CAA Gets Real on Diversity: “It’s Hard, It Takes a Long Time, and It’s Expensive”
Agency insiders reveal the insights — and frustrations — of a core team’s decade-plus effort to bring more female and nonwhite talent to its client roster and ranks: “There’s an openness and an initiative, but we haven’t kicked this by any stretch.”
For more than a decade, a team of employees at CAA has been working to address the agency’s (and Hollywood’s) dearth of female and nonwhite voices. Led by Christy Haubegger, these agents and executives realized that in order to change the industry, it had to start from within — and at the bottom. Today, 44 percent of the agency’s motion picture department is female, and 22 percent are people of color, while the TV department is 46 percent female and 18 percent diverse. Nine of the 15-member core multicultural business development team gathered for a conversation with THR about the lessons, successes and roadblocks so far.
When did you first realize that there was a problem to be solved?
MICHELLE KYDD LEE, CHIEF INNOVATION OFFICER Our relationship to the issue started well over a decade ago as we were realizing the changing of the world was not being reflected honestly within our four walls. When I started here in ’95, if you were in the mailroom, you likely were a family member of somebody in the business, which means you were of a particular background.
MAHA DAKHIL, MOTION PICTURE LITERARY AGENT Mellody Hobson said something at a CAA retreat years ago that woke a lot of people up: “Before an important decision is made, is everybody at the table?” Everyone’s got great intentions, but without the awareness or background specificity, it’s too much work for one kind of person to get it right for everybody.
KYDD LEE We started a variety of efforts to recruit people we thought could make us better, but we really took off in a meaningful and thoughtful way when Christy joined us. (1)
CHRISTY HAUBEGGER, HEAD OF MULTICULTURAL BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT Growing up professionally in the Hispanic market, it was a shock for me to come here. I remember asking about multicultural strategy and was told, “You’ll figure that out, right?” So I did a census of all the multicultural clients at the agency, and it was around 30. I still have that piece of paper behind my desk. That list has grown 1,300 percent in the past 12 years. We had to understand the correlation that our internal diversity issues were limiting our business opportunities.
KYDD LEE We had never recruited for our mailroom. Then we realized this doesn’t work for what we want to do.
NATALIE TRAN, CO-EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, CAA FOUNDATION We had to cast a wider net than we had before. (2) We went all over the country.
RUBEN GARCIA, EXECUTIVE, MULTICULTURAL BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT In the early days I was on seven planes a week. We were out on campus developing relationships that would drive a thoughtful group of people to this company — and, in turn, to the industry.
JELANI JOHNSON, MOTION PICTURE LIT AGENT I was in college at Columbia, and there were so many [recruitment] mixers — Deloitte, Deutsch Bank, Goldman Sachs. In 2008, I met Christy and was like, “Who’s this brown woman?” (Laughs.) I’d never heard of CAA since I’m from the Midwest. We exchanged email addresses and we’d check in with each other monthly, and the next summer I ended up coming out here and interning in this building.
TALITHA WATKINS, EXECUTIVE, MULTICULTURAL BUSINESS DEVELOPMENTRepresentation on those campuses matters because if these kids see someone who looks like them, they’re more likely to strike up that conversation and find out something they don’t know about the industry.
JOHNSON And then you’ve gotta go sell that to your parents. (Laughter.)
GARCIA There’s this whole strategy around how you tell your parents what you’re gonna do.
TRAN It helped that Ruben and I went through that experience ourselves and also had to tell our parents.
JOHNSON A lot of the interns I was with were brown and female and reflective of the world outside this industry. (3)
TRAN In some instances we’ve converted an entire class [of interns into full-time positions at the agency], and our conversion rate on average is about 30 to 40 percent.
HAUBEGGER We realized that if we changed our pipeline, it in turn feeds the ecosystem with terrific women and people of color for partner companies and clients’ companies. Ruben is running a small outplacement business out of his office. (Laughter.) (4)
DAKHIL Your relationship with your agent can be a very personal one because you’re dealing with people’s life decisions. In order to have a comfort level with diverse talent, you have to change the complexion of the company.
SONYA ROSENFELD, CO-HEAD OF TV A lot of clients want their agents to be reflective of them. Writers rooms can’t all just look like one person. We started recognizing that if we were representing people that all didn’t just look like our dad, there would be more opportunities.
