Conversations about Hollywood’s diversity problem often circle back to one point: Change the gatekeepers. But what if the path forward actually circumvents those traditional gatekeepers entirely?
“If you ever want to know where the evolution of the entertainment business is going, distribution-wise, just look at the porn industry and the sex work industry,” said “Russian Doll” creator Leslye Headland at TheWrap’s annual Power Women’s Summit on Tuesday. “As soon as porn became democratized and algorithm-based, I just thought … ‘Yeah, that’s the next thing.'”
“With OnlyFans, I got very excited because I started to think, maybe there won’t be any gatekeepers,” she continued. “These are things that could be really exciting for marginalized communities or artists.”
Headland’s comments came during the “Creators, Showrunners, Producers” panel discussing ways Hollywood can take concrete steps toward a more inclusive future. She was joined on the panel by David Collins (“Queer Eye”), Smriti Mundhra (“Indian Matchmaking”), Liz Tigelaar (“Little Fires Everywhere”), Tanya Saracho (“Vida”), Elle Johnson (“Self Made”) and Ilana Pena (“Diary of a Future President”).
Throughout the conversation, the panelists discussed the ways they’ve tried to nudge the industry to include more “marginalized” voices, but Mundhra sought to reframe the issue: “I would rather think of all of us as money that the industry has left on the table because of its own blindness and opportunities that have been slept on that people are now waking up to,” she said.
“My career, my whole purpose, everything that I do, is to prove that my perspective and the perspectives of other people who have been ignored for a long time are not niche,” she said. “Our stories are global, [and] our perspectives are relatable.”
Tigelaar shared an anecdote about purposefully putting together a diverse cast and crew for “Little Fires Everywhere” and then finding herself in the position of having to defend the show’s authenticity to a group of executives who couldn’t relate to the material they produced.
“You have a bunch of people who have no relationship to this experience giving you these notes,” she said. “We can do all this work on shows — voices that normally don’t get to tell their stories get to tell their stories — but there has to be change on this whole other systemic level for those stories to go up the chain and not be questioned.”
And in the era of streaming, storytellers aren’t just contending with executives anymore. The ever-mysterious algorithm also has the ability to shape what kinds of shows get made, only with less obvious blindspots and biases.
Saracho said she recently looked at a list of projects that an unnamed streamer wouldn’t buy because the algorithm predicted they wouldn’t hit with users. “It was so offensive,” she said, recalling the racial and cultural specificity of the algorithm’s conclusions.
“I think the algorithm, I think it cuts both ways,” added Mundhra. “It’s definitely alarming when at the peak of the George Floyd/Breonna Taylor protests, the number one trending content was ‘The Help.’ That’s a little scary peek into what the algorithm reveals. But would the algorithm have told us that people would love a show about four twenty-, thirty-somethings in New York City, and it’s a show about nothing? Would the algorithm have predicted that?”
“The algorithm has to be one tool in a series of things that we use to decide what’s going to get greenlit and what’s going to get made,” she continued. “The algorithm can be informative and hopefully reinforce what is working, but I don’t think we should be beholden to an algorithm because then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
The panelists did agree, however, that as much as the industry itself will or will not change, it is the job of creators and showrunners to focus on producing the highest-quality content with the best chance of breaking through.
“You’ve got to go where the heat of the story is, where your interest lies, where your passion is,” said Johnson. “This is just too hard to do if you’re not into the stories you’re telling.”
Check out excerpts from the showrunners’ panel above and watch the full panel here.
The Power Women Summit, presented by the WrapWomen Foundation, is the largest annual gathering of the most influential women in entertainment, media and technology. The Summit aims to inspire and empower women across the landscape of their professional careers and personal lives. This year’s all-virtual PWS provides three days of education, mentorship, workshops and networking around the globe to promote “Inclusion 360,” this year’s theme.