By Cara Buckley
September 2, 2018
Dailyn Rodriguez, a veteran writer and producer, said she wasn’t necessarily looking to work on a new show for the coming season. But she suddenly found herself in high demand, her agents constantly fielding calls about her availability.
She was what one Hollywood executive called a “unicorn” — not just a Latina, but one who had risen through the television ranks.
“They told me, ‘We’re scrambling, because there’s like five of you, and they’re all working,’” said Ms. Rodriguez, who turned down other offers to remain a producer of “Queen of the South.”
With dozens of shows now in production, television executives are hustling to diversify their writers’ rooms, the hidden nuclei of Hollywood where stories, dialogue and characters are born, and where the showrunners of tomorrow are created.
In more than three dozen interviews, writers, producers, and studio and network executives said heightened scrutiny in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite and other controversies has led to the concerted push, particularly for women of color in senior positions.
A deluge of shows in this age of peak TV, with Netflix, Amazon, HBO and other services greenlighting new offerings almost daily, has also stoked demand. Many of these new series have people of color and women as lead characters, in turn pushing minorities and women to the center of the writing staff, a major step forward for writers who say they have long felt like window dressing.
There is also a hunger to replicate the success of shows like “Empire,” “Jane the Virgin” and “Power”; to discover the next Lee Daniels, Ava DuVernay or Shonda Rhimes; or to cultivate critical darlings like Issa Rae and Donald Glover.
“Everyone is eager to find that person,” said Christy Haubegger, an agent at Creative Artists Agency who focuses on diversity. Ms. Haubegger has fielded so many requests for experienced writers of color that she recently created an online database, so networks and producers could look for themselves. “The demand has been that high,” she said. “I can’t service everybody in town.”
But a major reason these seasoned writers are suddenly batting away job offers is that relatively few are in the supply chain. It is a problem of Hollywood’s own making.
Plenty of minority and female writers are looking for jobs, but may be unknown to or overlooked by showrunners, unrepresented by agencies, or seen as lacking in experience. “The pool is wide but not deep” is a common refrain. Even those at the forefront of diversification efforts acknowledge that a shortage exists. Not enough minority women have been groomed for senior writing jobs, a function not only of the industry’s white male focus, but also of rarefied access, discrimination in promotions, and low entry-level pay.
Whenever Jamila Hunter, head of comedy at ABC Entertainment, visits historically black colleges and talks about jobs in Hollywood, she finds herself outgunned by recruiters from Wall Street and Silicon Valley who lure graduates with tantalizing salaries. She can promise only years of dues-paying in expensive Los Angeles.
Even then, there’s no guarantee, given the fierce competition. “It’s an industry of privileged apprenticeship,” Ms. Hunter said. “Economically, there is not a pipeline for them.”
The Cascading Effect of Diversity
Hollywood’s writing staffs remain overwhelmingly dominated by white men. On more than 200 series in the 2016-17 season, just 13.7 percent of television writers were people of color, according to a report conducted by Darnell Hunt, the dean of social sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, for the advocacy group Color of Change. Among showrunners, the executives who have total creative and management control, and who often start out as writers, more than nine of 10 were white, and 80 percent were male.
“There’s no one who thinks, ‘I don’t want a woman to direct my show,’ or ‘I only want white men writing this,’” said Sarah Aubrey, an executive with TNT. “But when you’re in the trenches and it’s crunchtime, it is, ‘What is my go-to and shortlist of people I know and trust?’ You have to expand your circle.”
While staffing statistics are not yet available for this year, female and minority writers and showrunners said they were seeing more people who look like them running rooms.
The vast quantity of new programming has opened doors that did not exist a few years ago. Some of these shows have among the most diverse staffs in television, including “Dear White People,” “Seven Seconds,” “Pose” and “Master of None.”
Before the writer and producer LaToya Morgan signed her second coveted overall deal with AMC — it gives the network ownership over everything she produces, and provides lucrative job security in return — she fielded multiple requests from potential employers. Ms. Morgan said she knew several other women of color in the same position. “There are a lot of cool and great opportunities that I don’t think were there before,” she said.
This has a cascading effect. “When there are more women in charge, more women are hired, said Felicia D. Henderson, a longtime writer-producer whose credits include “The Punisher” and “Empire.” “When there are more black showrunners, there are more black writers on staff.”
Having female or minority writers can have an enormous impact on what goes onscreen. Stereotypes can be challenged and questions asked, such as: Why does the black doctor have to have a bullet wound linked to a gangster past, rather than be a middle-class nerd who has never been shot? Why are female characters described in terms of their looks?
And when there is more than one woman or minority writer in the room, several writers said, they are more likely to be heeded, and less likely to be called on as the voice of all women or people of color. Courtney Kemp, the showrunner of “Power,” calls the phenomenon “Blackipedia, or Blacktionary,” and said, “It’s exhausting.”
At the same time, some female and minority writers question whether they are being courted because of a genuine push for diversity, or simply because male showrunners want cover from criticism.
Kiersten Van Horne, a producer on “Berlin Station” and “Mistresses,” said she has been told in recent months, “They’re looking for an upper-level female” and “they’re looking for diverse candidates at X level.”
Sono Patel, who is of South Asian descent and worked as a producer and writer on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” said she had been told on a few occasions that she lost out on jobs because the showrunner wanted a black writer. “We still look like checked boxes,” she said.
Even as women and people of color struggle to get ahead, there are rumblings of a backlash from men in the industry. The concerns have intensified amid the storm of #MeToo allegations about sexism and sexual harassment, which led to the suspensions of prominent male showrunners like Andrew Kreisberg (“Supergirl” and “Arrow”) and Brad Kern (“Charmed” and “NCIS: New Orleans”).
Tracey Scott Wilson, who was a supervising producer on “The Americans,” mentors younger colleagues, and said she had met white male writers who believe they were passed over because a minority or woman got their slot, even though other white men ended up being hired. “That mythology is out there and it’s poisonous,” she said.
David Slack, a writer and executive producer whose credits include “Law & Order” and “Person of Interest,” said he knew several young male writers whose agents told them they lost out on jobs because of diversity pushes and #MeToo.
Mr. Slack said he had also heard grousing about Tanya Saracho staffing her Starz show “Vida” with all Hispanic writers, and about the predominantly female writing staff of the Netflix wrestling dramedy “Glow.”
“If guys are mad about this stuff, they’re mad about things being slightly less unfair in their favor,” Mr. Slack said.
Morgan is repped by attorney Rob Szymanski.