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The Women of CAA in the Eye of the Storm

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Four days before the 2018 Academy Awards, at an intersection a few blocks away from the Dolby Theatre, a different type of gold statue appeared: a life-size Harvey Weinstein. Titled Casting Couch, it depicted a seated, bare-chested Weinstein, one hand hovering ominously over the belt of his robe. Whether he was in the act of closing or opening it depended on how you felt about Hollywood. In the five months since Weinstein was brought down by the testimonies of his victims in The New York Times and The New Yorker, Casting Couch was a well-timed reminder ahead of the industry’s biggest night that the producer was once its golden god—before it finally tossed him out.

But a steady rain washed Casting Couch from its corner before the Oscars began, which served as a different kind of reminder—that of the sweeping tide of voices that had turned on Weinstein and on many men after him: a rousing chorus of the women of Hollywood. They were actresses, writers, producers, and directors, both past and present, some popular and some heretofore forgotten. They were women who walk down red carpets and command crews, writers rooms, and increasingly high (if not yet quite equal) salaries; but they were also, crucially, agents, those behind-the-scenes wheeler-dealers found in the background of almost every silver screen success—and, America had learned, more than their fair share of casting couch degradations.

Four powerhouse female agents and agency executives—Maha Dakhil, Michelle Kydd Lee, Hylda Queally, and Christy Haubegger, who are among the agents Vogue photographed here—were some of the first industry heavyweights who scrambled to react structurally to Weinstein’s fall from power, and the gender-based discrimination, abuse, and harassment it exposed, with the creation of Time’s Up. They were among the 300 total women in entertainment who established a legal defense fund that has since amassed more than $20 million for low-income women to secure representation in workplace disputes. Time’s Up (the industry-specific sister to its predecessor, Tarana Burke’s Me Too movement, with its dress codes, its pins, and its hashtags, has become shorthand for Hollywood’s burgeoning feminist transformation).

But Dakhil, Kydd Lee, Queally, and Haubegger also happen to work for the behemoth Creative Artists Agency (CAA), so closely associated with Weinstein during the height of his clout that the company was named as part of his “complicity machine” by The New York Times. At least eight CAA agents, according to the paper, had been informed by their clients of Weinstein’s behavior over the years and had not taken action (CAA issued an unprecedented apology not long after the revelations, to “any person the agency let down . . . as individuals and as a company”). It was notable to many, when Time’s Up launched on New Year’s Day 2018, that some of its founding female members worked in a place that had once enabled Weinstein’s predation. In early March, The Hollywood Reporter ran a story that quoted anonymous sources suggesting that CAA was using Time’s Up meetings as a place to poach other agencies’ clients; that the agency was attempting to “inoculate itself” against questions about its ties to Weinstein; that the movement had become cliquey (favoring movie stars and farmworkers, according to one source); and that it lacked direction, which some attributed to “growing pains.” (In response, CAA cited the $21 million it has raised from 20,000 donors across 80 countries in 60 days for Time’s Up, and said in a statement that “the work we have done for Time’s Up has not only been heartfelt and deeply meaningful, but it is also consistent with our decades-long commitment to social action and community involvement.”)

When she started at CAA in 2003, talent agent Haubegger says, “Most of the interns were people who had conspicuously important last names.” Similarly, the demographic breakdown of the agency’s client list “looked a lot like the agents.” The Times investigation included a photo of CAA in 1999 that illustrates her point: Six agents in suits pose triumphantly on the roof of a building—all men, all white. Twenty years later, Hollywood is determined to put the CAA of Weinstein’s era in the rear view. As the 12 prominent female superagents and executives who were photographed by Nigel Shafran for Vogue depict, the company has moved far beyond its demographic origins. And if you ask the women of CAA, the changes demanded by Time’s Up have long been on their personal agendas, now and throughout their careers. When the call came to figure out just what could be done to prevent another Harvey Weinstein, they were ready.

The women of CAA complicate the big-talking, power-brokering professionals that Americans have known mostly in caricature—and as men—in Jerry Maguire, Entourage, and elsewhere. They understand how powerful, and marketable, the desire Americans have to see themselves on-screen and in public life is, and who those Americans actually are. “Now, more than ever, we have the responsibility to support projects that reflect the world in which we live,” says CAA talent executive Queally. “Audiences should be able to relate to the characters and stories they see on-screen.” CAA’s Motion Picture Diversity Index, which the agency commissioned in 2017 to analyze more than 500 films since 2014, proved, they say, that “diverse casting” is financially viable, now they can cite last year’s Wonder Woman and this year’s Black Panther as examples. But they’re not the only ones to understand that storytelling from the margins is a powerful branding strategy: With his company, Miramax, Weinstein pioneered a model for indie films, even those powered by “strong female characters” that made it big, which also gave him, a serial offender, access to vulnerable women under the guise of being their champion. Which raises the question: How do we move beyond a version of diversity and feminism that’s just another branding opportunity? “We realize [that],” Haubegger says, “ ‘Oh, you can make a lot of money when a woman tells a story, or a person of color tells a story.’ How do we get more? Well, we actually have to address the other structural issues around it.” Says Thao Nguyen, an art, architecture, and design agent at CAA: “The work for inclusion is constant, not just in this moment of recognition. It’s committing to bringing awareness to it in every layer of work, every day.”

And speaking of which, it was just at this year’s Oscars that Frances McDormand set the Internet alight by mentioning something called an “inclusion rider” during her acceptance speech for Best Actress. Essentially an equity clause in a contract, it can be used to stipulate that the cast and crew of a film should more accurately reflect the demography of real life. It’s also something that would likely be negotiated by one of those Hollywood agents you hear about. McDormand’s transparency, her nod to female solidarity and, of all things, contract law, capped off a confused if joyful night in which the industry was trying to understand its own transformative potential. “It’s a weekend; it’s an inflection point; it’s a momentary stop on a long journey,” said Haubegger, ahead of the ceremony. But the momentum is there. “We are not accepting the status quo we have inherited from patriarchal legacy,” says Dakhil. “Now is the time to question everything and rewrite the answers together, men, women, all gender identities, all colors, all walks of life. Why accept the way it’s always been done? Bring in the good. Bring in the new.”

From Superhero Shows to Soaps, South Asian Actors Are Taking Over TV

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Typically, South Asian-American TV characters tend to be terrorists, funny foreigners, or quirky best friends. But while several South Asian-American actors have been cast to play sidekicks on this year’s crop of pilots—and even more of them are playing doctors, another stereotype—other roles are breaking the mold. Mouzam Makkar is a lead on ABC’s The Fix, a traditional law drama from the mind of Marcia Clark. Sarayu Blue leads an NBC sitcom about a video-game storyboard artist trying to “have it all.” Vinny Chhibber plays a gay teacher in CBS’s Red Line. Kosha Patel was cast as a lead in ABC’s “comedic soap” False Profits, alongside Vanessa Williams, Bellamy Young, and newcomer Kapil Talwalkar.

The crop also includes CBS’s Pandas in New York, the rare domestic comedy about an Indian-American family—yes, they’re all doctors—and ABC’s The Greatest American Hero reboot, which has been rejiggered to feature TV’s first female Indian-American superhero, played by New Girl’s Hannah Simone.

