5 Women Tackling The Entertainment Industry’s Diversity Issues

5 Women

Working Towards Inclusion in Entertainment

Photo Courtesy of Angel Kristi Williams

Exactly two years before Oscar Night 2018, I had begun working as an entertainment industry executive in Hollywood. Being a black woman in entertainment is challenging given that the industry was historically designed solely around the interests of white men. This has led to a white, male, celebrity bubble of protection and avoidance — and breaking through this bubble requires tenacity, stamina and a courageous commitment to truth-telling. Fortunately, some white male celebrities are open to hearing this truth, and are committing themselves to making real, positive change. This is, in part, how I ended up two years ago as Head of Strategic Outreach at Pearl Street Films — whose owners are Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

A regular part of our conversations at Pearl Street over the last two years includes recognizing that intent does not equate to impact. We as a company are now more focused on our impact. One initiative towards this commitment is the Inclusion Rider. The attention given to the Rider after Frances McDormand’s Oscar speech was surprising and helpful. Yet, as I gained more attention after Oscar night, I started to observe the disparity in attention and reverence paid to women who have worked towards inclusion in the industry far longer than I. That’s why I asked Swaay to help me publish this short list of women who have been integral in the push for inclusion. You may not read about them in the news every day, but they are well known in the industry, have been committed to — and have made important strides towards — real change for years. They are role models for tenacity, stamina, and truth-telling. I am fortunate to have met and learned from these women early in my career as an executive. I know they will inspire you in the same way they have inspired me.

Kelly Edwards is the co-founder of Colour Entertainment — a non-profit organization focused on nurturing entertainment industry executives of color from assistants through the C-suite
Kelly Edwards, Head of Talent Development, HBO

Kelly and I met at the launch event for Project Greenlight Digital Studios, created by Adaptive Studios as a positive response to some of the criticism directed towards Project Greenlight. Kelly has been working on building an inclusive pipeline in Hollywood for over 30 years. She is the co-founder of Colour Entertainment — a non-profit organization focused on nurturing entertainment industry executives of color from assistants through the C-suite. They hold networking events, seminars and offer mentoring. There is no other program that specifically works towards identifying, nurturing and developing future executives that is as consistent and successful as Colour Entertainment.

Kelly has worked at NBC Universal, Fox and helped develop the shows GirlfriendsMartinCluelessThe Parkers, and Living Single. Currently she’s guiding and supporting emerging storytellers in her role as Head of Talent Development for HBO.

Angel’s contributions to Project Involve have been integral to its continued success and in nurturing filmmakers with the highest standards. Like the HBOAccess program, participants work in cohorts to write, produce and direct a short film. Angel Williams
In spearheading their HBOAccess program, she guides writers and directors in creating digital pilots to be screened on HBO platforms and at film festivals. Several participants in the HBOAccess program have gone on to write and direct for network and cable TV.

Kelly plans to shoot her directorial debut this summer.

Through Significant Productions, Nina and her partner of Significant Forest Whitaker continue to develop meaningful and marketable content. Nina Yang Bongiovi
Angel Kristi Williams, Independent Filmmaker

By far the most important education I’ve received around storytelling and independent filmmaking came via Film Independent’s Project Involve. When I started at Pearl Street, I wanted to establish an inclusive database of filmmakers to consider for future hiring, so I reached out to Film Independent for recommendations. That’s when I met Angel Kristi Williams. She had been a Project Involve Fellow and later went on to run the program alongside Francisco Velasquez (who has led PI since its inception in 1993).

Angel’s contributions to Project Involve have been integral to its continued success and in nurturing filmmakers with the highest standards. Like the HBOAccess program, participants work in cohorts to write, produce and direct a short film. Last year one of these final films, Emergency, won a Special Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival.

Angel grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and got her BA in Visual Art from the University of Maryland and her MFA in Directing at Columbia College Chicago. Her shorts The Christmas Tree and Charlotte have garnered awards and screened at festivals around the world. She is now in pre-production on her first feature.

