Are Poverty Wages a Problem for Diversity in Film/TV?

As we approach another Oscars ceremony of nearly all White nominees, debate has heated up over Hollywood’s lack of diversity. The issue at hand isn’t so much about actors of color being snubbed, but about the lack of opportunity to begin with. If only a handful of films each year have non-white leads, the chance of any of them being quality enough to garner nominations for its participants is scant. Many have begun to ask who is responsible for the lack of diverse roles and behind screen talent. The answer commonly squares the blame with a combination of studios, agencies and investment bias.

Once blamed, studios are quick to say that they would love it if agencies sent more names of non-white talent, or women. Agencies in response to the studios counter with the fact that they just don’t have a lot of non-white talent or women to recommend, but they wish they did. So agencies and studios constantly put out this PR line to say they wish they had more non-white or female talent to offer, but somehow they never find any. I won’t even begin to discuss investor bias, because they don’t even acknowledge the problem, nor do they acknowledge how refusing to invest in a more accurate representation of an increasingly diverse America would be beneficial to them.

Putting aside the numerous amount of qualified non-white actors and behind scenes talent studios could hire, what is leading to a still overwhelmingly White application pool? Money. Specifically, the lack of it.

Whether they are willing to accept the blame or not, the agencies are really the first in a line of gatekeepers. Gatekeepers – it’s the people who have the power to recommend your talent, all the way up to the people who hire the talent and finally to the people who green light the project featuring the talent. The reason gatekeepers is plural as opposed to gatekeeper is because in Hollywood clearly there are many levels of gatekeepers, and many gatekeepers within those individual levels.

The problem of diversity really begins then with the agencies and specifically who works at these agencies. While specific figures are not available for their racial makeup, multiple lawsuits have been filed against major talent agencies including both WME and CAA for alleged racial discrimination in hiring and promotion practices. Agencies remain overwhelmingly White, and still skew male. While agencies have certainly done more in recent years to promote qualified women, few people of color seem to get noticed. This racial makeup is apparent not through personal dealings with agencies, bur rather following promotions in trades and simply reviewing the list of agents on their websites.

Instead of assuming that these organizational structures are inherently prejudiced, I decided to look at an alternate cause for this lack of diversity: compensation. In order to get hired at an agency, you need to generally already have 1-2 years agency experience. In most cases, that experience is through internships while the prospective applicant is still in school. Most of the best internships are all unpaid, in high cost areas and some are even full time without compensation. Yet they all require the intern to be currently pursuing a degree while working these internships.

Very few people not from upper middle class or affluent backgrounds can afford to not work for anything. The mean income for Black households alone hovers around $49k annually according to the most recent census figures available. It does not get much better for Hispanics, whose mean household income is around $54k annually. Compare that with Whites, whose annual mean household income is closer to $80k and you begin to see just how jarring the racial wealth divide is in this country.

Assuming those students of color can find scholarship and other avenues of financial aid, maybe they can still struggle enough to get by in an unpaid internship or two without relying on wealthier parents for help. However, compensation does not get much better when these folks graduate. The entry level salary at the three-letter agencies like WME, UTA or CAA (and the less prestigious ones too) are for a mean salary of $10-$12 an hour… as of 2015! Pretty soon, Los Angeles will have a minimum wage higher than a current mail room clerk at CAA. What makes this wage so difficult to swallow is that most kids without financial help will not be able to cover the cost of living in a New York or LA. So even if a Black man interned with CAA while a student at say, UCLA, he may not be able to afford to even consider this job opportunity. He can’t afford to live in LA for $12 an hour if his family is impoverished and unable to help him financially, because they are living in an impoverished county like San Bernardino or part of the OC.

The barriers to entry are extremely cost prohibitive. It can take anywhere from 5-10 years moving from unpaid intern, to agent trainee or mail room clerk to assistant to junior agent and up to agent. Most of those years people will be paid under $30,000, and under $24,000 after tax for a good portion of those years. Yet while doing work for such a low wage, you are expected to attend drink mixers, dress and look the part and afford rent and cost of living in a New York or LA. The only people that can afford that are those with financial help from parents. When you consider the racial wealth divide in this country, especially at the higher thresholds of the salary bracket, that means White.

A few years ago, notable film critic, mystery Hollywood studio employee and internet sensation Film Critic Hulk talked about how low wages are actually worse than nepotism for kids trying to break into the film industry today, here is what he had to say over on website Birth Movies Death in 2013:

WHILE HULK HATES TO GO HERE, IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO HAVE THIS CONVERSATION ABOUT MONEY WITHOUT COMMENTING ON… WELL, THOSE INDIVIDUALS WHO DO HAVE OR COME FROM MONEY.