Not all of these programs will make it to air—but The Greatest American Hero seems like a safe bet for a fall pickup. “Hannah was one of the most sought-after actresses this year. She had multiple offers on the table,” says Claudia Lyon, V.P. of talent and casting at ABC Studios, in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “The broadcast networks need to appeal to broad audiences. So when you cast Hannah Simone, that’s like a game changer.”

An in-demand South Asian-American actress, doing a network TV show created by and produced by South Asian-Americans? We’ve come a long way from the 80s and 90s, when the most prominent Indian face on TV was Apu from The Simpsons—a two-dimensional character comedian Hari Kondabolu has memorably described as “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.” And while shows created by white people often still lean on stereotypes when they feature brown characters—arranged marriage comes up frequently—brown creators have been leading the charge for something different.

Lyon, who describes herself as “half Indian, half Hispanic,” traces this tectonic shift to The Office’s Mindy Kaling-written “Diwali” episode, which aired in 2006. Kaling cast her own parents in the half hour, which centered on a ceremony that most Indian Hindus would recognize: a puja celebrating the festival of lights. It was broad enough not to alienate non-Indian audiences, while still incorporating details that would feel viscerally familiar to anyone who shares Kaling’s background—the sumptuous clothing, the food setup, the Bollywood soundtrack mixed with Beyoncé.

Broti Gupta, a comedian and writer for Netflix’s Friends from College, also cites Kaling as an inspiration—particularly for the way her character on The Office, airheaded Kelly Kapoor, subverted expectations audiences may have had for an Indian-American woman.

“When she’s asked to explain what Diwali is about, she’s like, ‘I don’t know; I don’t care,’” says Gupta. “There’s something so honest about [that] . . . you ask me what the history of Diwali is, I will Google it on my phone.”

Kaling pulled off the same thing on her next show, The Mindy Project, which launched on Fox in 2012 and aired its final episode on Hulu last November. “It wasn’t about going and telling an Indian story,” says Lyon. “It wasn’t ‘My parents won’t let me do this or that,’ or ‘I’m really shy or socially awkward.’” Aziz Ansari followed a similar trajectory, first playing attention-seeking Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation—a character whose background partially mirrored Ansari’s own—then creating and starring in the more ambitious Netflix series Master of None, which premiered in 2015.

It can feel like the surge in South Asian representation on TV happened suddenly—“but it’s definitely been a process in the time that I’ve been working in television,” Lyon says. For example: ABC has been tracking former Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi “for years,” but it wasn’t until he auditioned for cop drama The Mission that the network felt they’d found the right role for him.

That series engaged in color-blind casting, which matches actors with roles without considering their ethnicities. But other ABC pilots took a more deliberate approach: the role that Patel plays in False Profits, for example, was specifically written for a South Asian woman. They found Patel through the diversity-focused ABC talent showcase, which counts Lupita Nyong’o among its alumni. The program is designed to pay dividends for the network: “You might not cast someone you I.D. this year, but it’s the long game,” Lyon explains. “[So] when a show like The Greatest American Hero gets picked up, we have people.”

Gupta also sees the shift in casting as the result of South Asian-American creators finding more platforms for their work online, on TV, and in film—as Kumail Nanjiani did with his Oscar-nominated comedy The Big Sick. “Online, there are just so many ways for people to create their own space to tell stories that we haven’t seen otherwise,” she says. Gupta herself found representation after writing humor columns for The New Yorker’s Shouts & Murmurs section.

Those who have been keeping an eye on the state of South Asian-American representation in TV know that these actors have become increasingly visible in recent years. But this pilot season could be something of a watershed. And perhaps next year, there’ll be a new story to tell: one about South Asian-American actors, writers, and producers entering an arena in which their presence is the norm, not the exception. And with that will come new levels of representation—not one narrative told over and over again, but a breadth of increasingly specific stories. “It won’t be: ‘this is the Indian-American experience,’” says Gupta. “We’re going to see regional differences; we’re going to see very specific identities that we, as a community, understand—but that the global platform has never seen.”

Not every woman who’s sexual is a size 2 or walking like a supermodel

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The room hushed. And Viola Davis began to speak.

In a rousing end to opening night of the 9th annual Women in the World Summit, Viola Davis discussed equality in Hollywood, the long-lasting effects of sexual assault, and her urge to tell human stories — not just ones with a social message.

The push for equality in Hollywood has already created change, the acclaimed actress said in conversation with MSNBC host and author Joy-Ann Reid. “I do see a moment becoming a movement,” Davis said, noting that people are looking for female-driven narratives and are more conscious about hiring female directors. “Women are much more aggressive out there in terms of getting what they want.”

But what Davis wants to focus her laser-sharp eyes on isn’t the red carpet — it’s the personal aspects of sexual assault.

“Listen, I’m an actress. I want my Sophie’s Choice. I want to be in a great John Ford movie. I want be the black girl accepting her third and fourth Oscar. I have those visions, I have those dreams. But I want to reiterate to people that I don’t want what’s going on in Hollywood to be a metaphor for what the movement is,” she said. “Once that sexual assault happens, women always say that that’s the day they died,” with long-lasting issues like body dysmorphia and suicide rates traced back to sexual assault.

Davis wants to focus on the 15-year-old abuse survivor, bringing her from that traumatic moment to getting a rape kit, to healing, becoming a survivor and finally an overcomer. “We have 324 million people in this country and 51 percent are women, and when one is traumatized, it escalates into rage issues, all kinds of things. That to me is appalling. That’s the sweet spot. It’s not just about an actress wanting to promote her career.”

The reason it’s so easy to turn a blind eye to these stories, Davis mused, is because American culture looks to entertainment for escape — and Hollywood has spent decades watering down real issues to make it palatable to people who just want to munch their popcorn, swig their Diet Coke and eat Sour Patch Kids.

Moviegoers who make up the prime demographic for box office receipts — males between the ages of 18 and 34 — don’t want to see a woman who has been sexually assaulted or has PTSD, Davis said. Rather than a complete woman, they’re shown figments of fantasy.

That’s also why this triple-threat, award-winning actress says she still struggles to be seen as someone other than the black Meryl Streep. “Jim Crow did a job on us,” she said, pointing to post-slavery policies that essentially kept African Americans in a new type of bondage. “So when you have me coming in as someone’s love interest, it doesn’t compute, because no one thinks I’m pretty, no one thinks a black woman darker than a paper bag is pretty. They don’t think she’s sexual, they think she’s more mannish, they associate her with more ‘earthy’ and ‘soulful’ and ‘sassy.’ ‘I see you more with an apron than rolling around in bed with someone,” she says. “That’s the American mindset and what it’s done is it’s seeped into art.”

That’s why she fought for Annalise Keating, her groundbreaking character in How to Get Away with Murder, to remove her wig in the first episode, solidifying her as a real woman, not one with flawless makeup who’s described as “cold” without reason. “I felt like if I took that wig off, and if I do this show for seven years, then it’s going to force the writer to write the woman,” she says. “And I know women. I’m sorry, not every woman who’s sexual is a size two. Not every women who’s sexual is walking like a supermodel, and not every women who’s sexual is lighter than a paper bag.”

Viola Davis and Joy-Ann Reid onstage at the Women in the World Summit in New York City.

