Navigating the Games of Hollywood on the Autistic Spectrum

Hollywood is a game of games, it is the requirement that you pick up social cues often so nuanced that reading them becomes a challenge in and of itself.  It is a chess match of figuring out what someone’s thinking long before they say it, and even longer before they act on it. It is a business full of people looking for the tiniest of reasons to judge someone, or label them a certain way. It is a game of social cat and mouse, of projecting certain social images that may or may not be true. It’s a mind-fuck of a business that many excel at, and others — well others do not.

And of these social games, or what I like to call “mind-games,” there’s a growing class of creative people that just doesn’t get them or participate in them very well: people on the autistic spectrum.

Many in the entertainment business have been either diagnosed or strongly associated with spectrum tendencies.

The trouble people on the spectrum is that they live in a “neuro-atypical” world; one where normal people interpret something one way, and someone on the spectrum may look at entirely differently.

This “neuro-atypical” world is often a double edged-sword, especially as it pertains to the creative industries, like Hollywood.

On the one hand, looking at the world in a singularly unique vision lends itself to great creative genius. It’s why apart from only the field of mathematics, the creative industry is so full of people with spectrum disorders or characteristics. When three people look at the same object, and one of those three people is on the spectrum, chances are they will take away the most fascinating and unique image — because their mind is unique. In fact, most people on the spectrum are MENSA, certified geniuses or those with extremely high IQs.

While it may seem great to have a super high IQ, that also has pitfalls, because in just about every case, the social IQ of those on the spectrum is quite low.

Living in this neuro-atypical world means these individuals grasp social cues differently as well. Spectrum individuals do not grasp body language, or spoken/written language the same way as normal people do. In fact, they tend to take things quite literally. There is no social grey area, the normal give and take in a social situation with spectrum persons is compromised. This also means that folks on the spectrum themselves can come across as very literal, or blunt; eliciting a “how could you say that?!” reaction. Social situations for those with aspergers are very black and white.

Characters with spectrum disorders have been shown to great extent in our modern media as well. The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch, focuses on the life of mathematical prodigy Alan Turing. Mr. Turing was posthumously diagnosed with Aspergers, and is considered to have been very far along that spectrum. His social interaction is clearly more inhibited than many peers with the disorder. This is made very clear in his dealings with co-workers and students alike in the film. He is seen as difficult, arrogant and above all else “wacky.”

A less severe case of the disorder is presented in the popular comedy The Big Bang Theory, which focuses on a character Sheldon Cooper as being diagnosed with Aspergers. While not the best of presentations of the disorder, they show how lacking social cues folks with spectrum disorders get themselves into fairly awkward situations — which can lend itself to comedy.

But the reality for folks with this disorder is not funny at all.

When it comes to the mind-games of Hollywood, spectrum folks are particularly at a disadvantage. Despite their intellectual gifts, and creative genius, they just do not get the social cues played with by many in the business.

These folks deal with situations like, well they said *this* — but the person may not have actually meant it. These individuals tend to fixate on things, or outcomes which they themselves do not have control over. This tendency to fixate on certain outcomes or events can lend itself to misunderstanding. “This person is clearly wacky, they just don’t get it.” No they  don’t, and you cannot expect them to.

It is important to note that unlike mental illnesses such as bipolar or depression, aspergers and autistic spectrum disorders are not actual mental illnesses. It is actually a developmental delay in the brain. The only treatment for those with aspergers is therapy, dealing how to learn social cues that were stunted due to brain chemistry from birth. The earlier in life this therapy starts, the better the outcome for the diagnosed person. Contrary to unscientific media speculation, aspergers is not a violent disorder, or associated with mentally unstable behavior. In cases like the Newtown shooting, the perpetrator often had other mental illness on top of his/her spectrum disorder. In fact, the Newtown shooter was posthumously revealed to have schizophrenia.

Most people with Aspergers and spectrum disorders lead normal lives. While they occasionally encounter social difficulties and get themselves into uncomfortable situations, most people will not reveal themselves to have anything wrong with them. At most, these folks are seen as being a bit quirky, even odd. Think your average auteur director, I doubt anyone would say he’s crazy, but certainly many would call him quirky or eccentric.

As corporate as Hollywood has seemed to become, the art industries are made up from quirky, awkward people. We are the social misfits that do not play these mind-games well.

