National Director of Diversity for SAG-AFTRA Discusses State of Diversity in TV and Film

National Director of Diversity for SAG-AFTRA Discusses State of Diversity in TV and Film

By Candice Helfand-Rogers for The Story Exchange

Adam Moore is the national director of diversity for the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. Since 2005 (before the SAG-AFTRA merger), he has been responsible for developing programs that educate and spark conversations regarding representation for historically marginalized groups (including women). He hopes to release SAG-AFTRA’s latest casting report, looking at producers’ hiring practices related to factors like gender, age and ethnicity, sometime this year.

Tell us about the state of diversity on screen.

Most research will show you that men are still over-represented in TV and film (in terms of where they actually fit into the demographics of our population). But more and more you have women making decisions, whether it’s Shonda Rhimes or [CBS Entertainment chairperson] Nina Tassler. And with seeing women making more decisions, you’re seeing them being more inclusive in the worlds that they’re creating. [Their worlds] look more and more like the worlds we all live in.

Also, yes, on one level diversity is about people wanting to see themselves in three-dimensional, complicated, authentic ways. But what often gets forgotten is, many of us are interested in the “other” as well. “Orange is the New Black” isn’t the juggernaut that it is because the viewership is women who are in prison. People are devouring it because it’s a look into something they don’t know. Sometimes that gets lost in calculations — executives will ask, “Is there a big enough black audience? Is there a big enough female audience? Is there a big enough audience that’s the same as what I’m putting out there in that movie?” I think decision makers are starting to understand, more and more, that that’s only part of it.

Could you talk more about those calculations, and about the role money plays in this conversation?

This is all business — it’s all a calculation. Historically, the prevailing wisdom has been, “Well, white men can tell universal stories that anyone can relate to. Don’t rock the boat; let someone else be the trailblazer, and if they make money, maybe we’ll follow suit.” Nobody wants to be the first one to take that risk.

But now, that risk/reward calculation is being looked at differently. When you look at [a network] like ABC and their line-up right now, it’s amazing the kind of stuff that they’ve decided they’re going to put on television [such as “Fresh off the Boat” and “Black-ish”]. I tend to think a lot of that had to do with the fact that, not long ago, they were at the bottom of the ratings. If you’re ABC, you have to figure out something else. You think, “Maybe a show is a risk, and maybe this isn’t going to work out. But what do you have to lose?”

Why, then, aren’t we seeing more women storytellers, or more diverse storytellers, in television or any other realm?

There’s internal reasons within the structures of these companies, as well as external reasons. Externally, audiences don’t get to see the problem. Nobody knows. And unless you read the reports, unless you’re in the business … what you see onscreen is the most visible workplace. There’s going to be a hypersensitivity both from the audiences and from the people who are making these decisions about who is going to be the face or brand of a show. And most of the feedback given from the audience is going to be about what they see. So externally, you don’t have that pressure [to diversify behind the scenes] coming from the audiences and consumers.

The internal thing is, and you can find this probably in most any industry, this self-perpetuating cycle of exclusion. I think a lot of it is self-exclusionary. A person says to himself or herself, “I’m 18, 19 years old, and I decide I want to be an actor. I’m probably going to have to pay for some stuff, for school. I’m going to have to get work.” At that point, some people will have connections into the business. But for the rest, why on earth would someone get into a career where they don’t see a path for themselves? They think — and see — “There’s no room for me.” So you make a choice; do you go be a trailblazer or not? And when you have to convince your family to help, lots of times, they will just tell you to get a “real” job.

How does family complicate the issue for some communities? 

From my own anecdotal experience — one side of my family is from Guyana and are Indian and Chinese — in many immigrant families, [entertainment jobs] aren’t viewed as real jobs. Kids will hear from their parents, “You’re going to be a doctor, a lawyer. I didn’t come to this country to and bust my ass for you to take a chance on maybe getting in somewhere.” Those parents see their kids living in their basement for the rest of their lives. So lots of people just don’t go down that road, don’t pursue it.

And the people who want to blaze trails and knock down doors? They still have to blaze trails and knock down doors. And it’s really hard. Let me give an example: sometimes I’ll get calls from people looking for, say, an older Pakistani guy with super comedic chops that can carry a network sitcom. And they wonder why the one guy they can find to fit that mold is already working. I tell them to think about it for just a second — 40 years ago, this guy would have to decide to get into acting, and do comedy, and come to the United States. Forty years ago. He wouldn’t do that. He would go to West End, or to Bombay. That same pattern happens throughout all levels of this industry — from actors to executives to directors and writers.

These days, underrepresented directors, producers or actors can use available technology to produce or star in their own self-made material. Has that shaken things up?

The game has changed, and we’re now encouraging people to tell their stories and to not wait for opportunities. And sometimes, studios are seeking those folks out — the original gatekeepers are going to these people and seeing they have something desirable; watchability, a following, all those things. The whole paradigm has shifted so that — and hopefully more and more younger people get this — folks don’t have to wait to be discovered, to be given a chance. You should still get training, and pay your dues working up the production ranks. You have to know what you’re doing. But you don’t have to wait. That’s crucial to what’s going on right now. It’s a really exciting time to generate your own work, especially since people will find it. We’re seeing, for the first time, audiences shift from going to the movie theaters, and watching things [online]. And the more traditional people are paying attention, because they don’t want to lose any more viewers than they already have.

Why is it important to have a more diverse range of people telling, crafting and sharing our stories?

On a very basic level, it just makes for better storytelling. It’s all about diversity of perspective, experience and insight — no matter the industry or environment or setting. The best and most raucous have diversity of all those things. More often than not, where you come from, where you grew up, how you grew up, the color of your skin, your sexual orientation, and all the different ways one might think of to categorize themselves — those identifiers of who you are — have a lot to do with what you bring in terms of diversity. I try not to skip to “we’ve got to have this rainbow of diversity and inclusion just for the sake of what’s right.” I really try not to forget that the real value is what everyone’s bringing to the table. So to me, [diversity makes the end results] better — more authentic, more truthful, longer lasting, more interesting. And if I were a studio executive, I would also say that it makes good business sense. At the end of the day, you’ll get more money, which will allow you to make more good stuff. But it’s not because it’s the right thing to do — it’s because it’s the best thing to do.

This is an excerpt. Click here to view the full article in The Story Exchange.