The box office smash Black Panther revealed black audiences can open a movie, Davis pointed out — and she added that upcoming films by Barry Jenkins, Spike Lee, and Steve McQueen will further prove the point. “Look at any studio in Hollywood at all the scripts they’re developing and 98 percent of them are predominantly Caucasian,” she says. “If you told them that, they wouldn’t be aware of it. It’s just built into our mindset.”

As for her biggest hurdle now, Davis spoke out about the presumption that actors of color must constantly be didactic. “Every time we’re on screen and every time we make a choice, the next question is, ‘What did that mean? What social statements are you making?’ There is no social statement,” she says. “The social statement is just … me.”

David said she is asked by people if she wants to play the first black female pilot. Or maybe the woman who blew up a town hall in Tulsa, Oklahoma? But stories championing a social message aren’t the only types of narratives she wants to tell — and they’re not the only ones she feels African-American actors are allowed to tell.

“Sometimes we just want to tell a story. We just want to be. We don’t always want to go up against the KKK. We don’t always want to come in and be like, ‘You think I’m a housewife, but I’m really not.’”

A devotion to telling human stories and working to perfect her craft was evident from the very beginning of her acting career. Her most joyful experience as an actor was working on Noodle Doodle Box, a play she and her sister Dolores created together at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island. The drama department head told them to pick a play, and they directed, produced, made their own costumes, built the set, “laughed and cried and hugged,” she told the audience.

“They say in acting that the stage in a set is a sacred place,” Davis said. “You can have your shit, your piss, your mess, your joy, everything — and it’s just celebrated. You leave it all on the floor, and the more you leave it on the floor with the same amount of not holding back, the more celebrated it is. What happens is that you’re sort of healed from a lot of things.”

A photo of Viola Davis as a young girl was shared with the audience at the 2018 Women in the World Summit in New York City.

Through that play, Davis found a sense of solace from her difficult childhood, growing up in poverty with an abusive, alcoholic father. “Through the journey of leaving it all on the floor, exploring everything in rehearsal, messing up, making mistakes, and finally coming to that end point which was the play, I got closer to my sister,” she said. “And for me that’s perfect. For me that doesn’t always happen — sometimes it culminates into bad box office,” she added with a laugh.

Davis has expanded her reach into producing — a space that’s perhaps even more untouched by women than most in Hollywood. When Reid asked how women can find their way into that inner sanctum, wondering, “Do you have to be Viola Davis in order to do it?” Davis responded, “Yes, you have to be Viola Davis in order to do it. You have to be Meryl Streep in order to do it. You have to be Julianne Moore in order to do it.”

Building a career in Hollywood — or a life anywhere else — is a relay race, she said. You have to take the baton and pass it on to someone who can run the next leg. Problems, she said, only come up when the baton falls into the hands of the clueless.

“There are a lot of people in my profession who have no idea what they doing,” she said with a signature blunt honesty that’s anathema in Hollywood. “They have no idea what’s good or what’s bad. They have no idea what to fight for. They’d rather fight for what outfit the woman is wearing in the scene than how the scene is written.”

The solution is to walk into the room with strength and conviction and to ask for what you want, she says. “You have the baton,” she says. “What are you going to do with it?”

Beyonce and the End of Respectability Politics

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Beyoncé is at the pinnacle of her career. At the Coachella festival in the Southern California desert on Saturday, she showed that there’s nothing this mother of three can’t do. But she didn’t just kill the performance; she also rewrote the book on black respectability politics. She could have decided to play to the majority-white audience with a show that made it easier to forget cultural differences. Or she could be herself. Beyoncé chose the latter.

In putting on a show that celebrated the diversity of black people, she conveyed that no matter how much fame or money she has, she will refuse to divorce herself from black culture, even the parts that are underappreciated, disrespected or misunderstood by white people. Beyoncé was performing her music, but she was also saying that the performance of respectability — the policing of black people’s behavior and appearance to better appeal to white people — is an oppression we don’t need in our lives.

Black musicians in particular have long been told how they should look and perform to sustain their success and be marketable to a larger audience. That often meant that black artists distanced themselves from the things associated with black culture, especially the things that might be coded as not-respectable.

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Whitney Houston famously struggled under this weight. At the urging of her mentor Clive Davis and others, she wore glamorous clothes, sang pop-driven songs instead of R&B and obeyed other unwritten social norms that circumscribed how she could live her life and express herself.

Members of Beyoncé‘s audience at Coachella.CreditKyle Grillot/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Michael Jackson, Oprah Winfrey and President Barack Obama have all been accused of staying aloof from black culture to gain more power and be more relatable to a wider, whiter audience. It is a common belief among black people that the more successful we become, the more we should keep away from black culture — especially when white people are looking. And especially at work.

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Beyoncé’s mother, Tina Lawson, echoed this sentiment before her daughter’s performance: “I told Beyoncé that I was afraid that the predominately white audience at Coachella would be confused by all of the black culture and black college culture because it was something that they might not get,” she wrote on Instagram.

But Beyoncé assuaged her fears. “I have worked very hard to get to the point where I have a true voice,” Ms. Lawson recalls her daughter saying. “And at this point in my life and my career, I have a responsibility to do what’s best for the world and not what is most popular.”

It would have made sense if Beyoncé decided to perform songs that were more culturally ambiguous, as to not alienate the people she was hired to entertain. However, before a mostly white audience, Beyoncé sang “Lift Every Voice,” widely regarded as the black national anthem. That song melted into “Formation,” her own pro-black anthem, where she talks about loving “Negro” noses and positions herself as a black Bill Gates.


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She also amplified Malcolm X’s famous words about black women: “The most disrespected woman in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” This centering of black womanhood is not what black people have been taught to do when given as much power and attention as Beyoncé has.

It would have been reasonable to assume Beyoncé would perform the entire show in a glamorous couture number, like the Nefertiti-inspired costume she came onstage in. Respectability is also imagery: Black people are told, when we gain power, and are under the gaze of the public, we must always wear our most formal and elegant attire.

Instead, with millions of people watching in the desert and online, Beyoncé reappeared in blue distressed denim shorts and a hoodie advertising a fake historically black college. Success does not need to have a preferred style; a black person does not have to wear a glamorous gown or a tailored suit to captivate the imagination of the public. Beyoncé shows that talent and discipline are enough.

She follows in the tradition of black performers like Michael Jackson and Tina Turner, but she is unique in imagining blackness as something so big. To Beyoncé, attending a historically black college is more than a niche experience coveted only by students and alumni. Instead, it’s something thematically paramount and worthy of an enormous stadium.

You might think that Beyoncé’s promotion of historically black colleges and their intellectual traditions also might have conflicted with her sexually charged songs like “Partition” and “Drunk in Love.” We’re taught that an intellectual being can never be sexual one. This is especially true for black people who have been hypersexualized in media and daily life. So it wouldn’t have been odd for her to edit her sexuality to fit society’s ideas of what it means to be proud, black and smart.

Not at Coachella. Beyoncé performed her sensuality proudly in those songs making political statement that a person can be both intellectually rigorous and sexually expressive.

We know Beyoncé can sing and move, and that she treats stadiums as if they are her living room. But it wasn’t clear whether, after Clive Davis called her “the first lady of music,” she would adhere to respectability politics, especially on a stage like Coachella, where she may have alienated a large portion of her audience. The easier route would have been cultural ambiguity. But excellence is found in risk, and Beyoncé has proved to be an artist most interested in excellence.