It is also especially difficult being a woman in the business with aspergers because women more often than men are accused of being emotionally compromised, or “crazy.” When social cues are missed, or stubbornness toward a goal exists, men are labeled head-strong or persistent, the “go-getters” with a unique vision. A woman exhibiting the same traits is often labeled clingy, nuts or at worst crazy/emotionally compromised. The potential for misunderstanding is far more debilitating for a woman on the spectrum than a man. Where a man is considered quirky, or eccentric, a woman is considered batty or nuts. This isn’t fair, but this is societies bias at work; and that bias exists in Hollywood too, and even more so in the tech industry where aspergers diagnosis are even more common.

I write this article in the hopes that people in the business (and elsewhere) be less judgmental. We’re all dealing with our own limitations, and points of views will undoubtedly vary. And at the end of the day, having a Sheldon Cooper on your team is a potentially very rewarding experience. The great thing about the creative industries is that we all take from our collective experience to make something great. If we limited ourselves only to the normal opinion, the neuro-typical POV, and that of those best at playing mind-games, imagine how much art would suffer from banality. Some of the best creators are quirky, weird and have a unique perspective on the world. So while they may be socially stunted in some areas, that’s a part of who they are. No one should ever have to apologize for who they are, and that is why I write this post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

SNL 40 Years Later: How Gentrification Stole our Cities Creative Soul

Saturday Night Live after 40 years has quite a bit in common with your average 40 year old; cynical youth that eventually donned the suit they once so fervently despised.

I started watching last nights broadcast hoping to see some stellar performances from years past, the murky era of 70s politics that spawned the shows creation, the city that inspired generations of comics. Then about an hour in I realized this broadcast wasn’t going to be so much a nostalgic trip down memory lane as it was a highly visible corporate event aimed at ingratiating modern culture. Kanye had more screen time than Bill Murray, Chevy Chase and Eddie Murphy combined!

It was somewhere in between the skits about 70s era New York crime and Disney buying property in Hooker-dominant Times Square that I realized Saturday Night Live has become victim to gentrification too. In fact it was one almost forgettable line in the middle of the broadcast that cemented this arc, a paraphrased one-liner uttered in the mid-90s on gentrified New York:

“it’s like New York got married and had kids.”

Only the gentrification now is in hyper overdrive. While it may seem nice for politicians and investors to claim “we cleaned up the streets” they cleaned up something else too in the process: our culture.

What made SNL so brilliant in its early days was the culture of comedians and their diverse backgrounds. Ultra wealthy Chevy Chase aside, you had comics like Eddie Murphy who grew up in lower-middle class Roosevelt, NY. You had large swaths of the East Village devoted to punk rock and anti-establishment shows and comics. Chris Rock grew up in the ethnic enclaves of Brooklyn, inspired by Murphy’s performance on SNL. Louis CK although not a cast member, he struggled in New York when people could still afford to do so.

Communities of artists, comics and musicians made 70s/80s NY, while dangerous, a place which inspired creativity. That is the New York SNL grew out of, a diverse and wonderful New York with soul, spirit and a gritty edge. You had graffiti on the subways. Underground comic clubs and punk rock shows. Nickel shows and oddities and adventures around every corner. Some of this lasted through the early to mid-90s too, depending where in the city you were.

Today almost nowhere is unscathed by gentrification. Brooklyn is the most expensive area to live in the nation, and Manhattan as entire island is now completely unaffordable to the middle class. Even Western Queens is starting to gentrify as newer yuppies get displaced by rising rents elsewhere in the city. It is a tidal wave of sterile culture perpetrated by a class of artists who can afford $3000/month in rent.

When nobody from the lower and middle class can afford to struggle on a bar tenders salary to perform in New York’s night clubs or Broadway theaters, what you get is the same Point of View: the upper middle class, rich Point of View. This has become very apparent in modern New York, as convenience has taken a priority over culture. You have banks on every corner, chains in place of local establishments, high end eateries in place of local diners and shiny glass condos in place of graffiti stained walls of New York’s creative past.

New York has become the playground of the ultra rich, and with their money comes their taste preferences and the culture that caters to them. In a nutshell, CBGB’s is now a John Varvatos clothier.

When Spike Lee took to ranting about his neighborhood being “Bogarted” by a bunch of mostly white affluent transplants, he ranted at great length about how they took the neighborhood and made it their own – completely disregarding the areas past.

