Towards a More Representative Media Landscape

Upoma Dutta, Editor-in-Chief

Upoma Dutta (MBA ’21) talks with Brickson Diamond and Sarah Harden (MBAs ’99) about their efforts to advance the diversity and inclusion agenda in the U.S. media industry.

For many RCs, one of the most remarkable experiences on campus last semester was listening first-hand to civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson in the newly created ISDL (Interpersonal Skills Development Lab). Two principles from Stevenson’s powerful message particularly hit home for me: in order to change the world around us, we need to get “proximate” to those who are disempowered, and we need to “change the narratives” that perpetuate and sustain systematic inequality. Stevenson’s heroic fight for justice is fittingly documented in the Michael B. Jordan-starrer Just Mercy, a new movie that has raised dialogues on inclusion, both on and off the screen.

I have long believed that stories, be they books, movies, TV shows or even video games, present a unique opportunity for us to get “proximate” to people from different walks of life and change narratives for the better. Even while growing up in a different time and a different place, I have found myself feeling helpless and vulnerable for the victims of the Holocaust and the Vietnam War—in large part because movies like Schindler’s List and Forrest Gump did exceptional jobs of bringing the events from history textbooks to life.

Despite Hollywood’s celebrated past, many stories and voices still remain under-represented in the industry. A USC Annenberg study found that people of color—despite making up 40% of the U.S. population—represented the lead or co-lead characters in just 27 of the top 100 films of 2018 while women—despite making up just over half of the population—represented leads or co-leads in only 39 of the films. Other studies show that the statistics only marginally improve for scripted series on television. Moreover, people of color, women and LGBTQ individuals remain under-represented in key roles behind the camera, including writers, directors and producers. 

However, the past decade—especially the latter half—could have been the tipping point for diversity and inclusion in the U.S. media and entertainment industry. This is partly facilitated by a series of high-profile gains for diversity in the arena of awards and box-office dollars, the two KPIs that the industry prizes most. Since 2015, only television series with women leads have won the Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Comedy Series. In 2017, A24’s Moonlight became the first all-black cast movie and the first LGBTQ-themed movie to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. In 2018, the enormous global box-office success of Marvel’s Black Panther shattered the long-standing Hollywood myth that “black films don’t travel.”

Farewell from Chinese-American director Lulu Wang and Parasite from South Korean director Bong Joon-ho are among the movies receiving a lot of buzz in awards circle this season,” Brickson Diamond (MBA ’99) tells me. “Even a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable for a movie with only Chinese characters and a movie in Korean to become big sensations in the U.S., but the growing recognition of Black stories and Black artists has helped to soften the ground for other stories with diverse perspectives to find a platform.”

Diamond is the co-founder of The Blackhouse Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports Black filmmakers and showcases their work in major film festivals, thereby helping them land distribution deals. While building a successful career in asset management, Diamond was struck by the “alarming absence of diversity” at Sundance and started the nonprofit to help close the gap. Last year, more than 40 films by Black artists were screened at Sundance—up from seven in 2007, the year The Blackhouse launched.

Growing diversity in film festivals is also a manifestation of the challenge faced by studios to find content that breaks out in an increasingly crowded field. And the competition for eyeballs is not just limited to films: according to the latest report from FX, the number of scripted television series in the U.S. hit 532 last year, up from 182 a decade earlier. Meanwhile, the U.S. population has grown by less than 10% over the same period.

“It has never been harder to get the attention of consumers,” Sarah Harden (MBA ’99) notes. “In this era of peak TV and streaming wars, if you leave key constituents—women and people of color—out of the authorship process, you will undoubtedly have blind spots in connecting with consumers.”

Harden is the CEO of Hello Sunshine, Reese Witherspoon’s media and content company that is behind female-led prestige dramas like Big Little Lies and The Morning Show. After years of building media brands targeting specific audience segments, Harden recognized that the gap in strong female protagonists on TV also presented a unique business opportunity and became excited at the idea of partnering with Witherspoon to “put women at the center of every narrative.”

“Portrayals of women on screen often do not reflect the world around us, partly because women severely under-index when it comes to the authorship process,” Harden elaborates. “Even with recent gains, only around 10% of film directors are women. And less than 20% of those are women of color. So, we look at books with incredible female protagonists and we look at women with agency driving the story. We also lean towards stories with themes that mirror women’s lived experiences. The upcoming Little Fires Everywhere, for example, is an incredible story dealing with themes of female identity, race and motherhood. And then we try to find the right creative partners—in this case partnering with Kerry Washington as a producer and a co-lead with Reese—to create the best writers’ room and production experience to bring the stories to life in the most excellent way possible.”

While representation in writers’ room is important, Diamond points to a key structural challenge in the industry—low entry-level wages—that discourages racial minorities from entering the creative pipeline in the first place. “The jobs that have the most potential—such as writers’ assistants—often pay the least, and that early income deficiency is a huge impediment to drawing people who don’t come from privilege. Despite their passion, high-potential young people from minority backgrounds—who don’t have families to bankroll them for a few years—find themselves deflecting to higher-paying jobs on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley.”

For others determined to rise in the industry, the proliferation of distribution platforms creates an opportunity to find early success. “The ecosystem of online self-distribution is now allowing artists with sheer talent to find a sizable audience,” Diamond adds. “Issa Rae, for example, found her first breakout hit in the form of Awkward Black Girl, a web series on YouTube, that was authentic to her expression as a writer and an actor. The success of the series then created opportunities for her to transition to more traditional platforms like HBO.” 

While audience demand for diverse voices has never been higher, Harden observes that systematic improvement in equality requires support from all stakeholders in the ecosystem. One such stakeholder group is critics and entertainment reporters. “The vast majority of reviews are written by white males, which inevitably leads to implicit biases against stories on women and people of color. This is an issue that Time’s Up [a nonprofit formed in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement] is now beginning to address. Since reviews influence audience reception and awards nominations, it is important that the make-up of critics better reflect the audience segments we are serving.”

Despite the current challenges, both Diamond and Harden—who are friends from the same HBS class and who regularly draw on each other for advice and inspiration—agree that there is a strong case for optimism and higher expectations.

“I’m very encouraged by the expansion of the palette of what people believe audiences will buy,” Diamond says with excitement. “I look forward to the day when we, as communities of color, do not only get the support to tell stories about us but also get a shot at telling stories that are not about us at all. Stories about the major issues of this country. I believe we are equally capable of telling those stories.”

“The opposite of patriarchy is not matriarchy—it’s equality,” Harden reminds me. “We need women and men to work together to improve representation for women on screen. But we must not stop at just representation. The representation must come with power—exemplified by a higher proportion of women making decisions in the writers’ room, the boardroom and the senior executive ranks.”

Upoma Dutta (MBA ’21) came to HBS after spending roughly four years in the media and entertainment industry in New York, where she helped two media companies (HBO and Disney) transition into the streaming era and build on new strategic growth opportunities. Originally from Bangladesh, she also worked for the International Finance Corporation (World Bank Group) early in her career to promote financial inclusion and financial sector stability in South Asia. She holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from The Institute of Business Administration, University of Dhaka.