All black people should follow her lead and refuse to shrink blackness. Black people often negotiate how much of ourselves we should show to make others comfortable. Black people often feel the need to edit parts of our culture and upbringing for the sake of appearing respectable — that is, of course, until our music and style are appropriated by the very people we were attempting to not alienate.

Beyoncé’s Coachella performance suggests that, as black people’s power grows, we should intentionally amplify the culture that nurtured us. This anti-respectability politics that Beyoncé brought to the stage is what transformed her performance into a political statement.

The History of the Hollywood Sign

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Leo Braudy is Leo S. Bing Chair in English and American Literature at the University of Southern California Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

Every year at the Oscars, the cameras pan to the famed Hollywood sign and its bold white letters.

Ask someone today what the sign symbolizes, and the same words will likely crop up: Movies. Stardom. Glamour.

But as I point in my book on the Hollywood sign, the sign didn’t always represent fame and fortune. As the city changed, so did the meaning of the sign, which, at one point, was even considered a public nuisance.

Come to … Hollywoodland?
California has long possessed the lure of material and personal fulfillment.

What started as a destination for those hoping to strike gold became, in the late 19th century, a mecca for anyone with real or imagined ailments. The state’s temperate climate and natural springs, guidebooks claimed, possessed “restorative powers for weakened dispositions.”

The state’s gold has since been drained, and the quest for perfect health has spread to rest of the country. But the erection of the famed Hollywood sign in 1923 marked the start of another phase, one still with us today.

During that decade, a real estate development group, one of whose principal backers was Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler, built a large sign – essentially a billboard – on an unnamed mountain between the Los Angeles basin and the San Fernando Valley.

“Hollywoodland,” the sign read. Its 40,000 blinking light bulbs advertised a new housing development built to accommodate the city’s surging population, which more than doubled during the 1920s to become the fifth largest in the country, as the city drew people from all over the country for its weather, open spaces and jobs.

The city of Hollywood had been absorbed into Los Angeles only a decade earlier. At the time, it was a wealthy area that had grudgingly accepted the movie business. Many mansions dotted the hillsides below the sign, and utopian communities like Krotona, the U.S. headquarters of a mystical organization called the Theosophical Society, had sprung up in the foothills and on the flats.

Accordingly, early advertising for Hollywoodland emphasized the development’s exclusivity. It would offer an escape from the smog, dirt and unwelcome neighbors of downtown Los Angeles.

Saving the sign
Because the sign holds such a prominent place in the nation’s cultural imagination today, it may be surprising to learn that it wasn’t until fairly recently that it achieved its iconic status.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the sign makes an appearance in only a few of the movies that were about Hollywood or the movie industry. Other Hollywood institutions, like the Brown Derby restaurant, tended to represent the film world.

In the 1940s, Los Angeles – as both city and symbol – started to change. A dense smog settled over the metropolis, which would be featured as the grim, shadowy setting of noir films like “The Big Sleep” and “Double Indemnity.”

The sign – a little dingier, a little more unslightly – reflected the changing city. Since it was originally intended as an advertisement, few had considered its permanence or long-term significance.

The hillside where it had been built was dangerously steep; workers had cut the letters from thin sheet metal, which they tacked onto telephone poles. Heavy winds could easily rip the letters away, and by the late 1940s, there had been so much deterioration that the city of Los Angeles proposed to tear it down, calling it a dangerous public nuisance.

Color photo of the Hollywood sign with blue sky above
The Hollywood Sign after a 2005 refurbishment (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)
That dismissive view of the sign began to change in 1949, when the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce told the city that it would take over its ownership and maintenance. With that exchange, the “land” suffix was dropped. We could say that this is the point that the Hollywood sign we know today was actually born.

However, improvements and maintenance occurred in fits and starts. By the early 1970s, committees were being formed to “save” the sign in order to restore it beyond shoddy paint jobs and patchwork repairs.

Finally, in 1978 a committee headed by Hugh Hefner and Alice Cooper collected the funds – about $27,000 per letter – to not simply repair, but rebuild the sign.

Today the big white letters are a permanent fixture in the Los Angeles landscape, and it’s even withstood the attempts of adventurous vandals to emulate the art student who, in 1976, tweaked the sign to read “Hollyweed.”

The ConversationIn their own way, these vandals are trying to carve out their own slice of the Hollywood dream – a quest not for gold or for health, but for recognition and fame, whether by talent, ambition or selfie.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation, an online publication that features academics writing about their research and ideas for the public. KQED and The Conversation are partners in the California Dream project, a collaboration looking at the Golden State’s promise, whether we are achieving it, and the future of California.

Disability Community Deserves More Visibility in Hollywood

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Diversity and inclusion are two important cultural topics gaining attention and focus by employers nationwide, including Hollywood. And yet, disability is almost always overlooked in this conversation. This award season, in looking across the many films and television shows honored, why are there so few that represent our country’s most diverse population — the disability community?

One in five Americans has a disability, making it the largest minority population, some 57 million strong. However, our stories, meaningful and varied, often go untold. People with disabilities are the most underrepresented population across entertainment and media, with too few opportunities afforded in front of or behind the camera. Variety’s recent article on a USC study noted of the top 900 films between 2007 and 2016, just 2.7% of characters were portrayed as having a disability. What’s more, in most cases these characters are played by an actor without a disability, further limiting industry opportunities for the talented actors with a disability.

People with disabilities “have virtually no influence in cinema and the enduring myths that are being created about them are by able-bodied filmmakers,” notes a recent op-ed article for the Guardian. “The industry is not giving a voice to a huge section of our society and that needs to change,” the piece concludes, making the point that diversity is good for business; it sells tickets. Just look at how female-directed and -starring films like “Wonder Woman” or largely diverse casts like “Get Out” are outperforming at the box office. Likewise, it’s time for genuine disability-forward projects to grace the big and small screens.

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Many global brands agree. Fortune 500 companies, like Toyota, Gerber, Target and Guinness, have dedicated national advertising to reflect disability in constructive and relatable ways, while using this same airtime to promote their products. Comcast NBCUniversal and Google make significant R&D investments in “disability-friendly” products and marketing them, as such. From product innovations such as Nike FlyEase, to athlete sponsorships, and global marketing campaigns, Nike has a long history of serving athletes with disabilities.

National media is beginning to provide more prominent space for disability viewpoints. For example, the New York Times established the first ongoing disability opinion series to give people with disabilities a national platform.

As a result of such awareness efforts, public perception of disability is undergoing a positive transformation. These are great strides forward, but we still have a long way to go. Here’s where YOU come in.

Entertainment is one of the most effective ways to influence public perception and advance social change. The industry has the incomparable ability to help shape the way the world defines and views disability.

We are not asking for your altruism. Iconic brands now understand the potential buying power, waking up to this virtually untapped disability market. Recent estimates show people with disabilities represent a market of more than $200 billion annually. This demographic represents new buying potential for the entertainment industry to creatively leverage.