It is the folks who live in Greenpoint and Brooklyn who will tell you they are the artists, that they are the cultural backbone of our city. But this is bull shit, these people, these transplants who shell out $3000 per month in rent on average have never been to New York – because the New York I grew up in, the New York Spike Lee grew up in, the one Chris Rock and Eddie Murphy grew up in, died with the invasion of these self-described artists.

There is a whole generation of transplants who’ve never been to actual New York. And yet like Spike Lee said, they try and own the culture; to be a part of something they are NOT.

When the only cultural point of view is white suburban hipsters, that narrative becomes dominant, and it prevents other narratives from being heard. The entertainment industry is already hard enough to break into, but when the city-centers of media are at a record lack of affordability and entry level opportunities have been replaced by a revolving door of unpaid internships advertised at elite colleges – you are further restricting that point of view to the upper middle class, affluent and mostly white.

New York once prided itself on its cultural diversity. But that diversity is in danger now that gentrification has amped up and spread like a cultural parasite throughout our city. Banks replacing bodegas and shiny corporate theaters taking over comedic factories, sponsored by the bank next door.

As I sat through Saturday Night Live’s 40th anniversary special, I wasn’t just nostalgic for old SNL, I was nostalgic for old New York, real New York, the New York that inspired a generation of comics, artists and gritty cinema – and Saturday Night Live itself. And as that New York rapidly disappears under a layer of corporate sanitizing in the wake of gentrification, so too does the show and the soul of culture that made you actually feel at home – “Live from New York it’s Saturday Night,” only this was Sunday prime time, and it certainly felt like it too.

Through the White Looking Glass: How People of Color are Portrayed by Hollywood

Just this past week a well-intentioned look at racial relations hit the theaters, Black or White. No sooner did it make it’s critical review debuts than did people in the film community begin to take notice of its very white point-of-view. In her brilliant piece in Forbes on the film, and how it dangerously waddles into “white savior” territory, Rebecca Theodore (@FilmFatale_NYC on twitter) notes the following:

The movie is chock full of Black tropes and stereotypes…“Black or White” practices the same type of lopsided storytelling where Elliot’s alcoholism is contextualized with the death of his wife, yet the Black characters are devoid of any kind of complexity or humanity. While Elliot harbors very bigoted views, his thoughts and actions are still framed with a sympathetic gaze while the Jeffers family is essentially penalized for their own family dysfunction and deemed unworthy of raising Eloise.

When the creators tried to promote the film with the hashtag #LoveKnowsNoColor – many reacted with similar disdain, recalling how it is avoiding the discussion of color and resulting prejudice altogether. It is in avoiding this topic of race/color that creates so much discomfort and misunderstanding. To say there is no color is exemplary of how for whites, it’s not about color, because whites are not qualified by the color of their skin by society at large, they are not “people of color.” White people don’t fear being stopped by police, or having people lock their car doors as they pass, because for them, there is no color. To deny the topic of color is the epitome of white privilege.

And this is the problem, these well intentioned films get filtered through the White point-of-view. These progressives are essentially the white-savior types themselves, attempting to educate people on a topic they themselves barely understand. And it is in this misunderstanding that people like Ms. Theodore note is just as problematic as blatant discrimination and prejudice.

But how and why does this even happen? Simply because most films are written by White people, commissioned by White people, directed by White people and marketed largely by White people. More specifically, by White people who before their time in big cities home to many media companies, had very little interaction with the Black community.

Allow me to contextualize my own authorial bias. I am a native of the five boroughs of New York City. Unlike many of the Midwestern transplants and folks that come from homogenous White townships and counties to places like New York and Los Angeles, I grew up in an ethnic enclave of many races, religions and beliefs. Flushing, New York is probably one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in New York City. I grew up with “Black friends” just as I did with Italian friends, Chinese friends, Irish friends, German friends, British friends …only I never called them my “black friends” any more than I called my Italian friends “my Italian friends.” I don’t think White people realize how ridiculous they sound when they qualify someone by their background in one context, but never for other white people.

The problem with onscreen representation of People of Color is not just that it is filtered through a White Point of View, but an ignorant one. I don’t believe it is intentionally ignorant, but until we have a serious conversation about race and how where we come from shapes that impact, I don’t believe we will overcome this racial tension and bias. You may be well-intentioned, but when you come from a small town with a >2% Black population in the whole county to Hollywood, you are unintentionally biased by your own upbringing.

