Helping Hollywood avoid claims of bias is now a growing business

In the summer of 2020, shortly after the murder of George Floyd sparked a racial reckoning in America, Carri Twigg’s phone kept ringing.

Ms. Twigg, founding partner of a production company called Culture House, was asked time and time again if she could take one look at a TV or movie script and raise any red flags, especially about race.

Culture House, which primarily employs women of color, has traditionally specialized in documentaries. But after a few months of responding to requests for scripts, they decided to turn it into a business: they opened a new division dedicated exclusively to consulting work.

“The frequency of searches was not decreasing,” said Ms Twigg. “It was like, oh, we need to make this a real thing that we consistently deliver, and get paid for.”

Although the company has been consulting for just over a year, for clients including Paramount Pictures, MTV and Disney, that work now accounts for 30 percent of Culture House’s revenue.

The House of Culture is not alone. In recent years, entertainment executives have made a commitment to genuinely commit to diversity, yet are still routinely criticized for failing to deliver. To signal that they are taking steps to address the problem, Hollywood studios have signed contracts with numerous businesses and non-profit organizations to help them avoid the reputational damage that comes with a movie or TV show episode facing accusations of bias.

“When a great idea comes along and then only gets talked about because of the social implications, it must be heartbreaking for creators who put years into something,” said Ms Twigg. “Bringing him out into the world and the only thing anyone wants to talk about is the ways he fell short. So we’re trying to help that not happen.”

Consulting work covers the full range of a production. Consulting firms are sometimes asked about casting decisions as well as marketing plans. And they can also read scripts to look for examples of bias and examine how characters are positioned in a story.

“It’s not just about what the characters say, it’s also about when they don’t speak,” said Ms. Twigg. “It’s like, ‘Hey, there’s not enough agency for this character, you’re using this character as an embellishment, you’re going to get criticized for that.'”

When a consulting firm is on hold, it can also come with a guaranteed check every month from a study. And it’s a newly developed stream of income.

“It really exploded in the last two years or so,” said Michelle K. Sugihara, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment. The group, called CAPE, services some of Hollywood’s biggest studios, including Netflix, Paramount, Amazon and Sony.

Of the 100 projects CAPE has consulted on, Sugihara said, about 80 percent have come since 2020, and “really increased” after the Atlanta spa shootings in March 2021. “That really increased attention in our community,” he said. she said she.

Ms. Sugihara said that her group could be actively involved throughout the production process. In one example, she said she told a studio that all the actors playing the heroes in an upcoming scripted project appeared to be fair-skinned East Asians, while the villains were played by fair-skinned East Asians. darker.

“That is a red flag,” he said. “And we should talk about how those images can be harmful. Sometimes they’re things that people aren’t even aware of until you point them out.”

Ms. Sugihara did not mention the name of the project or the studio behind it. In interviews, many cited confidentiality agreements with studios and a reluctance to embarrass a filmmaker as reasons they couldn’t divulge details.

Sarah Kate Ellis, president of GLAAD, the LGBTQ advocacy organization, said her group had been consulting informally for years with networks and studios. Ultimately, she decided to start charging studios for her work, which she likened to “billable hours.”

“Here we were consulting with all these content creators in Hollywood and we didn’t get compensated,” said Ms. Ellis, the organization’s president since 2013. “When I started at GLAAD, we couldn’t pay our bills. And meanwhile here we are with the biggest studios and networks in the world, helping them tell stories that were successful. And I said this doesn’t make sense.”

In 2018, he created the GLAAD Media Institute: if networks or studios wanted help in the future, they would have to become paid members of the institute.

Initially, there was a bit of pushback, but networks and studios eventually embraced it. As of 2018, there were no members of the GLAAD Media Institute. By the end of 2021, that number had risen to 58, and nearly every major Hollywood studio and network is now a paying member.

Scott Turner Schofield, who spent some time consulting for GLAAD, has also been advising networks and studios on how to accurately represent transgender people for years. But he said work had increased so significantly in recent years that he was hired as an executive producer for an upcoming horror film produced by Blumhouse.

“I went from being someone who was a part-time consultant, barely scraping by, to being an executive producer,” he said.

Interviewees said it was a win-win arrangement between the consultants and the studios.

“At the end of the day, studios want to produce content but they want to make money,” said Rashad Robinson, president of the advocacy organization Color of Change. “Making money can be impeded by poor decisions and not having the right people at the table. So studios are going to want to look for that.”

However, he warned that simply hiring consultants was not an adequate substitute for the structural change that many advocates want to see in Hollywood.

“This does not change the rules about who produces content and who makes the final decisions on what goes on the air,” he said. “It’s fine to bring in people from the outside, but that ultimately falls short of the fact that in the entire entertainment industry there’s still a problem in terms of there not being enough powerful black and brown people in the executive ranks.”

Still, the burgeoning field of cultural consulting work may be here to stay. Ms Twigg, who helped found Culture House with Raeshem Nijhon and Nicole Galovski, said the volume of requests she was receiving was “illustrative of how seriously they are taken and how integrally they are woven into the fabric of do business.”

“From a business standpoint, it’s a way to capitalize on the experience that we’ve built up as people of color who have lived in America for 30 or 40 years,” he said.

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