Consider taking these simple steps forward. First, be more inclusive in your hiring practices and casting. The next time you cast a project, make it commonplace to give people with disabilities a chance. Second, when hiring extras for a crowd shot, include at least one person with a disability.
Become involved in the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge. This film challenge gives aspiring filmmakers — with and without disabilities — the platform to collaborate, tell creative stories and showcase disability in its many forms. Its winners receive invaluable access to entertainment professionals, opening the door to a notoriously difficult industry to enter. Many past winners credit the challenge for creating greater industry opportunities. Resources and support from entertainment partners help grow the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge and expand our impact across the entertainment industry, and beyond. Sponsorship dollars and promotional and in-kind support are vital if we truly want to accelerate change.

Engage with us via social media. Encourage filmmakers to enter competitions like the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge, so that we increase the number of interesting stories shared about the diverse lives of people with disabilities.

Every day we make generalizations and stereotype people with disabilities — and we may not even realize we are doing it. Easterseals just launched “Change the way you see disability,” a public service campaign, using authentic experiences, to directly confront preconceived notions about others. We offer our campaign as a place for you to start.

The time is now. True inclusion will happen when people with disabilities have a prominent seat at the creative table. The path forward is expanded employment opportunities for people with disabilities in front of and behind the camera and increased representation of people with disabilities in more storylines. Help us inspire change.

How One Woman Challenged Discrimination in Hollywood 75 Years Ago

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At the 90th Academy Awards on Sunday, at a time when women in Hollywood are helping to drive the national conversation about sexual harassment in the workplace, the question of how the #MeToo and Times Up movements will show up on the red carpet is as relevant as the question of who will win. But, though other events of this year’s Hollywood awards season have been preceded by announced protest plans, there’s a reason why such has not been the case for the Oscars.

“It’s really important that you know that Time’s Up is not about the red carpet,” Shonda Rhimes has said. “And those women you saw on the red carpet representing Time’s Up are now off the red carpet working their butts off being activists.”

But those decisions about the relationship between movies and activism aren’t new. “Every year we have this amnesia about what’s happened in the past,” Ellen C. Scott, assistant professor and vice chair of Cinema and Media Studies at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, says.

One thing that is new is the set of resources and technology that today’s activists can use to get their message out. Their predecessors often had to work even harder to be heard. One example of that phenomenon was Almena Davis Lomax. In 1941, in part to address that problem, she ended up founding a whole newspaper, the Los Angeles Tribune. “She was a woman whose career as a journalist was constrained both by her race and her gender,” says her son Michael L. Lomax, who is now President and Chief Executive Officer of the United Negro College Fund. “She had to sharp-elbow her way into journalism, and she did that — happily.”

The paper drew a prominent readership from not only black radicals such as Langston Hughes, but also white radicals such as Dalton Trumbo. Martin Luther King Jr. himself would say her writing on the Montgomery bus boycott was “journalism at its best,” rendering a “great service for our cause” in a July 5, 1965, letter to her. But the paper’s coverage of political and cultural issues relevant to the local African-American community was where it stood out most. Of course, since it was based in Tinseltown, that included what Hollywood was doing — or more accurately, wasn’t doing — in terms of fairly depicting African Americans on screen.

“Mother was very concerned about the portrayal of black women,” says Michael Lomax. She was frustrated by the “stereotypical romanticizing of some older image of black folks, as happy servants and contented slaves,” and black women as “oversexed and primitive,” and black men as “brutal figures” and the black community in general as full of promiscuous gamblers and drug addicts.

“She was the most consistent picketer of Hollywood films of any Black activists of the Hollywood era,” Scott writes in her book Cinema Civil Rights: Regulation, Repression, and Race in the Classical Hollywood Era.

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She objected to The Little Colonel (1935) and Rainbow on the River (1936) because black actors Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers played black women who didn’t want to be free, and, with Leon Washington of the Los Angeles Sentinel, she picketed the movie Tales of Manhattan (1942) for depicting African Americans as ignorant sharecroppers, according to Scott. Signs used during the protest read “Hollywood, take your feet off the Negroes’ neck” and “March on Washington Movement–West Coast Branch,” in a reference to the activists then advocating for the desegregation of the armed forces.

She also spoke up against the 1959 movie Imitation of Life, starring Lana Turner. The plot involves the light-skinned daughter of a black single mother who wants to pass as white, and who is beaten by a male suitor when he learns about her background. “This scene is not only a libel against the Negro, it is a libel against white America,” Lomax wrote in her review of the film. “The Imitation of Life lies in the false notions of color and racial superiority of the white man.”

On Feb. 2, 1959, Lomax announced she would picket the movie, in a statement that the Hollywood Reporter picked up: “Imitation of Life…is a libel on the Negro race,” her message said. “It libels our children and the Negro mother [and] should be banned in the interest of national unity, harmony, peace, decency and inter-racial respect.”

But, just as today’s Time’s Up advocates have said that their work must go beyond the red carpet, Lomax was not satisfied holding a mirror up to Hollywood. She wanted to do the same for the rest of the world, too.

She shut down her paper in the early 1960s and headed east to cover the Freedom Riders who were participating in the desegregation of public transport in 1961 under the leadership of Martin Luther King.

Her sharp, biting commentary even made its way into the Letters to the Editor section of TIME. After the Watts Riots, the violent clash between police and African Americans in L.A., in August of 1965, she wrote that “white people missed the point of the riots, which guarantees that they will happen again.” Many times her views rendered her an “outlier,” says her son Michael, from telling Dr. King that his protests were too peaceful to telling TIME in another letter in the editor that Jacqueline Kennedy’s clothes were “ridiculous.” She also aimed her sharp wit at racism she saw in the mainstream Women’s Lib movement, calling it “a frivolous bid for attention by the most privileged and coddled women in the world who don’t know when they are well off,” in a 1973 Ebony oped. White women “want to get out of their kitchens,” she wrote, “We want to get out of their kitchens!”

Now, years after her 2011 death, her son sees her legacy in ongoing conversations about how white and black women experience sexism differently, including conversations about whether black women are overlooked within the #MeToo movement.

“[As] a proto black feminist she was ahead of her time. Social media would have been perfect for her because she wouldn’t have been muted. But I don’t think she would have been living comfortably. She would have been pushing boundaries,” Lomax says. “She would be on the side of the women, obviously, but I think she’d also be telling the story of women of color who have been not always as clearly identified as both initiators of this movement and victims of the male-dominated industry.”

Viola Davis for The PORTER EDIT

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There is no shortage of women raising their voices against abuse and injustice right now. But what a woman, and what a voice, is Viola Davis. On January 20, the Oscar-winning actress took to the stage at the Women’s March in LA to speak about rape and trafficking, and how no change is great unless it costs us something. She did the equivalent with words of reaching into our chests and tearing at our heartstrings.

And not for the first time, either. On winning an Emmy in 2015 for her role as law professor Annalise Keating in ABC’s hit series How to Get Away with Murder (the first African American ever to win in the Lead Actress category), Davis didn’t squander the moment with thank yous. Instead, she talked about the lack of opportunity for women of color, quoting her heroine Harriet Tubman, and delivered one of the most rousing speeches of the year: “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there. So here’s to all the writers, the awesome people that are Ben Sherwood, Paul Lee, Peter Nowalk, Shonda Rhimes – people who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black.”