“No, not me, I am racially tolerant!” folks may say. This is the problem, instead of getting defensive, try and listen for once, try and see the other point of view instead of looking at the topic through your own White looking glass defense. I want people to really question the way they view folks of color. I want people to really think about when they moved to the city, who did they hang out with? Other folks from the same state, probably from similar economic backgrounds, but most importantly: other White people. I look at these folks, and see people scared of their own progressive White shadow. They really have hid from the fact that they have no concept of what it means to be Black in America, or what growing up in a racially diverse community is like. They are White, their POV is White, they only know White – specifically 98% White.

This film should be a calling-card for diversity in Hollywood. We need to have more point’s of view behind the scenes in order to have a more impactful and sincere version of our diverse culture. We need more films written by POC, directed by POC, promoted by POC. The main force behind the film, the screenwriter/director of Black or White grew up in a town with a .91% Black population!  Not even 1%!!!! The producer grew up in suburban Alabama, which needs no introduction to race. The star, Kevin Costner, grew up in suburban (mostly White) California. All three men are middle-aged, and White. Their POV is middle aged and white.

Of course the other issue here is that you don’t want to typecast POC into only writing/sharing culture about themselves. Why is it someone who grew up in a town with less than 1% Black population can write about Blacks, but a Black man or woman is mostly reserved for “re-writing Black characters” or “Black comedies?” We definitely need to see a more authentic POV, but the other problem is in the way Hollywood typecasts career roles for one race, but not the other.

Lets get real about racial representation on film. The same goes for one-dimensional women, damsel in distress, rescued by smart man tropes for female characters written by guys. Diversity isn’t just common sense, it helps paint a more true/diverse picture of our greatest cultural export: film/TV. And oh, by the way, it sells pretty well too. If that cultural export is largely filtered through the White Looking Glass, then we are doomed to only be sharing a small sliver of our cultural bias: the White male POV. So today, whether you are a creative or not, step outside your comfort zone and ask questions, listen and stop getting defensive. Improving diversity begins with learning how to exit your own unrealized biases by taking those important steps toward understanding.

Film Tax Credits: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly of the Controversial Subsidies

Just over a week ago, Dreamworks Animation in Redwood City, CA laid off close to 500 Visual Effects workers, choosing to re-locate to Canada for favorable tax subsidies in VFX. Runaway production became a major campaign position during the Los Angeles mayoral election last year. Bankrupt states are being accused of mismatched priorities; chasing Hollywood while cutting education and healthcare costs as is the case in Louisiana. As France expands it’s big-budget lure through the CNC, it also helps to fund films that struggle to find private financing. New York has committed to $4B in film tax incentives over the next four years, and maintains a AA+ credit rating – the highest since 1962.

So what’s the deal with film tax credits? Are they all good, all bad? Should they have a place at all in film finance, and if so how should they be implemented?

When setting out to write this article, I got a lot of feedback in particular form the Visual Effects industry. They are among the hardest hit in terms of production outsourcing due to companies chasing favorable subsidies. And on the damage to that industry, and to the net-negative aspect of film tax credits, I strongly recommend reading VFX Solider’s blog on the matter. He’s written on the subject for years and is highly informed on the topic.

While I will certainly get into that debate, I wanted to not only address issues with the negative aspect of these subsidies, but also try to find if there’s any positive for them.

The Good

The ultimate point of a subsidy is to provide an advantage for an industry/project/concern that struggles to finance through traditional methods. For example, in France, the CNC provides subsidies to films dealing with cultural concerns or promoting French cultural topics (historical, political) etc. They make a part of their subsidy program available to mid-budget and smaller films that struggle to find corporate backing. Many private grants provide subsidies for women filmmakers, minority filmmakers and films that similarly struggle to obtain traditional financing – yet very few states/nations have similar underrepresented filmmaker subsidies. Ultimately Batman does not need a subsidy. Corporate franchise films can easily find financial backers and do not deserve a red cent of state/national subsidies. When a smaller and smaller amount of traditional financing is available, it is more important than ever to focus on good subsidies; subsidies that protect and invest in protecting culture and minority projects to maintain a balance between art and commerce and to promote diversity in the filmmaking community. Saying that your city was used for Batman is not a viable excuse to spend millions of tax payer dollars on corporate welfare. Most research suggests that tax-credits of this nature are a net negative for state and local economies.

which brings me to the next point:

The Bad

As previously alluded to, Batman and franchise films do not need subsidies. Yet currently states do not stipulate that a film must be of a certain genre or type to qualify for their tax incentive program. At most, a film must merely commit to spending a certain amount of dollars in state, and hire a certain number of crew in-state. For the most part this benefits the big productions and blockbusters who have the resources, muscle and legal know-how to take advantage of these credits. This leaves smaller productions and cultural dramas most in need of subsidies scrambling for left over scraps. The bureaucracy and permitting process alone are very cumbersome for independent productions or smaller film projects.

