This article will explore how the film and television industry will have to change to keep up with the pace of our country’s demographic changes. Instead of following the previous articles’ format, I decided to change it up a bit. Today, I’m telling the story of two trailblazers working to make Hollywood more diverse, one project at a time.
The year was 2009, and Katie Elmore, then Communication and Development VP at a non-profit in Vermont, partnered with writers Carlos Portugal and Kathleen Bedoya to come up with a drama series focused on Latinx teens’ living in East Los Angeles titled East Los High (ELH). Later in the process, she partnered with Brazilian producer Mauricio Mota to strategize how the show could be distributed.
They were passionate about the idea; after all, they felt that despite the demographic growth of the community in the U.S., they were not seeing enough stories coming out of Hollywood that portray the dreams, lives, struggles, and aspirations from the perspective of U.S.-born Latinx youth.
With a creative take fueled by demographic tools, qualitative and quantitative data, and insights provided by partnering with non-profits, foundations and community leaders all over the country, Katie and Mauricio started knocking on every possible door. Meeting after meeting the response was the same – “interesting idea, but we’re not interested in producing it.” Some went a step further and suggested that they would consider producing it if the show was made to be “less Latino” and with an ensemble cast.
The ELH team was facing a dilemma – either compromise on their vision to see their dream become a reality or continue the creative hustle, maintaining the artistic integrity of the idea. They decided to go with the latter.
Katie spent a long-time raising funds through grants and donations, and they decided to write and produce 24 episodes of the show and many hours of digital content for the show’s social media channels on a shoestring budget. After many conversations with possible buyers, Hulu emerged the most compelling one.
Hulu launched ELH on June 13, 2013, and to everyone’s surprise, two weeks later, it beat Grey’s Anatomy on the platform. Sixty episodes and six Emmys and Cannes Lions later,this year is the seventh anniversary of ELH ‘s debut. Despite ending in 2017, the show is still watched by new audiences all over the world.
The story of ELH is probably similar to a lot of other stories that represent minority creators and producers in this country, albeit one that had the opportunity to be produced. I spoke with Mauricio Mota about the experience described above and here’s a summary of our conversation:
Isaac Mizrahi: Reflecting on your journey to produce ELH, what were your key learnings?
Mauricio Mota: That Hollywood, and many marketers as well, are still in the business of renting or buying audiences instead of developing them. That makes them ignore underserved audiences and become dependent on established media players.
Another important lesson is that you should not create a compelling story without creating an ecosystem around it that will keep it alive by the connections it will make with fans. And when you partner with NGOs, foundations, community leaders, and activists, don’t do that for lip service – they are more powerful and insightful than you can imagine. We owe a lot of our achievements to those partnerships.
Mizrahi: Do you think that today, in 2020, you’d have a better environment to sell ELH? Why?
Mota: I don’t know. Maybe with the sudden “awakening” of Hollywood and advertisers, yes. But I still think that Latinx youth are taken for granted or simply ignored. So, I would say 50/50.
Mizrahi: How do you think Hollywood will adapt to America’s new minority-majority in the years and decades to come?
Mota: It will adapt slowly while other platforms and media like social media, gaming, comic books, publishing, and maybe brands catch up and design hundreds of Intellectual Properties and experiences that they will have to pay extra to tap into. But let’s see. I hope I’m wrong.
Our second protagonist is Deniese Davis, Cofounder and COO or ColorCreative Inc., and Producer at Issa Rae Productions.
Deniese has been involved in several top shows, including HBO’s Insecure, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl and A Black Lady Sketch Show. Moreover, Deniese has been one of the country’s leading voices pushing for the increase of diversity in films and TV. Below is an edited summary of our conversation:
Isaac Mizrahi: Are stories told from a diverse set of lenses attractive enough to all consumers?
Deniese Davis: Absolutely. For decades, minorities in America have been watching and enjoying the content on large and small screens written, produced, directed, and acted by white Caucasian professionals. I believe content told from a multicultural perspective has significant relatability power, and this will make these stories more interesting.
Mizrahi: Despite some recent progress on the inclusion of diverse storytelling in Hollywood, what’s still missing?
Davis: Diverse ownership. I believe we need to continue the evolution and have diverse creative minds sitting at the table not as “talent-to-hire,” but as investors. We need more diverse ownership in production companies and studios as a way to increase the amount of diversity in our industry, on and off-screen.
Mizrahi: How hard was it for you to succeed as a Black producer in an environment notorious for its lack of diversity?
Davis: Extremely hard, even though I knew what I wanted to be and what I wanted to do, and I had very few role models to inspire me and guide me. That’s why I take full responsibility to mentor and coach young diverse talent. I am a true believer in always leaving the door open for a new professional relationship as a way to counter an industry with so many barriers to entry.
Mizrahi: To conclude, how do you see the concept of “allyship” applied to Hollywood?
Davis: I am a big believer in the idea of different minority groups working together. I believe we will see more of this type of collaboration in the years to come; first, because we will have strength in numbers, amplifying our voice. Moreover, when you’re from a diverse segment, you bring a sense of respect and understanding from different angles and distinct stories.
The challenge to make Hollywood more diverse is significant. It has several different dimensions, from the space for young talent to tell their stories from a distinct perspective to the whole ecosystem that includes producers, studios, and off-screen and on-screen casting that help to make these stories feel genuine.
But progress is palatable, with more competition for content and fragmentation of media choices, consumers today have more access to a different types of content than ever. And based on America’s demographics and cultural trends that value the power of authentic stories, the demand for diversity creators in Hollywood will only increase in the years to come.
Like other areas of our society, there will be a competition for talent that can guide the industry to adapt and change. This is extremely important as decisions based on misconceived ideas will cost money and reputation. It’s time for a paradigm shift, as minorities become the majority Hollywood better be ready to change the script!