One newspaper called it “a masterclass in delivery”. But they might as well have called it a masterclass in one woman knowing exactly how she feels and not being afraid to say it. Which is how I find her, sitting on a sofa in a house in the Hollywood Hills, talking frankly about everything you’d want her to set the record straight about: #MeToo; ‘Time’s Up’; the gender pay gap; #OscarsSoWhite; and, well, the How to Get Away with Murder/Scandal crossover episode, which brings together the characters of Olivia Pope (played by Kerry Washington) and Keating for the first time ever. “I don’t know how else to describe it,” Davis says, beaming. “It felt like we were creating history. I mean, to have two really strong, well-written, well-rounded characters in the same room together, who are women of color? It’s black-girl magic at its best.”

“I’m 52 and darker than a paper bag. Women who look like me are [usually] relegated to…auditioning for crackheads and mammas and the person who is always described as ‘sassy’”

Davis knows all too well that roles like Annalise Keating don’t come along often, “especially for a woman who looks like me,” she says. “I’m 52 and darker than a paper bag. Women who look like me are relegated to the back of the bus, auditioning for crackheads and mammas and the person with a hand on her hip who is always described as ‘sassy’ or ‘soulful’. I’ve had a 30-year career and I have rarely gotten roles that are fleshed out, even a little bit. I mean, you wouldn’t think [these characters] have a vagina. Annalise Keating has changed the game. I don’t even care if she doesn’t make sense. I love that she’s unrestricted, that every week I actually have to fight [showrunner] Peter Nowalk not to have another love scene. When does that ever happen?”

Has playing voracious Annalise changed the way she sees herself sexually? “Yes, and it’s been a painful journey,” she says, laughing, presumably because these sex scenes often take place across desks and up against walls. “It costs me something,” she continues, more earnestly, “because very rarely in my career – and in my life – have I been allowed to explore that part of myself, to be given permission to know that is an aspect of my humanity, that I desire and am desired. I always felt in playing sexuality you have to look a certain way, to be a certain size, to walk a certain way. Until I realized that what makes people lean in is when they see themselves. There’s no way I am going to believe that all women who are sexualized are size zero or two, all have straight hair, all look like sex kittens every time they go to bed and want sex from their man, all are heterosexual. I am mirroring women. I always say it is not my job to be sexy, it’s my job to be sexual. That’s the difference.”

She breaks off: “That’s my daughter, by the way.” And there, standing behind me, is a pretty girl in a blue dress. “Say hi, Gigi! I’m doing an interview.” Mother and daughter blow kisses to each other across the room, and then the six-year-old, whose name is actually Genesis, scoots off with her nanny. It’s a side to Davis I’d like to see more of, the doting mother. I’d also like to see more of the off-duty side; the Davis who throws barbecues and drinks tequila and likes hot-tubbing with her actor-producer husband, Julius Tennon. “I’m actually fun,” she cries at one point, as if to free herself from all this serious talk. But we both know she has a lot more to say, including about race.

This Sunday, Davis will be attending the Oscars, after winning Best Supporting Actress last year for her role in Fences. But when I ask about the several nominations awarded to non-white artists this year, following 2017’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign, she isn’t impressed. “Here’s the thing: it’s not about the Oscars,” she starts, “it’s about how we’re included in every aspect of the movie-making business. When you look at a role as a director or producer that is not ethnically specific, can you consider an actor of color, to invest in that talent? The problem is, if it’s not an urban or civil rights drama, they don’t see you in the story. People need to understand that they shouldn’t see people of color one way. We don’t always have to be slaves or in the ’hood or fighting the KKK. I could be in a romantic comedy. I could be in Gone Girl. Or Wild. I could be seen the same way as Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore. I actually came from the same sort of background; I went to Juilliard, I’ve done Broadway. I’ve worked with the Steven Spielbergs. I should be seen the same way. That’s what I think is missing: imagination.”

There’s also the issue of pay, “especially for actresses of color,” she says. “If Caucasian women are getting 50% of what men are getting paid, we’re not even getting a quarter of what white women are getting paid. We don’t even get the magazine covers white women get. And that is not speaking in a way that is angry,” she adds. “They deserve everything they get paid. Nicole Kidman deserves it. Reese Witherspoon deserves it. Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Frances McDormand… But guess what – I deserve it too. So does Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, Halle Berry. We’ve put the work in too.”

Does she think white actresses have a part to play in changing that? “I don’t want to tell anyone what to do,” she says, “but I think Jessica Chastain did a really boss move with Octavia Spencer [on their latest, as yet untitled project] by saying Octavia’s got to be paid the same as her. She actually upped Octavia’s quote for that movie because she took a salary cut. I think Caucasian women have to stand in solidarity with us. And they have to understand we are not in the same boat. Even a lot of female-driven events in Hollywood, like power luncheons – which I’ve been to, and are awesome by the way – there will be 3,000 women in that room and five of them are women of color. And it’s by invite! So, you’re not even inviting us.”

Jacket Roksanda; pants Racil; earrings Alighieri
“I always felt in playing sexuality you have to look a certain way, be a certain size. Until I realized that…I am mirroring [real] women. It is not my job to be sexy, it’s my job to be sexual”

Earrings Alighieri

Dress Cushnie et Ochs; earrings Annie Costello Brown
You can see why Davis is the perfect champion for this moment – she is unapologetic to her core. “Every time I do an interview,” she says, “I am always quick to say, I say it out of love but I got to speak my truth. If I don’t, it’s like a friggin’ cyst that hasn’t been popped. I don’t want to come off sounding bitter, because I’m not. I’m actually quite joyful in my life; my life could not have played out any better. But my authenticity is my rebellion.”

Jane Fonda, of all people, once praised Davis for having presence. And it’s no exaggeration to say that, for much of our conversation, I feel goosebumps hearing her speak, particularly when talk turns to #MeToo. When I ask if she thinks the movement would have gained traction if the women who first came forward had been women of color, she cuts me off even before I’ve finished – “No,” she says. “No. Recy Taylor came forward in 1944 when she was gang raped by six men in Alabama. Tarana Burke was the founder of the #MeToo movement in 2006. There are plenty of black women who have come forward. I don’t think people feel we deserve the same empathy. Or investment. We are not as valued. If the story wasn’t coming out of Hollywood, and the predator wasn’t someone like [Harvey] Weinstein, I don’t think it would have gotten the spotlight [either].”

Dress Michael Lo Sordo
“I went to Juilliard, I’ve done Broadway. I’ve worked with the Steven Spielbergs. I should be seen the same way [as white actresses]. That’s what I think is missing: imagination”
But why, in her view, have these allegations surfaced now? “Fannie Lou Hamer, the ’60s civil rights activist, has a saying: ‘I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.’ I think that sums it up. All the women I have known and had private conversations with have been sexually assaulted on some level. But we talk in private. I think after a while you hit a wall, and then it becomes a no-brainer. You have to speak up in the midst of no one speaking up for you.”

Davis has talked unspecifically about her own #MeToo story and I ask if she will ever share it. “Oh no, not only do I have my own story, I have my own stories. I am telling you, I have had men touch me in inappropriate ways throughout my childhood,” she says. “I have had men follow me on any given day – and I am saying during the day, at one o’clock in the afternoon – and expose themselves to me. I remember one day, when I was 27, waiting at the bus stop in Rhode Island for my niece to get out of pre-school. I was probably there 25 minutes, and I am not lying because I counted, 26 cars drove by with men in them who solicited me, harassed me, yelled at me, verbally abused me. Some of these men had baby seats in the back. And yeah, it makes you feel like crap, it makes you feel like, what would a childhood be if that were removed? And it’s hard to separate that stain from who you are. You tattoo it on yourself. Those personal experiences have allowed me to feel compassion for the women who have spoken up.”