This is also very much by design. Politicians love to be able to say “we filmed Lord of the Rings here!” while plastering LoTR logos all over Air New Zealand jets, their airport and just about every available tourism space while many in the industry struggle to survive on low wages as their nation rewrote labor laws to keep the franchise. Politicians down in New Orleans love to brag about the uptick in tourism following their billion dollars spent on film subsidies. All of the politicians love to go to those pretty graphics that show how many jobs were created by subsidizing the industry. The thing all these politicians have in common? They all avoid mention of the net cost. In simple terms: the programs cost far outweighs the economic benefit. States, countries and local governments spend far more on subsidizing blockbusters than the blockbusters create in economic benefit through jobs, tourism and local spending. In just about every example of generous tax incentive programs, the subsidies have shown to be a net negative.

This is where it gets ugly.

The Ugly

Louisiana is probably the best example of this easy money policy. They have among the most generous policies in the country, subsidizing 30% of every $1million spent in state. To date they have spent over $1Billion on film subsidies. At the same time, the state ranks bottom five in education, and is facing massive budget shortfalls and deficits forcing the state to cut education and also healthcare. When film tax subsidies were brought up in a recent Louisiana State Senate session, politicians were quick to defend the program out of concern Hollywood will leave. And that is what folks seem to miss when criticizing those politicians.

Those making the subsidies are stuck operating with a corporate gun to their head, so to speak. Hollywood is saying to struggling states like Louisiana, “give us the money, or we’ll leave.” While Chris Dodd, former senator and chairman of the MPAA, blames piracy for the loss of 2 million middle clas crew jobs, he heads an organization that aids in this “gun-to-the head” policy arm wringing. The ultimate reason people are loosing jobs is because corporate handout chasers are moving middle class jobs to places that will give them free money like at Dreamworks Animation. In New Orleans, where many of my friends traveled, forced to seek work in subsidy friendly environments, they told me of people working on set in VFX departments with no experience who hadn’t a clue as to how to do their job. Meanwhile just last week 500 VFX employees, well qualified and working at a top animation company, lost their jobs due to subsidy chasing. There is a real human cost to this corporate welfare, and that is the ugly of it.

Conclusion

I don’t think any subsidies should be made available for large corporations or large corporate films. If you’re a true market-oriented capitalist, then the government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers. When we subsidize multi-billion dollar conglomerates and their independent offshoots, we are doing just that. And sadly the ultimate losers are the middle class and crew. If we are to have subsidies at all it should be to help aid in the funding of culturally worthy projects and projects made by undeserved segments of the filmmaking community. Hollywood may love to champion itself as the savior of the working class, but until it shows some loyalty to the union members and tradesmen and women that make up its bellow the line rank and file by ending corporate handout chasing, they cannot make that claim.

American Sniper, Selma & American’s Love for Revisionist History

A week after the Academy announcements and American Sniper has made nearly $200m domestic. The snubbed Selma has made only $35m in a similar period of release albeit with significantly less theaters in wide release. There’s no question that the awards buzz around Sniper coupled with an excellent trailer/marketing campaign put a lot of butts in the seat. However, Selma has a close to 100% Fresh rating, and it was still nominated for Best Picture. Why haven’t more people gone to see Selma, and why is Sniper, also a non-fiction prestige piece, so much more succesful? Perhaps it has something to do with the way Hollywood and thus American culture looks at revisionist history.

There’s a scene in American Sniper that shows Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) and his wife (Sienna Miller) watching the tragedy of September 11th, 2001 unfold on television. Almost immediately thereafter we fast-forward in narrative to the Iraq War. In his controversial piece on American war films as fairy tales & folk lore, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi noted that this narrative seemed to suggest the two were related. Of course, any student of recent history or those of us paying attention know that they are not related at all.

