Hollywood powerhouse CAA held its first Amplify conference at the Montage Laguna Beach Wednesday morning with the intention of using its formidable heft to kick open doors for a more diverse group of storytellers, performers and leaders. The agency brought an A-plus list crowd — people who can actually help make that objective happen — to have that conversation.
And as Ava DuVernay, the director of “Selma” and Disney’s upcoming “A Wrinkle in Time” said in a conversation with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” helmer J.J. Abrams, part of opening those doors is building a better understanding, and gaining trust, from the gatekeepers.
“The reason I felt confident about walking into Disney and kind of negotiating how I wanted to make this big ol’ movie is because I knew them,” DuVernay said. “I was able to walk in there like a white man does.”
The conference at the Montage Laguna Beach had a star-studded roster of Hollywood, politics and sports figures, including former Universal boss Ron Meyer, former Obama administration officials Valerie Jarrett, Susan Rice and Van Jones, activist and podcaster DeRay Mckesson, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, as well as DuVernay and Abrams.
CAA President Richard Lovett opened the proceedings by talking about genesis of the conference — which was born from remarks DreamWorks Animation Chairwoman Mellody Hobson made at a long-ago CAA retreat.
“She told us stories of her personal experiences and it was a wakeup call for our organization,” Lovett said. “The stories were powerful and deep and real.”
At the event, Hobson told a story of when she went to DreamWorks honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg because she did not see someone that looked like her on one of the company’s film posters.
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“Mellody finished up her remarks by challenging us, is everybody in the room?” Lovett said. “We adopted that as a battle cry. And today, everybody is in the room.”
CAA’s Talitha Watkins and Ashley Holland presented some data showing the economic upside of diversity in casting.
“One of the things that most closely correlated with audience diversity was cast diversity,” she said. “This is true at every budget level and across genres.”
Holland mentioned the competition among shows designed for white audiences is stiff –but underserved demographics like African-Americans and Latinos provide an avenue for monster ratings. Just look at Fox’s “Empire.”
“‘Empire’ is essentially the Super Bowl for black people,” she said. “30 percent of black people who are choosing to watch TV at that time are choosing to watch that show.”
DuVernay got her start in TV after winning the Sundance award for best director for 2011’s “Middle of Nowhere,” and getting “no movie offers or anything like that” after. Shonda Rhimes offered DuVernay a chance to direct an episode of her ABC hit “Scandal,” helping her along her current stratospheric ascent to directing a Disney tentpole.
Abrams, who has been at the forefront of casting a diverse set of headliners — as DuVernay pointed out when she mentioned his hit TV show “Lost” — mentioned some pushback he got when making his upcoming horror movie, “Overlord,” about historical inaccuracies in what’s essentially a sci-fi fantasy.
“It’s World War II so there wouldn’t be black soldiers,” Abrams said, relaying the concerns of studio execs. “But there weren’t zombies, either.”
He also vented about Hollywood’s pigeonholing of movies with several cast members of color as “urban” films.
“Nothing offends me more than when I meet with studio heads and they tell me, ‘these are the urban movies we’re making.'” he added.
Abrams pointed to the ascent of filmmakers like DuVernay and “Get Out” writer/director Jordan Peele as proof diverse voices are needed in Hollywood — and are good for business.
“Look at the last five years to see what happens when someone who hasn’t been given a shot is given a shot,” he said.