Helping Hollywood avoid bias claims is now a growing business
In the summer of 2020, shortly after the murder of George Floyd spurred racial reckoning in America, Carri Twigg’s phone kept ringing.
Ms. Twigg, founding partner of a production company called Culture House, has been asked many times if she could take a look at a TV or film script and raise any red flags, particularly about race.
Culture House, which employs mostly women of color, has traditionally specialized in documentaries. But after a few months of responding to requests for scripts, they decide to make a business out of it: they open a new division dedicated solely to consulting work.
“The frequency of check-ins was not slowing down,” Ms. Twigg said. “It was like, oh, we have to make it a real thing that we deliver on a regular basis – and get paid.”
Although the company has been consulting for just over a year — for clients like Paramount Pictures, MTV and Disney — that work now accounts for 30% of Culture House’s revenue.
The Maison de la Culture is not alone. Over the past few years, entertainment executives have sworn to make a genuine commitment to diversity, but are still routinely criticized for falling short. To signal that they are taking action to fix the problem, Hollywood studios have signed contracts with many companies and nonprofits to help them avoid the reputational damage that comes with having a movie or a episode of a television program being accused of bias.
“When a great idea is out there and only talked about because of the social implications, it must be heartbreaking for creators who spend years on something,” Ms. Twigg said. “To let the world know about him and the one thing everyone wants to talk about is the ways he failed. So we’re trying to help make sure that doesn’t happen.
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Consulting work covers the full range of a production. Consulting companies are sometimes asked about casting decisions as well as marketing plans. And they can also read scripts to look for examples of bias and to examine how characters are positioned in a story.
“It’s not just about what the characters say, but also when they don’t speak,” Ms. Twigg said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, there’s not enough agency for this character, you’re using this character as an adornment, you’re going to get bitten for this.'”
When a consulting firm is commissioned, they can also come with a guaranteed check every month from a studio. And it is a source of income that has only recently developed.
“It’s really exploded in the last couple of years or so,” said Michelle K. Sugihara, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment. The group, called CAPE, is commissioned by some of Hollywood’s biggest studios, including Netflix, Paramount, Warner Bros., Amazon, Sony and A24.
Of the 100 projects CAPE has consulted on, Ms. Sugihara said, about 80% have come since 2020, and they “really increased” after the March 2021 Atlanta spa shooting. on our community,” she said. noted.
Ms. Sugihara said her group could be actively involved throughout the production process. In one example, she said she told a studio that all the actors playing the heroes in an upcoming scripted project appeared to be light-skinned East Asian people, while the villains were portrayed by actors. from East Asia with darker skin.
“It’s a red flag,” she said. “And we should talk about how these images can be harmful. Sometimes it’s just things people aren’t even aware of until you point it out.
Ms. Sugihara did not mention the name of the project or the studio behind it. In interviews, many cited nondisclosure agreements with studios and a reluctance to embarrass a filmmaker as reasons they couldn’t divulge details.
Sarah Kate Ellis, president of GLAAD, the LGBTQ advocacy organization, said her group has been doing informal advisory work for years with networks and studios. Eventually, she decided to start charging studios for their work — work she likened to “billable hours.”
“Here we were consulting with all these content creators across Hollywood and we weren’t getting paid,” said Ms. Ellis, the organization’s president since 2013. “When I started at GLAAD, we couldn’t pay our bills. And meanwhile, 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 sense.
In 2018, she created the GLAAD Media Institute – if networks or studios wanted help in the future, they should become a paying member of the institute.
Initially, there was some pushback, but the networks and studios eventually came back. In 2018, there were no members of the GLAAD Media Institute. By the end of 2021, that number had grown to 58, with nearly every major Hollywood studio and network now paying members.
Scott Turner Schofield, who spent time working as a consultant for GLAAD, has also advised networks and studios on how to accurately represent transgender people for years. But he said the work has increased so much in recent years that he has been hired as an executive producer for an upcoming Blumhouse-produced horror film.
“I went from someone who was a part-time consultant – barely transitioning – to an executive producer,” he said.
Interviewees said it was a win-win deal between consultants and studios.
“At the end of the day, studios want to produce content but they want to make money,” said Rashad Robinson, president of advocacy organization Color of Change. “Making money can be hampered by making bad decisions and not having the right people around the table. So the studios are going to want to look for that.
He cautioned, however, that simply bringing in consultants is not an adequate substitute for the structural change that many supporters want to see in Hollywood.
“It doesn’t change the rules with who produces content and who makes the final decisions on what airs,” he said. “It’s good to bring in people from outside, but it’s ultimately not enough because in the entertainment industry there is always a problem in terms of a lack of black and brown people with power in the ranks of leadership.”
Still, the burgeoning field of cultural consultancy work may be here to stay. Ms Twigg, who helped found Culture House with Raeshem Nijhon and Nicole Galovski, said the volume of inquiries she received were “illustrative of how seriously she is taken and how she is integrated into the fabric of business”.
“From a business perspective, it’s a way for us to capitalize on the expertise that we’ve accumulated as people of color living in America for 30 or 40 years,” she said.