We invaded Iraq under false pretenses. Whatever your opinion of Chris Kyle, he was not fighting for our freedoms the way some would like to suggest. He was merely a pawn in a modern day game of thrones, one delicately orchestrated by Cheney and his private contractor agenda. While Bin Laden escaped to Pakistan after 9/11, unscathed for nearly a decade until his death, nearly 5,000 American troops died in a distraction war. Anyone who supports the troops and sought revenge for 9/11 should be deeply disturbed by that.

Instead, Sniper skips over all the controversies of the Iraq War and instead focuses on Kyle and his record number of “savages” killed. Savages of course being the token word used by Kyle in his book telling the tale of his record number of kills. Most disturbingly, that when one sniper began to approach his number, he magically found a way to outdo him, racking up several more. Did fate really seem to give him that opportunity, or was Kyle so engrossed in this psychopathic competition that he chose to kill innocents too? Nobody denies that his job was hard, I won’t agree with Michael Moore that snipers are cowards. I will agree with the criticism that this film seems to glorify and portray sympathetically a person who by all DSM V definitions is a psychopath. Nobody enjoys killing, even where it is part of their job; anyone who would kill with a smile on their face is a psychopath.

So the criticism lamented at Sniper is that it takes a simplistic look at the Iraq War to the point of moral hazard and historical revision. Furthermore it makes a hero out of a very controversial figure. Yet, America has reacted with jingoist fervor, calling it one of the best films of the year. Taibbi and others have been criticized as anti-American, pussies, liberal America haters and many other insults for daring to criticize the dangerous revisionist look at the topic front and center of the film. It is almost as if we are back in 2003 debating what the world and many here at home have come to call a wrongful war in violation of international law.

Meanwhile, nobody seems to talk about Selma and how it actually tries to correct revisionist history. We are taught here in America growing up that Lyndon B. Johnson was an ally of the civil rights movement with the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act. What we don’t learn is that the decision to pass this bill was not an overnight consideration. What makes Selma so good is that it undoes this sympathetic look at LBJ and others by showcasing how hard it really was to convince white men in power that Black lives mattered. It had to come to daily showcases of violence to the point where White America became outraged to get DC to act. This isn’t an anti-LBJ film as some smear campaigns want to suggest, it is an honest look at a man who struggled to come to terms with what he knew was right but in the face of political realities could not come to act on soon enough. Furthermore, Selma shows how DC was also monitoring King and his movement through the FBI. These orders came from Hoover, Johnson and others from the Dixiecrat South.

No, it’s not nice to imagine that our president was unsympathetic of racial issues until political inconvenience made him act. However it is the truth. 1965 was a time of racial upheaval in America, where it was more normal to hold racial prejudices than to not hold them. In 2015, the smear campaigns have tried to paint Selma as historical revision from a Black point of view, and I believe that has kept people out of theaters.

Whereas American Sniper makes it’s revisionist look at recent history the center-point of it’s successful campaign, Selma accused of the same historical revisions has kept people away. Of course any historical scholar will tell you that Selma is more historically accurate with its subject than Sniper is. That’s telling because on the one hand, Selma takes an unflattering view of history, correcting our nations revisionist telling of the LBJ-MLK story, American Sniper takes a fairy tale look at an unflattering point of our history by essentially revising it through a jingoist lens.

From an early age we are taught to pledge allegiance to America, to uphold the ideas and values of American exceptionalism. We constantly compare our nation favorably to the way things are done in other nations, and take a sympathetic and often revisionist view to our nation’s deeply dark and troubled history. No country is free from historical turmoil. Yet it seems that here in America we like to portray ourselves as holier art than thou. The rest of the world sees this and point to our numerous hypocrisies from our ideas about Democracy to citizens privacy, civil and human rights.

The way we choose to look at our nation through the lens of exceptionalism and ethnocentrism prevents us from being open to an honest look at our history. The indoctrination by our corporate media and educational system prevents us from getting an honest perspective on the truth. The truth is sometimes pretty ugly. And in the case of history as entertainment, it seems most people prefer the fairy tale version of it.

Martin Scorsese’s SELMA

It’s just before everyone in town leaves LA for the holidays. The freeways are actually moving (well sort of). The line at the coffee shop is noticeably shorter. The assistant has less than 150 emails in their inbox on a Monday morning. Nobody feels like working, but there’s still some work to be done…

Martin Scorsese recently wrapped up his Martin Luther King Jr. biopic, SELMA. Unfortunately, the film has exited post-production too late and will miss some of the awards nomination voting deadlines.