SO… THERE ARE A LOT OF COMPLAINTS ABOUT NEPOTISM IN HOLLYWOOD, BUT HULK ASSURES YOU THAT CLASS ITSELF IS THE FAR, FAR BIGGER OBSTACLE. THAT’S BECAUSE THOSE WHO HAVE HELP FROM THEIR PARENTS AFTER COLLEGE ARE AT SUCH AN EXTREME ADVANTAGE OVER THOSE WHO DO NOT. AND THE PROBLEM HAS BECOME SO INGRAINED INTO THE SYSTEM AT LARGE, THAT IT HAS BECOME RATHER HARD TO QUANTIFY. PART OF THE PROBLEM IS THAT THIS INDUSTRY IS SO FULL OF PEOPLE WHO DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT COMING FROM POOR OR WORKING CLASS ENVIRONMENTS IS ACTUALLY LIKE AND HOW IT CAN SEVERELY AFFECT YOUR ABILITY TO MAKE IT. AND SINCE THEY ARE ALL CONGREGATED INTO THE SAME SPHERE OF INFLUENCE WITH EACH OTHER, THEY JUST CAN’T SEE HOW MANY PEOPLE CRASH UP AGAINST THE WALLS AROUND THEM. THEY SIMPLY CAN’T EVEN SEE THE PROBLEM. HULK’S BROUGHT UP THE PROBLEM TIME AND TIME AGAIN, BUT IT’S ALWAYS A NON-STARTER. IT’S JUST SO NATURAL FOR PEOPLE TO SEE THEMSELVES AS MIDDLE CLASS, EVEN IF THEY’RE NOT. IT’S SO NATURAL FOR PEOPLE TO MISS ALL THE HELP THEY’VE GOTTEN AND ADVANTAGES THEY HAD. AND SO THEY THINK HULK IS MAKING UP THIS PROBLEM. BUT IT IS SO VERY, VERY REAL… SO IF YOU ARE ON THE SIDE OF DISADVANTAGE, KNOW WHAT YOU’RE GOING UP AGAINST A SYSTEM THAT IS GOING TO PUNISH YOU FOR IT.

This is the reality for many people of color, because many come from disadvantaged economic backgrounds and cannot afford to work for poverty wages. As a result you wind up with a lack of diversity at the very first level of gatekeeping. With a lack of diversity, comes a lack of diversity in employee referrals, a lack of diverse writers and talent recommended and stories that shape a non-diverse world view. While there are many great White agents and managers seeking diverse talent, there just never seems to be enough of them to make a true impact overall. To truly diversify content, we need to diversify the gatekeepers, and that starts with the agencies. These agencies not only recommend talent to studios, but they also wind up promoting people into gatekeeper roles at production companies and at these studios as well. It is a small industry, built around these non-diverse “spheres of influence” as Hulk put it above.

So from this, talent agencies and production companies need to re-assess their hiring practices. They need to make sure that the wages reflect the cost of living in the cities that they are located in. No one is asking to be paid $60k for an entry level role, but $15 an hour (or $30k per year) is not an unreasonable starting wage for someone in an LA or NY in 2016 — in fact that’s still a struggle wage, but it’s a bit better than what it is now. These companies are very well off, and can more than  afford to pay people a living entry level wage. In addition to reassessing how much they pay people, they need to encourage their HR departments to do more to recruit at public colleges and places where qualified middle and working class applicants may come from. Sticking to employee referrals, pools of unpaid interns at expensive elite colleges is not going to result in diverse applicants, and thus will not result in diverse gatekeepers.

So if we really want to see more people of color nominated for awards, or to have more time on screen, we need to be making changes at the entry level. If non-whites or women from middle and working class backgrounds want to make a difference, but can’t because they cannot afford to starve long enough to succeed in this business, no difference can or will be made. This issue is one that needs to be made front and center in the debate about diversity. For the issue isn’t so much about White and White-Male, it’s about have and have-nots. When White people have held the systemic advantage in socioeconomic standing dating back to the slavery era, then efforts must be made today to allow for equal opportunity at success so that more people can climb out of poverty and make a difference. It’s about investing in the American Dream, and not the dream that only some can afford. That starts with paying people a wage that they can live on independently at the start of their careers, and not five to ten years down the road.