Music and Meritocracy: Witnessing a Legend

He strutted to the stage wearing bell bottom jeans and a loose fitted shirt. His dirty blonde hair down past his shoulders, a couple of tussled curls fell over his relaxed face; a youthful 24 years of age. Before him stood a crowd of those predominantly from the Baby Boomer generation, blown away by the young man’s talent. He has the likeness of Robert Plant if you squint your eyes, but more like Jimmy Page if you close them and just listen. His name is Tyler Bryant, and he is opening for Page’s Yardbirds companion, Jeff Beck at The Paramount, a modest converted movie theater in suburban Huntington, New York.

What year was this, you may find yourself asking. If you answered 1972, I would say that’s a good educated guess. However, the year is 2015, and in my late 20s, I was probably among the youngest at that show.

My generation is far more content to listen to Top 40, as is any generation in their youth. The difference of course is that Top 40 has changed significantly over the years, relegating the music of yesteryear into a niche. Joni Mitchell recently told New York Magazine that today’s music scene which she quit in 2007 is less so about the talent, and more so a look:

[producers] were tyrannical and trendy. They would have squelched my need for risk and invention. They would have straightened out all the quirks and oddities and steered me toward the dog race where the bigger profits were. It’s just gotten worse. Somewhere after 2007, around that time, I think, I heard on the radio, a record executive saying quite confidently, ‘We’re no longer looking for talent. We’re looking for a look and a willingness to cooperate.’

As I stared in awe at Tyler Bryant, melting the neck of his acoustic guitar in a blazing solo, I couldn’t help but wonder if this old soul was born to the wrong generation; a Hendrix reincarnate born into the times of commercialized Hip Hop, auto-tuned vocals and polished pop-rock. He is someone, I recall saying to my father (60) standing beside me, “[who] should be on the cover of Rollingstone, not Justin Bieber.” My father agreed, we both agreed, that if he had come up 40 years ago, he would be bigger than Bieber is today.

Though I doubt Tyler would agree with that sentiment. He was so incredibly humble, just happy to be doing what he loves  for a living. “Thank you for coming,” he said sincerely, “when I was young, I had posters of guys like Jeff Beck on my wall, so it’s an honor to be here.” He was gracious for all his opportunity; a story of young success, a prodigy who moved to Music City at the age of 17 only a year after playing on stage with Eric Clapton. Though I doubt he’d like the word prodigy either, and made sure to invoke his band (Tyler Bryant and the Shakedown) back in Nashville rather than make it all about himself.

After the show, Tyler greeted fans by the merchandise table. I can imagine so many other young men afforded the same opportunities would be fickle and elitist. Tyler was anything but. I quickly purchased his new tour-exclusive EP, Bombay B-Sides, and walked over to shake his hand and take some photos. Even though my father couldn’t effectively take the picture, Tyler was patient and offered to wait until we got it right (we did, sort of). He signed my EP, and after thanking him for coming to New York, I realized on my EP it was him thanking me — and others too. “Thanks, Tyler Bryant” the cover of the EP read, a musician who shared the stage with legends, a legend in the making himself, thanking his fans.

As I stared at the “Thank you” I realized that any sense of feeling bad about the fact meritocracy is seemingly on decline was misguided. I realized that this was someone just happy to be doing this. It is all too easy to complain about your circumstances, or the lack of perceived merit — “thank you” I stared at it again — “thank you” was signed by someone just happy to be on this ride.

We can’t control the record industry, or what Top 40 is. But we can support great talent. Please check out and support great talent, you can buy Tyler’s records on iTunes & check him out at his band page.

Silicon Valley Prophets

Most organized religion works with the promise of an eternal resting place, an afterlife where man may live in harmony with his Creator, provided he is a faithful person. While the description of Heaven varies with each religion, it is more or less consistent in terms of its general definition: the promise of eternal life after death.

For those who have devoted their life to science, the idea of immortality in Heaven, or a spiritual after-life, is difficult to believe in absent any empirical evidence. So it was only natural for some brilliant scientists and inventors to want to create a Heaven that is actually real.

Meet Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity movement.

Kurzweil is an inventor, computer scientist and prodigal graduate of MIT. He has gone on to create many important inventions and has helped to advise on multiple projects within his field of computer science. He is currently employed with Google in an advisory/research role where he has significant input on futurist projects, presumably under the program Google X.

After the death of his father, he became obsessed with the idea of being able to talk to him again. You see this emotional side of him in the documentary Transcendent Man — which has become the video-bible to his futurist vision. Kurzweil does not believe in a Judeo-Christian version of Heaven where he may speak to his father again, and so he’s tried to find a scientific solution to where this may be possible. Kurzweil gets blood tests  frequently. He takes massive amounts of pills and supplements every day, all in the hopes of living long enough to see out his predictions for a man-made afterlife (which he claims will be in 2045). He’s even wrote a book on how best to diet to improve your chances of reaching the year of his prediction.