Paramount has apologized, and said there will be no screeners because of this. And that was that.

Only it wasn’t, among those 150 emails this morning was a vitriolic rant from Scorsese’s people. “If you don’t get a screener out to the Guilds before Christmas it will be your head on my plate at Christmas dinner.”

That was the first of many such rants. The folks at Paramount then began to scramble. Scorsese’s people demand that screeners still be given out, after all there’s still the PGA nominations and most importantly the Academy Awards. If no screener is given to the DGA members, how will Scorsese return to Oscar glory?!

Thankfully everyone worked together and Paramount was able to get out screeners before SELMA’s limited release on Christmas Day. The film ranked highly among the PGA’s nominations for best picture of the year, and Scorsese is poised to take home the Best Director statue according to industry trades. A leader in best picture, and a monumental achievement for all involved.

Except that’s not at all how it happened.

SELMA is the brilliant work of indie director Ava Duvernay, a black woman. Prior to SELMA, she was known for taking home the Director Award from the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Despite showing immense talent and becoming the first black woman to be nominated for a Best Director Golden Globe, her and her film have failed to garner many other nominations.

While the Globe’s news is great, SELMA and its achievements are noticeably missing from the PGA nominations, often considered a predictor for Best Picture of the Year at the Academy Awards. Unlike the hypothetical Scorsese story, Duvernay’s people never apparently pushed hard for the release of a screener. Paramount never seemingly tried to get a copy out to those who vote in the Academy Awards and for other important accolades.

As a result of not trying to produce a screener copy, people have been left to either see the film in theaters or at Guild/Private screenings. Not enough people saw SELMA to actually vote for it, and so it has been left off of many important ballots.

As of it’s nation-wide release, still no screener copies have been made available to the Guilds. The deadline for Academy Award voting ended January 8th, 2015.

The entitlement among many in Hollywood is that “no screener, equals no vote.” This is especially hypocritical among an industry that strongly equates lost ticket sales to free views of films. While I will not equate film piracy with screener viewership, I find it deeply hypocritical that industry folks would themselves not champion their own advice of monetarily supporting art with a ticket purchase.

The result unfortunately is that SELMA will struggle to gain enough support for a Best Director nomination, or Best Picture. If it does secure these nominations, it remains unseen as to whether or not there will still be enough people to see the film to submit final votes of nominees by February 15th, 2015.

This is a classic case of double standards. If it were Scorsese’s film, I have no doubt that more would have been done to get a screener made up and distributed. And I say this not because he is a white man, and Ava is a black woman, but because of how Hollywood bends over to the established.

The problem with this double standard is that where the establishment is largely white and male, this negatively affects those who are not. If we treat Scorsese differently than Ava because of his pedigree, then we have automatically contributed to a double standard, whether it be racially motivated or not.

Unfortunately the result is potentially a racially dubious outcome in that a black woman may be left off of the Academy Awards ballots, denied her chance at making history.

We as an industry need to be a lot more concerned with how we treat new talent coming up. If we are to preach that it is truly a meritocracy, then women and people of color will be championed as often and as much as their white male colleagues. SELMA has shown this is not the case. The Black List, where film executives list of their favorite unproduced screenplays, had less then 10% females on the list. Could it be that more men’s scripts are circulating around town and promoted over women and people of color’s specs? The Black List seems to suggest that yes, that is the case.

The industry contributes to a double standard because it absolutely does not equally promote, rep and fight for women/people of color the way it does white men, especially established white men.

If SELMA is left off of Academy ballots, Hollywood will have no one to blame but themselves and their double standards. And perhaps in a parallel universe, Scorsese would have walked home with another Oscar.

Why Aren’t More Men in Hollywood Mentoring Females?

It’s no question that when it comes to breaking into the film/TV industry it’s not only what you know, it’s who you know. Increasingly young talented individuals with promise net their opportunities through networking and finding a position as an assistant in order to gain valuable insight into the business. Alternately, others seek counsel, advice and feedback from esteemed members of the film and television community. While many various forms of mentorship exist, one form of this practice barely does: males mentoring females.

I don’t need to re-post the litany of studies showing gender and racial discrepancies in “above the line” positions in Hollywood. By now I’d imagine most are familiar with the gaping statistics between male/female opportunities in writing, directing and producing roles.

