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Published: Aug 23, 2017
Updated: Aug 23, 2017

7 Programs aimed at increasing diversity in filmmaking

Author: Dave Okamoto

One of our society’s greatest strengths is in its diversity, and it is something to be celebrated and properly reflected in the films we watch and produce. Diversity recently came to the forefront during the 2016 Academy Awards controversy, where the conversation in Hollywood was all about the lack of diversity in the Oscar nominations, sparking #OscarsSoWhite as one of the top trending campaigns. Since that event, a number of initiatives and changes are underway with the goal of increasing the focus on increasing overall diversity in filmmaking.


USC’s Study on Filmmaker Diversity

USC’s Annenberg’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative released its latest study about female directors in Hollywood, which was a ten-year research project that looked at various metrics across the filmmaking industry. The study, conducted by Dr. Stacy L. Smith, Dr. Katherine Pieper, and Marc Choueiti, analyzed the gender, race, and age of the directors of the 1,000 top-grossing films from the past decade (2007-2016).

Key takeaways from the study include:

  • Female directors are grossly underrepresented, accounting for just 4.4% of the top-grossing films
  • There has been no meaningful change in the employment of Black or Asian directors over time. Just 5.1% of directors were Black and 3% were Asian across 1,000 films released in the last decade.
  • 80%of the female directors made just one movie over the decade
  • 83.3%female directors of color made just one movie
  • 54.8%of male directors made only one film during the same time period (Asian male directors 60%, black male directors 62.5%)
  • Of the 1,000 top-grossing films, only three female directors were African-American and two were Asian


Programs Established to Increase Diversity

Since 2016, new programs have been established to give a boost to new and underrepresented filmmakers, providing access and a chance for filmmakers to develop their skills. We’ll take a deeper dive into the following programs:

  • Academy Foundation’s FilmCraft and FilmWatch Grants
  • AT&T Presents: Untold Stories
  • AT&T Hello Lab Mentorship Program
  • AT&T Entertainment Project — Underrepresented Filmmaker Award
  • Film Independent’s Project Involve
  • Sundance Diversity Initiative
  • WB Emerging Film Directors Workshop


1. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ FilmCraft and FilmWatch Grants

The foundation awarded a total of $500,000 in grants for the 2017-2018 grants year. The FilmCraft and FilmCraft grants program was established to identify and empower future filmmakers from nontraditional backgrounds, cultivate new and diverse talent, promote motion pictures as an art form, and to provide a platform for underrepresented artists.

A few examples of the 44 grants include:

For a complete listing of grants, visit the Oscars website.


2. AT&T Presents: Untold Stories

AT&T Presents Untold Stories logo

AT&T and Tribeca have teamed up to launch a new film initiative, AT&T Presents: Untold Stories. An Inclusive Film Program in Collaboration with Tribeca.

AT&T will provide funding of up to $1 million to one talented filmmaker to create their film, and Tribeca will offer mentorship from seasoned industry professionals. AT&T plans to distribute the winning film across several of its video platforms, including DIRECTV NOW. Four other Untold Stories finalists each received $10,000 from AT&T.

The winner? NYU Film School graduate Faraday Okoro, for his film, Nigerian Prince. During the AT&T SHAPE conference, actor Jeffrey Wright spoke in length about the importance of the Untold Stories initiative and diversity in filmmaking.

Actor Jeffrey Wright at AT&T SHAPE had these things to say on the topic:

Well, today was a bit of a reunion with Faraday Okoro, who’s the young filmmaker to whom we awarded AT&T’s one million dollars for his project. And so got an opportunity to get a bit of an update as to what he’s been up to, but also to talk about the significance of the Untold Stories contest, not only for him, but for other potential filmmakers, too. Because the messaging behind Untold Stories is that there are films to be made, stories to be told that are underserved by companies like AT&T.

With a partnership with AT&T and Tribeca Film Institute behind these traditionally marginalized storytellers and filmmakers, we can kind of break through some of the challenges for those filmmakers that they face when they don’t have those partnerships. Really, at the end of the day, audiences exist for these stories.

It’s much like MTV. When it first came out, there were no black artists on MTV, which is just an absurd thing to think about, considering where we are now. But it’s also absurd even in the mid-80s or whenever that was that that was happening. But that was a corporate decision, right, that was made based on an understanding that, somehow, there wasn’t an audience in America for African American music. Wow, really? When African American music is the actual foundation for all modern pop music in this country? To, not insignificant extent, globally?

So, we still have these structures in place, this resistance in place inhibiting filmmakers of color, female filmmakers as well, from getting their stories to an audience that exists for them. So when you have this type of collaboration between those filmmakers and, again, Tribeca film institute, and a distributive partner like AT&T, and a funding partner like AT&T, it’s a win. It’s a win-win-win-win-win.

