Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Minority Screenwriters, or Guess Who's Not Coming to Dinner

The ongoing discrimination lawsuit against WME and CAA from African American screenwriter Justin Samuels (and one little John August post to be precise) has made the issue of underrepresentation of black writers bubble up again in the blogosphere. Unsurprisingly, working and wannabe screenwriters, slaving away in the trenches on the umpteenth free rewrite, have met with a fair amount of vitriol Samuel's blithe naïveté about the long slog that is trying to write and sell the Hollywood screenplay.

According to Samuels, he is due eight million dollars in damages because he had eight screenplays (worth "one million each") that he was unable to submit to the majors because they don't accept unsolicited queries. And since the only way in for an unrepped writer is through a recommendation from an insider-- and the agents and insiders are white-- black writers are effectively locked out, in Samuels' reasoning. That leaves a black writer with much nothing else to do but launch an eight million dollar law suit.

Crazy right? Plenty black screenwriters have bucked the trend. There's Gina Prince Bythewood, Geoffrey Fletcher, and um, who'm I leaving out... Antwone Fisher? Talk about exceptions proving the rule. And while nobody expects Hollywood to be a dream factory for minority writers, we quite possibly never had it so bad.

Despite a WGA diversity department, and a number of programs designed to tackle the imbalance, the report on writers of color in the industry is the worst it's been in ten years. According to the Hollywood Reporter:

In film, minorities are underrepresented by a ratio of 7-to-1, with the share of minorities employed in writing jobs declining to its lowest level in at least 10 years (5%).

So what's at work here? John August raises the question of access. If screenwriting is to whatever degree sometimes about who you know, how do you change a writer of color's connections? UCLA's talked about increasing film school aid to writers of color, which seems solid-- not to moan, but I could certainly have benefited from it going to the exorbitantly priced one I self-paid for. But even with scholarships in place, it's a handful of writers that are going to go the film school route.

I remember when the contention was that there weren't enough African-American distributors and if distribution existed, the story of black film would be different. But now it's starting to look like the back-end problem we thought we had is in fact a front-end issue. And like John August, I'm not sure that legally forcing agencies to read queries would change the landscape much. The system of "by request only" is in place to keep out mediocre material. Good scripts win contests and attract agents, managers or influential champions. The cream rises to the top.

"Practice. Feedback. Network." That's the journey. But as hard as we work at the first two components, that last one continues to be the tough one to hurdle because it's the one most out of our control. I keep thinking more mentorships along the lines of the Cosby Fellowship might be the answer, but I'd love to hear other thoughts.