Many experts contend that the best way to provide for more diversity is to increase the mentorship of young women and people of color. If more women and people of color are mentored by those in power (the majority of those people being white men) then it stands to reason that more women and people of color would get opportunities to advance.

Unfortunately, the reality is much different.

A recent study conducted by The Harvard Business Review over a period of several years tracked male and female mentorship of individuals with MBAs in top firms across the country. The study concluded that while females got a lot of mentorship, they struggled to be promoted as often as the men who were also mentored. The study noted a trend of perpetual mentorship of women that rarely resulted in suggested placement, or sponsorship.

The study suggested that instead of mentorship, programs in corporate settings should be more focused on sponsorship than perpetual advice-giving.

HBR notes:

Men and women alike say they get valuable career advice from their mentors, but it’s mostly men who describe being sponsored. Many women explain how mentoring relationships have helped them understand themselves, their preferred styles of operating, and ways they might need to change as they move up the leadership pipeline. By contrast, men tell stories about how their bosses and informal mentors have helped them plan their moves and take charge in new roles, in addition to endorsing their authority publicly.

This seems true of Hollywood as well, whereas most women tend to remain perpetual assistants, more often than not it is men who are referred for development executive positions or other promotions that women see less of.

The more troubling trend in Hollywood is that few white men actually mentor women or people of color to begin with. In his blistering critique of Hollywood and race, Chris Rock noted being given his chance by Black comics. Rock in turn noted how he tries to help other up and coming Black artists. Talk to many women, and the result is the same, women helping other women.

Rarely do you hear of the times when white men step up to mentor and sponsor women. There are several possible reasons for this trend, but one seems to come up most frequently: sexual attraction.

Each time the question is asked, “how come more men aren’t mentoring women,” men in the business say it’s because they don’t want to murky the boundary between professionalism and personal relationships. The gross assumption is that because of the amount of time spent together, it is assumed the woman may develop romantic feelings for her mentor. An interesting conversation to that effect occurred on twitter a month back where a notable screenwriter critiquing the practice noted, “there must be certain landmines to avoid,” referring of course to sexual relationships. Another writer/comic took it a step further saying some men don’t mentor women because “men are creeps.” The conversation in full can be read here.

I find these assumptions most unfortunate, but in a business full of attractive people and rampant flirtation and sexual advances, it does not shock me. Most women at one time or another have felt they were victims of unwanted sexual advances. Other women have even felt attracted to their mentor, or professional colleague and have willingly engaged in a sexual relationship. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find my own former mentor extremely attractive, and that I would be hard pressed to turn him down if it ever came to that.

Unfortunately, this power dynamic is one that also can encourage abuse or unwarranted assumptions. Even where two people are perfectly capable of having a casual sexual relationship and maintaining professional courtesy, this rarely ends well for the woman. For one, people will likely find out and that looks worse on the woman’s part, professionally speaking, than the mans. Another reason is women more often then men are assumed to find emotional attachment in the act, and so men get defensive as a result.

The easy advice to give here is to avoid such a professional/romantic entanglement. The better advice here would be to suggest folks merely act like adults.

This shouldn’t even be a valid excuse. To assume women shouldn’t be mentored by men because of sexual tension or attraction is absurd. In the 21st century to even be having conversations like the one linked to above is frankly asinine. Yet in Hollywood it is probably the biggest excuse for men not mentoring more women. It is almost analogous to the 60s, where some men would avoid hiring attractive secretaries because of their wife, or that some men would get rid of women they’ve slept with after they felt the woman was becoming too clingy. It’s almost like an episode of Mad Men, except it’s no longer 1965. But yet it’s still always the woman’s fault, and the woman pays the price.

Ultimately, whatever ridiculous excuses are given, the stats reflect a growing gap between male and female mentorship and subsequent opportunities.  If we are to change things we need to put all cultural assumptions and excuses aside and tell the white men in power to help those underrepresented. We cannot just leave it to statistical minorities to mentor other statistical minorities. If that were the case, the stats would never change. While it is no doubt easier as a white guy to promote and champion the kid who’s “just like me,” that only continues to restrict opportunities for people who are not white, upper-middle class men. I’m not sure there’s any easy answer to this problem, but I do believe it begins with white men actually taking action to live up to their vocal support for diversity. It’s time for white men to actually mentor those underrepresented in the Hollywood community, and stop leaving it to be the problem of other underrepresented artists and leadership figures.

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