Why is he doing this? Simply, as a human, he like all of us, fear our own mortality. There is a constant worry that we will not have enough time in our mortal lives to accomplish all we desire. Unlike religious people who believe in a spiritual afterlife, individuals like Kurzweil see our time here as limited and finite. What Kurzweil is ultimately trying to do is invent a technological Heaven for those who don’t believe in the religious/spiritual version of it. He, like centuries of men before him, is using his life on earth to try and beat death. However, this existential crisis is thousands of years old, and so far death has held an upper-hand. Of course Kurzweil, also like many before him, believes he will be the one to beat death once and for all.

The Singularity, as envisioned by Kurzweil, is a sort of religion for those who do not believe in God or an afterlife. It is the idea that in spite of no spiritual heaven, if we invest enough in technology, the core idea of Heaven, or immortality, can be attainable.

Kurzweil as a Jesus-figure for this movement is a complicated, but noble man in his intentions and beliefs. Some may even say obsessive in his quest for real immortality, or as he and his followers have come to call it ” the technological singularity.” The technological singularity is the idea that through ever-increasing computing power and technological innovation, man will be able to augment his body to overcome mortal biological defects. Taking this idea a step further, Kurzweil argues we will be able to implant computer chips in our brains which will then be able to upload our conscious into a machine. This he argues will happen by the year 2045, the all significant year of when this Heaven through technology will be complete according to a rather flawed interpretation of Moore’s Law.

The year of Singularity, 2045, is referred to as a singularity because much like the physics term it borrows from, we cannot know what happens after the point of a singularity. Yet, that does not stop either Kurzweil or his disciples from trying to predict after this moment anyhow.

In order to make this prediction even remotely feasible, it will take billions invested into technological innovation. Naturally, the Singularity must go beyond books and documentaries, and into venture capital pitches in order to have any shot at success with its vision.

Singularity University was launched in 2008 by Kurzweil, and Silicon Valley investor and inventor, Peter Diamandis. The goal was not to create a formal university, but an executive retreat where silicon valley entrepreneurs would be given the chance to hear about all of the benefits of investing in the vision of Singularity and how to find funding and start projects of their own in accordance with its vision. The “university” is today supported by NASA Goddard, Google and countless other esteemed organizations and individuals such as Google’s Larry Page and PayPal investor Peter Thiel, thus lending it legitimacy within the Silicon Valley community.

The problem with this pseudo-religious technological goal is that not all of Kurzweil’s followers are as noble in their intentions as he is. Kurzweil is notoriously optimistic about our future, promising an abundance of resources, human immortality, conscious-uploading and no problem technology cannot solve. Those who invest in these visions have a different goal: money, and to make more of it.

Ultimately our resources are finite. If people could live forever, the earth would naturally only be able to hold so many people. As long as money is king of controlling resources, like say the technology to grant immortality, it is unlikely the average citizen will stand to benefit much from Kurzweil’s visions. In fact, the plot-line to the SciFi film Elysium seems more likely than the utopia he envisions, as sad as that might make him.

Peter Thiel himself is a Far-Right Libertarian, and major donor to Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. Not only does he believe in an “every man for himself,” “pick yourself up by the bootstraps” vision of America, he also wants to insulate himself and his allies form the consequences of when this rose-colored vision of Darwinian determination fails. Recently he pitched the idea of a sea-steading island colony of technological entrepreneurs where a handful of well off billionaires and millionaires could invest toward a Singularity free from government regulation and interference from average citizens. Basically, an oceanic version of Elysium (presumably until they can relocate into Space).

The difference in vision for its outcome is precisely why Singularity as religion is troublesome. Like Christ, Kurzweil is not a bad person — his followers however leave his visions open to exploitation. On the one hand you have Kurzweil who wants this technology for everyone. On the other hand, you need venture capital to make this a reality, and those investors do not want this available to everyone because scarcity creates more profit. Additionally, where this technology is scarce, only the rich will be able to afford it.

Another problem is that the word Singularity has become rather loosely defined over the years, moving further and further from Kurzweil’s definition as more entrepreneurs take their stab at bringing it into reality. As many scientists doubt the occurrence of this Kurzweilian prediction within our lifetime, believers (those in a serious existential battle against death) try and find loosely correlated examples of Singularity’s existence in everyday life.

Much how like religious people share stories of miracles and unexplained phenomenon in every day life to justify their belief in God without any empirical evidence, Singularity believers try and loosely attach everyday technological gains and inventions to prove that “the singularity is near” — a common utterance by those convinced of its inevitability.