Wright on what drove him to be involved with this program:

Well, I’m on the board of Tribeca Film Institute, so I obviously try to be supportive of the work there. And one of the significant aspects of the work that TFI does is locally in New York and now, on a larger scale, nationally, try to be supportive of these marginalized stories, marginalized storytellers. And so as well I recognize that a million dollars is real, real money. And for a filmmaker, it’s a potential life-changer. It’s a career-shaper. That was a serious invitation to be a part of and good fun at the same time, to be supportive of someone in that regard.


3. AT&T Hello Lab Mentorship Program

AT&T Hello Lab logo

AT&T Hello Lab has unveiled a mentorship program designed to pair entertainment industry leaders with aspiring filmmakers from diverse backgrounds as they create new short films. A community of industry advisors, including studio and production company executives, agents and attorneys, will support each filmmaker. Each of these mentors have overcome barriers to make important projects that touch on an impressive range of issues and narratives as people of color, LGBTQ community members, and women.

AT&T Hello Lab will help each filmmaker create a high, production quality signature film and provide support as they break into the entertainment industry. Advisers and mentors will counsel the filmmakers on pitching their work, managing budgets, and directing character-driven narratives. The shorts will all celebrate young adults and tell a unique “coming of age” tale.


4. AT&T Entertainment Project — Underrepresented Filmmaker Award

At the recent AT&T Entertainment Project short film finals held during the AT&T SHAPE event at Warner Bros. Studios, AT&T awarded $5,000 for the best film from an Underrepresented Filmmaker. Eligible filmmakers included people with disabilities, LGBTQ, people of color, and women.

During the finals, Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins and AT&T Chief Marketing Officer David Christopher handed out the award to Sarah Smith, director of the short film, D.Asian. Both Jenkins and Christopher reinforced how passionate they were about the award, “Diversity and variety in film starts with diversity and variety in filmmaking,” said Christopher.

Sarah Smith remarked, “When I saw AT&T kind of putting together this program that was offering underrepresented filmmakers, specifically people like me, an opportunity to sort of get their voice out there and get their work out there for other people to see, I was like, that’s amazing. Having AT&T behind it lent such credibility to what it is.”

AT&T Entertainment Project Underrepresented Filmmaker Award Winner Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith receives award for Best Underrepresented Filmmaker.

Eligible filmmakers were people with disabilities, LGBTQ, women and people of color. Patty Jenkin’s thoughts on the award category:

This is an award I feel real passionate about. Diversity and variety in film starts with diversity and variety in filmmaking. Even though there have been great filmmakers fitting every description there, the hardest thing in any industry is when there is an avenue that has been paved and everyone is always looking for something that makes obvious sense to something that has happened before, it’s kept a lot of doors shut to a lot of different voices and a lot of diversity. I love what you’re doing, in the fact that you’re not only inviting people to share their films, but giving the opportunity for exposure…

Winner Sarah Smith on her experience in the competition:

When I saw AT&T kind of putting together this program that was offering underrepresented filmmakers, specifically people like me, an opportunity to sort of get their voice out there and get their work out there for other people to see, I was like, “That’s amazing.” Having AT&T behind it lent such credibility to what it is. It was definitely something … Even if I thought I had no chance, it was worth entering.


5. Film Independent — Project Involve

Project Involve is a free, intensive, nine-month annual program that offers 30 aspiring film professionals from underrepresented communities the opportunity to hone their skills, form creative partnerships, utilize free or low-cost production resources, and ultimately gain the industry access necessary to succeed as working artists.

The lab is comprised of mentoring, masters workshops, short film production, and educational and networking events. To apply for Project Involve, visit the program’s website for more details.


6. Sundance Diversity Initiative

The Sundance Institute has a long history of supporting and nurturing independent and diverse filmmakers. Their goals include deepening and expanding connections to diverse communities, cultures, languages, and regions across the United States, and inspiring new artists to tell their stories.

Announced earlier this year, The Sundance Institute and the Will & Jada Smith Family Foundation are collaborating on a program to support diverse independent artists and filmmakers as part of a two-year commitment. In addition, a number of grants and fellowships are available as part of the Institute’s Feature Film program.


7. WB Emerging Film Directors Workshop

The inaugural 2016-2017 WB Emerging Film Directors Workshop recently completed with a film festival on the WB lot in June. The program provides an opportunity for emerging filmmakers to gain an education and experience in the studio filmmaking process. Through the program, the studio has an opportunity to continue its tradition of working with and nurturing the talents of the best emerging filmmakers.

Throughout the course of the program, participants will have the resources and funding to direct their own original short film. The entire production process will be structured to mimic the feature production process, so that participants have the opportunity to craft their stories utilizing every aspect of studio filmmaking, from pitch to post.

Visit the WB Emerging Film Directors Workshop site to learn more about the application process, as the 2017-2018 program will open soon.

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