Helping Hollywood avoid prejudice is a growing business now

In the summer of 2020, not long after the murder of George Floyd sparked a racial reckoning in America, Carri Twigg’s phone kept ringing.

Ms. Twigg, a founding partner of a production company called Culture House, was always asked if she could take a look at a TV or movie script and raise red flags, particularly regarding race.

Culture House, which employs mostly women of color, had traditionally specialized in documentaries. But after a few months of handling script requests, they decided to turn it into a business: they opened a new department dedicated entirely to consulting work.

“The frequency of check-ins has not decreased,” Ms Twigg said. “It was like, oh, we need to make this a real thing that we consistently offer — and get paid for.”

Although the company has worked as a consultant for clients such as Paramount Pictures, MTV and Disney for a little over a year, this work now accounts for 30 percent of Culture House’s revenue.

The culture house is hardly alone. In recent years, entertainment industry executives have vowed to take a serious stand on diversity, but are still routinely criticized for falling short. To signal that they are taking steps to address the problem, Hollywood studios have signed deals with numerous companies and nonprofit organizations to help them avoid the reputational damage that comes with a film or episode of a television show being accused subject to bias.

“When a great idea comes along and then gets talked about just because of the social implications, it has to be heartbreaking for creators who spend years doing something,” Ms Twigg said. “To bring it into the world and the only thing anyone wants to talk about is the way it fell short. So we’re trying to help make sure that doesn’t happen.”

The consulting activity covers the range of a production. The consulting firms are sometimes asked about casting decisions as well as marketing plans. And they can also read scripts to look for examples of bias and question how characters are positioned in a story.

“It’s not just about what characters say, it’s also about when they don’t speak,” said Ms. Twigg. “It’s like, ‘Hey, there’s not enough agency for this character, you’re using this character as jewelry, you’re going to get dinged for that.'”

If a consulting firm is payroll, there may also be a guaranteed check from a studio each month. And it’s a revenue stream that has only recently been developed.

“It’s really exploded in the last two years,” said Michelle K. Sugihara, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment. The group, dubbed CAPE, is signed to some of Hollywood’s biggest studios, including Netflix, Paramount, Warner Bros., Amazon, Sony and A24.

Of the 100 projects CAPE has advised on, Ms Sugihara said about 80 percent have come into being since 2020, and they “really went up” after the Atlanta spa shootings in March 2021. “That has really increased awareness of our community,” she said.

Ms. Sugihara said her group can be actively involved throughout the production process. In one example, she said she told a studio that all of the actors playing the heroes in an upcoming script project appeared to be fair-skinned East Asian people, while the villains were portrayed by dark-skinned East Asian actors.

“That’s a red flag,” she said. “And we should talk about how damaging these images can be. Sometimes it’s just things people aren’t even aware of until you point them out.”

Ms. Sugihara declined to name the project or the studio behind it. In interviews, many cited non-disclosure agreements with studios and a reluctance to embarrass a filmmaker as reasons they could not reveal details.

Sarah Kate Ellis, the president of GLAAD, the LGBTQ advocacy group, said her group had been doing informal advisory work with the networks and studios for years. Eventually, she decided to bill studios for their work — work that she likened to “billable hours.”

“Here we consulted with all of these content creators across Hollywood and weren’t compensated,” said Ms. Ellis, the organization’s president since 2013. “When I started at GLAAD, we couldn’t pay our bills. And now we’re here with the biggest studios and networks in the world, helping them tell stories that have been hits. And I said that doesn’t make any sense.”

In 2018 she founded the GLAAD Media Institute – if the networks or studios wanted help in the future, they would have to become a paying member of the institute.

There was some resistance initially, but the networks and studios would eventually retaliate. In 2018 there were zero members of the GLAAD Media Institute. By the end of 2021, that number had grown to 58, with almost every major studio and network in Hollywood now a paying member.

Scott Turner Schofield, who worked for some time as a consultant for GLAAD, has also been advising networks and studios on how to correctly portray transgender people for years. But he said work has picked up so much in recent years that he’s been brought on board as executive producer for an upcoming horror film being produced by Blumhouse.

“I went from someone who was a part-time consultant — barely survived — to an executive producer,” he said.

Respondents said it was a win-win agreement between the consultancies and the studios.

“Studios want to produce content at the end of the day, but they want to make money,” said Rashad Robinson, president of advocacy group Color of Change. “Making money can be hampered by bad decisions and not having the right people at the table. So studios are going to want to look for that.”

However, he warned that simply hiring consultants was not an adequate substitute for the structural change many advocates wanted to see in Hollywood.

“This doesn’t change the rules of who gets to produce content and who gets to make the final decisions about what gets broadcast,” he said. “It’s okay to bring in people from the outside, but in the end it’s not enough to show that there’s still a problem throughout the entertainment industry because there aren’t enough Blacks and Browns with power in leadership ranks.”

Nonetheless, the burgeoning field of cultural advisory work may remain. Ms Twigg, who co-founded Culture House with Raeshem Nijhon and Nicole Galovski, said the volume of inquiries she has received “is illustrative of how seriously it is taken and how deeply it fits into the fabric of the community.” business activity is brought in”.

“From a business standpoint, it’s an opportunity for us to capitalize on the expertise that we’ve gathered as people of color who have lived in America for 30 or 40 years,” she said.

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