Inevitably, we get talking about the #MeToo backlash, and the women who have publicly criticized the movement, who Davis thinks are missing the point. “Hollywood is a microcosm,” she says, “and however you feel about the movement, it has given women permission to talk about their sexual assault and be a community with each other.” She slaps her hands together. “Community, that’s a good word. I know it’s a ‘kumbaya’ word, but you know what, the minute you feel isolated and you’re on your own, is the minute you’re dead.”

Jacket and pants Racil
“There are plenty of black women who have come forward [with #MeToo stories]. I don’t think people feel we deserve the same empathy. Or investment. We are not as valued”

Top Rosetta Getty; pants Nili Lotan; earrings Alighieri
She tells a story of being sat next to a life coach at a party. “He kept saying, ‘Viola, a lot of people feel disillusioned once they get everything they want, because everybody fights for success, they get there and realize they forgot the next goal. And the next goal is significance.’ That is what I would say to women who are denouncing the ‘Time’s Up’ movement: what is your significance? What do you want to leave the world? If you ever have a daughter or niece or young girl who looks up to you, who wants to say, ‘You know what, I remember when I was three and sexually assaulted…’ You can either choose significance, or you can choose that soundbite that took two minutes to give a Twitter feed.”

She goes on. “I always say life is like a baton and you got to run your leg of the race and pass it on to the next great runner. I want to pass a fabulous baton and leave something that makes me immortal, in a fabulous way. I want to leave an elixir that people can taste and that makes them feel alive.”

All I can think is, me too.

Major film industry gender equality movement launches in France

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The aim of the initiative, launched on the eve of the country’s prestigious César film awards this evening, is to put in place concrete steps to bring about equality across the business, says film sales executive Bérénice Vincent, co-founder and spokesperson for the collective.

The initiative is among a raft of gender equality campaigns to have sprung up across the film world amid the ongoing reflection on female representation in the cinema business sparked by the anti-sexual harassment #MeToo movement last year.

It launches, however, against a complicated backdrop in France, where there has been a mixed response within the film industry and beyond to the related issues of sexual harassment and gender inequality in the cinema business.

“In spite of the shockwave of #MeToo, French cinema has not really been shaken by the Weinstein affair, and nothing concrete has come out of it. It’s raised awareness of inequalities, but our expectations are for this to go further and for speeches to be joined by actions,” explained Vincent.

“Discussions were begun across different circles in the industry which we’re growing by bringing together all sides of the profession, both on the creative and industry side,” she continued. “The idea is to seize the moment in a positive way and to structure the reflection around the question of inequalities and the distribution of power.”

Vincent said the collective would act as an “action think tank” that would “create tools” aimed at changing present day thinking as well as put pressure on public institutions and the private section to make structural changes fostering gender equality.

Artistic figures joining the movement include directors Catherine Corsini, Justine Triet, Valérie Donzelli, Virginie Despentes, Robin Campillo, Jacques Audiard, Laurent Cantet, Bertrand Bonello, Thomas Cailley and Houda Benyamina as well as actresses Léa Seydoux, Lily-Rose Depp, Clemence Poésy, Virginie Efira and Natacha Regnier.

On the industry side, members include producers Didar Domehri (Bang Gang , A Modern Love Story), Melita Toscan du Plantier (Eva, La Quietud), Caroline Bonmarchand (Souvenir) and Benedicte Couvreur (Girlhood) as well as cinema press attaché Viviana Adriani; distributors Sarah Chazelle at Jour2Fête and Michèle Halberstadt at ARP Sélection and Carole Scotta and Caroline Benjo, founding co-chiefs of production of leading independent distribution and exhibition company Haut et Court.

A number of executives from the French sales scene are also involved including Pyramide International’s Agathe Valentin, Bac’s Mathieu Robinet, Kinology’s Gaelle Mareschi, Urban Distribution International’s Delphyne Besse and Rym Hachimi at The Bureau Sales.

César inequalities
As part of its activities the collective has also launched a new website setting out it aims as well as sharing data highlighting gender imbalances throughout the cinema chain in France.

Tying in with its launch on the eve of the Césars, the body looked at the statistics for past awards.

The study revealed that over the past 42 editions, women accounted for 548 out of 2812 nominations, or 19%. In terms of awards, women had won 134 Césars out of 670 possible awards, accounting for 20% of the total.

Looking specifically at the best director category, just 21 women had been nominated out of 219 best director nominations and only one woman had ever won the coveted best director prize: Tonie Marshall for Venus Beauty in 2010.

Women fared better in the editing category where they had won 31 of the past 47 editing awards, representing 66% of the total. But across the rest of the craft awards their presence was minimal.

BVOD (Blockchain Video on Demand), “Crewfunding” and VR Enthusiasm

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Artificial intelligence (AI), the blockchain and mixed reality were at the center of the recently completed Berlin Film Festival’s newly expanded Horizons section. Taking place within the European Film Market (EFM), the 2018 program’s focus on buzzy technological innovations bucked the predictions of some skeptics by drawing sold-out crowds and with several tech companies choosing the festival to launch their platforms.

The continued expansion of virtual reality (VR) was also in discussion, with a wide range of projects, including the virtual behind-the-scenes of Wes Anderson’s opener Isle of Dogs, available for viewing in the festival’s inaugural VR cinema.

EFM Director Matthijs Wouter Knol explained at the event that the industry is in a digital transformation. Blockchain technology and artificial intelligence, he said, will affect the way the film industry does business, and the way it will choose films to fund, buy or sell in the future. “They [AI and blockchains] offer the possibility to rethink how systems are working and for us to find out if and how the involved changes are adaptable to the film industry,” he said.


Bewildered yet curious filmmakers attended the blockchain workshop, where a range of startups and executives explained the fundamentals behind the decentralized system that uses cryptography to create and keep secure exchanges and crypto-currency to process financial transactions.

“We should not confuse this with bitcoin,” insisted Digital Media and Blockchain consultant Manuel Badel, who separated the utility of blockchain technology from the current spate of ICOs (initial coin offerings), which can appear to be nothing more than digital currency “pump and dump” schemes. He instead said the blockchain would ultimately find uses outside of pure currency exchange and offer alternative ways for both film industry individuals and companies to conduct business. Badel provided examples where the service could benefit media organizations, including intellectual property (IP) protection, digital rights management for tracking royalties, automated contracts with stakeholders, residual payment systems for production members and distribution companies, crowdfunding support, open sourced creative collaboration like scriptwriting and decentralized content distribution.

Announced during the EFM was Swedish start-up Cinezen Blockchained Entertainment AB, that deems itself the first decentralized and community-driven blockchain video-on-demand (BVOD) distribution model. Sales agents including Denmark’s Level K and the UK’s Celsius Entertainment have come on board, signing worldwide BVOD agreements that are similar to licensing for transactional video-on-demand (TVOD), except that consumers pay for the content with Ethereum, the world’s second largest crypto-currency after Bitcoin. The system does not require invoicing and royalty reporting as every content provider is part of a blockchain network that has direct access to ”incorruptible and transparent transaction data”.

