a week = 105 hours of prime-time network programming a week. Since Natives form 1% of the population, they should be getting an hour of prime-time programming every week. To me that means a major guest-starring role for an Indian, a major storyline about Indians, or something similar.

Opportunities abound?

As a Hollywood insider, Russo defended the status quo. The opportunities are there, she said. You have to know how the system works and be consummate professionals. That means knowing your show's demographics, partnering with experienced producers, and changing your concepts to meet the studios' needs. If you play the game, put your best foot forward, and persevere, the doors will open for you.

The others agreed with this in theory but plucked at it. Gudiño experimented with Spanish-language programs in late-night slots. When they proved to be popular, the station was reluctant to expand them at the expense of white-run programs. Romero pitched her Red Nation TV series, complete with a cast, 13 scripts, and a filmed pilot. After hemming and hawing, a studio exec told her that Americans wouldn't watch an Indian-based show because they felt guilty.

In response, Russo kind of shifted or "refined" her argument. Hollywood was all about the bottom line, she said. Product placement is a big part of selling shows, so you need those product tie-ins. There used to be dozens of media companies, but now a half dozen conglomerates control the industry, limiting the opportunities. Financing is coming from overseas, from places such as Arab countries, so shows have to be broadly appealing.

As an industry outsider, I mostly kept quiet while the insiders spoke. But I did challenge Russo at one point. There seems to be a contradiction in your position, I said. The opportunities are there for anyone who works hard enough, but they're limited by the existence of a few major companies who are looking for big hits that will play overseas. If the latter is true, that's a huge barrier to outsiders who don't have the contacts or the resources to ensure success. It's basically saying the studios will rely only on known quantities--the "old boys' network" of professionals who just happen to be white.

Hollywood knows best?

I also noted the horrendous track record of most movie and TV producers. Despite all the talk of knowing your audience, they don't have a clue what they're doing. They're guessing what will succeed and they're not very good at it. Their notion of creativity is to copy someone else's success by putting out sequels, remakes, or clones.

In most businesses, if you failed 75% or so of the time, you'd be out of a job. Even in baseball, a .250 hitter is considered mediocre. But in show business, someone can milk one big hit for a decade or more--sometimes for an entire career.

Anyway, we didn't resolve anything, but we had a spirited discussion. And I got to take photos of the surrounding Little Tokyo neighborhood, so the afternoon wasn't a total loss. No doubt we'll be talking about diversity in Hollywood for many years to come.

For more on the subject, see Diversity Lacking in Television.

Below:  "Let's do a remake of Knight Rider rather than a show about Indians. It's guaranteed to be a hit. We're industry pros, so trust us on this."


Rob said...

DMarks said...

Knight Rider's pretty good, actually. I think it is much better than the earlier version.

"Since Natives form 1% of the population, they should be getting an hour of prime-time programming every week."

Ideally, the Caruso (sic) show should have had a truly Native Friday, and a Native actor playing him. That would have done it for your one hour right there.

Rob said...

Melvin Martin said...

"Romero pitched her Red Nation TV series, complete with a cast, 13 scripts, and a filmed pilot. After hemming and hawing, a studio exec told her that Americans wouldn't watch an Indian-based show because they felt guilty."

Truer words have never before been quoted regarding the American Indian. The vast majority of white Americans do not want to be reminded that all of the good things in their lives (in the material sense, especially) have been paid for with rivers of Indian blood, blood shed mainly by the trustingly innocent, the young and the aged.

Invariably, whenever a white adult American finds out that I am Indian, they become immediately patronizing by proclaiming knowledge of some arcane tidbit of "Indian Americana," or by claiming some degree of Indian blood. This behavior is very much guilt-driven.

Over the past twenty years, the more historically educated whites will announce their Southern European ancestry (by way of the post-industrial immigrant influx to the U.S.), who were not responsible at all for the horrendous crimes against Indian people committed during the glory days of Manifest Destiny as they were not here yet. But again, this behavior is still very much driven by an all-pervasive sense of guilt or why would they even mention their specific roots, especially when I have never asked them about it?

Rob said...

Right you are, DMarks. Casting an Indian as the second-billed Friday on Crusoe would've satisfied my requirement for Native representation.

Last year, Adam Beach kind of satisfied this requirement by being a regular on Law and Order: SVU. I say "kind of" because he rarely played a major role and rarely mentioned his Native heritage. To measure his significance, you'd have to go through the season episode by episode and say this one counts as an hour, that one counts as half an hour, etc.

Rob said...

I'm glad to know I've quoted some of the truest words in five centuries of writing about Indians, Melvin. Do I get a prize for that? ;-)

As I've noted before, my ancestry is German, English, and Irish. The first Palmer (my mother's maiden name) came to America in 1636 or thereabouts and the first Schmidts headed west in a covered wagon in the 1840s. As far as I know, I don't have any nonwhite blood in me.

That's my story and I stick with it even when I meet Indians in person. But I may drop some arcane tidbits of "Indian Americana" into the conversation. I probably know more Indian lore than some Indians, especially the ones who don't study their own history.