While Kurzweil’s is a very noble goal, one which may even usher in important technological inventions, it’s imperative to remain skeptical of such Utopian claims. Ultimately as is, this movement is a profit center for venture capitalists, and even the media empire Kurzweil has built around himself with books, documentaries, TV shows and speaking engagements. Also, it is entirely convenient how like many prophets before him, the year of reckoning will occur within his lifetime (provided he reaches almost 100).

While I do not believe Kurzweil to be a narcissist the way many prophets before him were, I also don’t believe he is capable of being critical of his own predictions — which is essential as a matter of scientific hypothesis. I believe he is a man who never dealt with the psychological consequences of his fathers death,  and so he has set out a goal for himself to remedy this problem of death and afterlife through his mastery of science. To make this goal a reality, he has had to pursue the money and resources of those who may not share his Utopian vision of the future, leaving open the chance for this technology to be abused or harvested solely for the economic elite. I hope those who support the important goal of technological innovation and progress do not put too much stock into any one prediction of the future. Kurzweil plays an important role in encouraging investment in technology and how technology can if done properly make our world a better place. When a religious undertone is involved like it is with Singularity, the prospect of critical thinking is reduced and in turn the chance for abuse of a movement is born.

Restrictions on Creativity: Sharing Work in a Litigious Society

When people create something they are proud of, their first instinct is naturally to share their work with the world. In the case of a painting or song, this is easy — because you can post it online in an album or post your recording to YouTube.

In the case of writing, the ability to share your fiction work is restricted to accepted methods of submissions and channels.

Yesterday I wrote a Pre-Credit sequence for a TV Pilot I have been researching and writing alongside my Feature. I wanted to share the sequence because I was very proud of my work, and thought it was a good sample of my writing ability.

I posted the link to my Twitter account, where it was met with three reads in 24 hours.

Three.

My Non-Fiction work tends to get hundreds of page-views. I kept staring at theStat Counter, thinking something was wrong.

Then I realized why no one was clicking: in the litigious and formal society we live in, this was a completely unorthodox and inappropriate way of sharing my work.

In order to be read by any professional, or to receive feedback from other writers, one must adhere to generally accepted business practices. In my enthusiasm to share my work, I ignored those practices by posting the direct link to my work, absent any query or formal request for a read.

Whether motivated by the fear of a future lawsuit, accusations of idea theft, or the preference to understandably work within generally accepted business practices, people did not click to read my work.

It stung a bit, but I knew not to take it personally. It was not personal, it is the way things are for writers looking to get feedback. The idea of an open-sharing culture for the artistic medium that is writing is in fact not an open-sharing culture at all. It is a highly formal process.

This formal process is also somewhat restrictive on creativity as well.

How many excellent writers are denied the opportunity to be read because they cannot get past the gate-keepers or find people to give them feedback, because the person is afraid of legal action or accusations of idea theft? Or maybe they just don’t want to operate in an informal manner. Whatever the case, it restricts the viewpoints that make it to the submission or review table.

For most writers struggling to make ends meet outside the confines of the established industry, hosting their work on their own dedicated website is the only way they can get their work read.

Writers have it much harder than any other creative medium, because Non-Fiction work aside, they cannot easily share their Fiction/Creative work. If they cannot easily share their creative work, they stand a harder time in getting noticed or have that work be reviewed by reputable eyes.

Many detractors to this argument will say that the same writers could just as easily submit their work to the Black List or query an agency/production company. Those same detractors (likely working in the business) know how rare a successful query is outside a recommendation or connection of some sort.

Most people find their work on desks due to connections they have made and relationships they have built within the industry. It is why most writers come from within the industry itself, and not from hobbyists that submit to official channels without a foot in the door. While the Black List makes this barrier to entry smaller, it’s still not the kind of notes you want in terms of approving your work. The Black List is a place where thoroughly polished scripts find success. In order to thoroughly polish your script, you’re going to need very good and constructive notes (which usually come from people working in the industry that understand the trade). This is why most Black List writers named to the annual best  un-produced scripts list already have reps/managers and extensive experience in the business.

Networking remains the most important thing you as a writer can do in terms of getting read and finding the feedback necessary to writing a quality script. You will not get feedback like a musician or artist does, because your work will not be reviewed the same way. Your only chance is to find a way into those accepted channels. As someone who has worked in the business, I also should have known better than to share my work in such a manner. I hope young writers reading this understand what they are up against, and to have an honest conversation with themselves about whether this is something they can feasibly do. If not, there’s always the autonomy of novel-writing, and self-publication.

Best of luck to all in their endeavors.

 

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.

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