Since the project started in August 2017, Cinezen’s CEO and co-founder Sam Klebanov has met with over 250 rights holders, both sales agents and local distributors, with, he says, an overwhelmingly positive response. The company vets an official launch later this year, while an alpha version will be made available for public testing before Cannes.

Further demonstrating how quickly blockchain technology is finding practical purposes within the film business, Glenn O’Farrell, a lawyer and CEO of Toronto-based public media organization TFO, said at the event that use of the blockchain is already enabling TFO to reduce costs and billing complexities by removing intermediaries and allowing the organization to deal directly with financial partners.

Several businesses within EFM’s Startup section, where technology businesses are coupled with film professionals, also included blockchain within their business models. Based out of London and New York, Big Couch co-founders Irina Albita and Maria Tanjala have coined the term “crewfunding” as part of their business strategy, which utilizes blockchain to help independent film producers fund their films. Toronto-based research and development studio Three Lefts meanwhile has developed a “smart contract” program using blockchain solutions. And Harold Dumur, founder of Montreal-based OVA, is integrating blockchain to his open sourced platform that allows non-professionals to develop their own VR/AR environments.

Additional speakers included Berlin/Brandenburg-based Chris Hobcroft whose open-sourced video-sharing company LivePeer is using blockchain to create a live streaming platform in which all participants have the ability to shape the business, rather than one single company or individual. Hobcroft is also using currency tokens as a means to further drive the business financially.

“It’s the way forward,” insisted Matthew Rappard, CTO and co-founder of Three Lefts. “Think about a production where you can easily hire non-union actors and crew members, where you can more efficiently work with third-party rights holders and where you can easily follow the trail of money for residuals. Then in one click, everyone can quickly be paid.”

Rappard also mentioned Disney has its own blockchain titled Dragonchain that allows the multi-faceted conglomerate to better interact with its studios, subcontractors and third party organizations.

Artificial Intelligence

The complexities of artificial intelligence were broken down in another panel, with “machine learning” as the on-topic buzz word. The group of panelists included Robert Richter, Google’s EMEA Partnerships Solution Exec, who explained that the function of machine learning is to give computers the ability to learn pattern recognition. Richter gave examples such as contextual ad targeting, that matches keyword-targeted ads to sites within the Google Display Network to assist advertisers focused on performance and cost-efficient conversions. He also referred to the company’s translation API that VICE is currently using to expand its global reach, as well as Google’s video intelligence API that allows users to search every moment of their video file within their catalogue.

“Imagine you have a large archive, or you have a lot of content from a film production, and you want to search for a specific moment. The pre-trained API can find it in seconds,” said Richter.

Specifically on the film side, Scriptbook was on hand to explain their script analysis platform that utilizes a stacking of algorithms to determine a script’s “DNA.” Using Suburbicon as an example, the company’s co-founder Nadira Azermai explained they correctly predicted its financial forecast through an analysis of the script’s projected cast and crew, its characters’ sentiments and a comparison to other like-minded films.

“Our machine learning algorithms are capable of automatically reading and analyzing a script, and from there generating an assessment of a film’s commercial value prior to financing, producing and distributing,” said Azermai.

Dr Marion Jenke of German film and television production company UFA GmbH was quick to put her hand up, insisting the likes of predictive analysis can be limiting. She used an example of an ad they placed on the television program Deutschland 83 whose audience trajectory was different than what the algorithms suggested was appropriately targeted for the popular German spy series.

“We wanted to be creative, we wanted to target different types of audiences, and it worked,” said Jenke, who was also dismissive of the secretive algorithms that the likes of Amazon and Netflix rely on.

Other topics of discussion were 20th Century Fox’s trailer for the 2016 film Morgan in which the marketers hired IBM supercomputer “Watson” to select the most appropriately dramatic scenes for a human editor to include. Richter said this process didn’t replace the human editor but instead sped up the process, allowing the editor to focus on more creative tasks. While this type of AI is still in the early stages, Richter said it’s likely the industry will see more of this type of footage evaluation in the near future. “We’re seeing how AI can make more interactive viewing experiences for less of the costs, while helping creators personalize content,” he explained.

Mixed Reality

While VR and AR may seem like they have taken a quieter turn, industry executives at the VR NOW Summit Day insisted the medium is still in full swing.

Following on from Sundance where CityLights acquired the three-part VR series SPHERES for a low-to-mid seven figures and where Dogwoof purchased the 15-minute interactive VR experience Zikr: A Sufi Revival, which also includes location-based installations and an interactive online version, chief content officer and co-founder of Littlstar Matthew Collado said his premium VR network would now start charging for content.

The move is integral for VR creators like Montreal-based Felix & Paul, whose work — Wild and Isle Of Dogs Behind The Scenes co-created with FoxNext (formerly Fox Innovation Lab); the Emmy-winning The People’s House (centering around eight years of the Obamas at The White House) and the eye-popping Cirque du Soleil piece, Dreams of ‘O — is helping to drive the medium forward.

“We are constantly working out how to streamline our budgets since financing is still not there yet,” said Felix & Paul co-founder Stephane Rituit. “We need to demonstrate there is a market, so for networks like Littlstar to start charging is important. This helps us better convince investors.”

Both Rituit and Collado were also excited about the continued innovation on the technology side, with handset creators such as Oculus, Google and HTC Vive working on less expensive standalone headsets that won’t require a device.

Furthermore, Samsung’s second-generation 360 camera has faster connectivity and support for more devices and Sony Playstation’s latest Gold Wireless Headset is lighter, more comfortable and works with Sony’s PS VR console as well.

“These are ways we can entice people to try VR,” explained Collado. “But we need to keep focusing on content. Right now, we rely heavily on established IPs and marketing budgets.”

Rituit said Felix & Paul Studios are working hard to change this, with upcoming projects such as Vikings Valhalla, where MGM is giving them “carte blanche to explore VR, and not marketing.”

Antoine Cayrol of France-based Atlas V, who helped co-produce SPHERES, also said extending content across both linear and non-linear platforms, such as VR apps, YouTube channels, location-based VR and three-screen devices, is key to attracting audiences to the work.

“It’s just like releasing a film — we have to think in terms of getting am A-list cast and film-makers attached, followed by minimum guarantees, co-production financing and support from government funds, as more countries are realizing there is a market for VR,” added Cayrol.

MK2’s Senior Sales Executive Victoire Thevenin said the company’s foray into location-based VR continues to expand, as does their acquisition of VR series which they can distribute as individual segments or together as a series.

The session concluded with a look at the continued growth of MR, with all panelists eager to see this year’s roll-out of Magic Leap One’s mixed-reality headset with Digital Lightfield technology and the Microsoft MR capture studios that are opening in San Francisco and London. Apple is now also touting their ARKit with the iPhone X that combines device motion tracking, camera scene capture and advanced scene processing.

“The market is going to change very quickly once mixed reality makes its way into the consumer market. But first, we need more content,” said Cayrol.

EFM Director Wouter Knol added, “EFM’s new VR cinema allowed producers of VR content to book market screening slots, similar as they would for theatrical films. It is evident there is a growing demand to experience and buy VR content.”