Nina Yang Bongiovi, Film Producer

I met Nina at the introductory meeting of the Kellogg Foundation’s Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation narrative change initiative. This was my first meeting with Hollywood ‘heavy hitters,’ and I was still trying to figure out just how assertive I could be in my new role. When Nina introduced herself, I immediately felt at home and knew that I could speak my truth.

Nina criticized the industry myth that films starring People of Color would not do well overseas. After studying Entertainment Management at USC, she had spent a number of years forging relationships between the U.S. and Chinese film markets. She had the experience, relationships and knowledge to back up her questioning of this myth. She also had proven development success with films that many said wouldn’t ‘sell’ like Dope and Fruitvale Station. Of course, Fruitvale Station gave us Ryan Coogler – who definitively laid to rest the idea that films starring People of Color have no market overseas.

Through Significant Productions, Nina and her partner of Significant Forest Whitaker continue to develop meaningful and marketable content. They recently produced Netflix’s Roxanne RoxanneSongs My Brothers Taught Me, and the soon-to-be-released Sorry to Bother You directed by Boots Riley. While many are talking about diversity and inclusion, Nina is out there creating and distributing content that reflects the varied and complex experiences of People of Color.

Karen is a role model for working to dismantle inequities in entertainment from within. Karen Horne
Karen Horne, SVP, Programming Talent Development & Inclusion, NBC Entertainment and Universal Television Studios

 I’m not sure when Karen Horne sleeps. Her dedication to industry-wide change means she’s present and active in all kinds of initiatives beyond her ‘day-job’ — which is also focused on creating and maintaining an inclusive pipeline. She’s also one of the warmest and most welcoming people I’ve met in Hollywood. She greets everyone with a smile and makes time for people who are just starting their own journeys in entertainment.

Karen’s ‘day job’ is Senior Vice President, Programming Talent Development & Inclusion for NBC Entertainment and Universal TV Studios. She is responsible for most of NBC’s diverse talent initiatives – including NBC’s Female ForwardNBCUNIVERSAL’s Short FilmFestivalWriters on the Verge, the Emerging Director Program, and StandUp NBC. Her wide range of experience includes stints at HBO, Nickelodeon Productions, Walt Disney Network TV and the black Filmmaker Foundation. Karen is a role model for working to dismantle inequities in entertainment from within.

Simone Ling dedicates her time to projects that often struggle to get financing because they go beyond essentialist representations of women and other People of Color and LGBTQ communities
Simone Ling, Independent Producer, Story Consultant

Simone and I have been plotting as co-conspirators on changing Hollywood ever since we met early into my role at Pearl Street. We immediately clicked because of our culturally mixed backgrounds (Simone is an Asian/Hapa woman, born and raised in England). She dedicates her time to projects that often struggle to get financing because they go beyond essentialist representations of women and other People of Color and LGBTQ communities.

As an independent producer, Simone’s credits include work on Aurora Guerrero’s directorial debut Mosquita y Mari, a 2013 Indie Spirit Award nominee, and Anahita Ghazvinizadeh’s first feature, They, produced with Zoe Sua Cho, that premiered at last year’s Cannes film festival. A story analyst, consultant and mentor for clients as varied as Universal Pictures, the Sundance Film Institute, and AFI, Simone also sits on BAFTA/LA’s Scholarship and New Talent Committees.

These brief introductions don’t begin to do these women justice. They have all produced more content, have more experience and won more accolades than what’s here. They deserve attention, gratitude, access — and funding — and I hope sharing a little about them here might be one more step in that direction. Please follow and support their work – we are all better off because of it.

Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni

An award-winning playwright, actor, producer & educator, Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni is currently touring her one-woman show: One Drop of Love. Fanshen is also Head of Strategic Outreach at Pearl Street Films. She served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa and holds a BA in Spanish & Education, an MA in TESOL, and an MFA in Acting and Performance.

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