HAUBEGGER The challenge is getting more clients up the ladder faster. If you want a lot more diverse and female showrunners, you needed a lot more diverse and female writers assistants 10 years ago. You’ve got people [stuck at] story editor, and they’re not going to get opportunities to advance unless we find scale solutions. We address that in the Writers’ Boot Camp. (5)
DAKHIL It’s important to use whatever capital you have to push for progress. When Wonder Woman was an open directing assignment, [CAA’s] Ida Ziniti and Ali Trustman and I drove to Warner Bros. and said, “Even if it’s not our client, you have to hire a woman.” Not to say they weren’t going to, but the male executives we sat with welcomed that message. And they took us at face value, because the first hire was not ours. (6) (Laughter.) We were still happy. We’re past the point of, “It’s the right thing to do.” It’s obviously the lucrative thing to do.
WATKINS Christy’s been arming us with the stats. It’s great when someone sees [multiculturalism] as charity, but it’s more in line with our objectives if they see it as a business imperative, so we’ve all become data scientists here, crunching numbers to find the correlation to the best business case and how we can change minds and break stereotypes with numbers.
JOHNSON Luckily the proof’s in the pudding, and it’s not that difficult because it’s box-office success after box-office success.
There’s a demand for nonwhite talent, but studios complain the supply is too low.
DAKHIL We hear that from studios too. They’ll say, “We’d hire them, but the agencies don’t represent them or suggest them.”
HAUBEGGER We can’t make studios hire our female and diverse directors, but we can make sure that they saw them. Maha and Jelani were among the folks who helped develop a road-show presentation of our female and diverse clients that we take out to all the studios, to everyone from [Disney production president] Sean Bailey to [creative executives]. We spend 90 minutes and set follow-up meetings and submit materials. It’s not that our buyers aren’t interested, but you have to actually stop and focus on [diversity]. Otherwise, the “Oh, we didn’t get to the women on the list” thing can happen really quickly.
Is there a certain approach in working with your diverse clients?
ASHLEY HOLLAND, TV LIT AGENT [Holland moved to WME in July.] I was having a conversation about inclusion with a movie studio exec, and she said, “I wish that when [diverse] filmmakers went to make their first movie, they thought about their professional goals.” I represent filmmakers who have made two shorts, who haven’t even made their first feature. So when they are deciding what their first movie should be, we can have a professional conversation based on where they’re trying to go. The same goes for TV, because we don’t have the luxury of having women or people of color turn in three bad pilots.
DAKHIL We’d like to work toward that. (Laughter.) But artists want to express themselves any which way they want and they should. I remember one client saying, “I’m a gay filmmaker, and then I’m a black filmmaker.” You don’t decide as agents who your clients are.
HOLLAND It’s our job to do all the wizardry to create the avenue for their expression. A lot of people from underrepresented groups are nervous to say everything they want to say. We have to encourage them to do that, in the smartest and most strategic way possible.
JOHNSON It’s really about empowerment. One of my proudest moments as an agent was at Sundance this year. We represent a filmmaker named Gerard McMurray, who had a film there called Burning Sands. During a Q&A he was asked about his below-the-line crew, which had a first-time DP of color and a lot of physical production staff who looked like me. He said, “If I don’t give these people a shot, who will?” Similarly, that’s what we’re trying to do as agents and representatives.
DAKHIL Studios might say, “Yes, that actress can be in the movie but not as the lead,” and the population at large is saying, “Why not?” Twitter is saying, “We want to see women of diverse backgrounds in a movie directed by Ava DuVernay, written by Issa Rae, starring Rihanna and Lupita [Nyong’o], let’s go.” (7)
JOHNSON Traditionally if you look at art of color, we’re not star-dependent. If you look at Get Out, Daniel Kaluuya’s immensely talented, but nobody had seen him onscreen in that way previously. If you look at Moonlight, nobody had seen those young gentlemen onscreen in that way before. Even going back to Boyz n the Hood, we didn’t know Cuba Gooding Jr. and Morris Chestnut. So we can just make great art and the audience is saying, “We’ll come out and support it if it’s reflective of us and entertaining.” That’s empowering.
Where do you look for diverse talent outside traditional pools like elite film and drama schools or certain comedy scenes?
JOHNSON You have to be authentically participatory in your community. You can’t be a culture vulture. Black artists are very tight. As agents, Ashley and I know all of the people in that community. So we’ll get a call or email saying, “Hey, you don’t know this person, but they just moved here from Chicago or New Orleans or St. Louis; grab a coffee with them.” And it happens organically if the art is incredible.
KYDD LEE It also happens on the workforce. Clients like Reggie Hudlin or Will Packer call to say, “I’ve got this young person that’s fantastic. Will you please at least make sure that they have an interview?” Everybody being invested together is what changes the dynamic.
HOLLAND I feel a responsibility to share what feels proprietary about my in-group, whether it’s as a woman or a person of color. People aren’t not looking in certain places on purpose; they just literally don’t know. So it’s going to somebody in the comedy group and saying, “Do you guys go to All Def Comedy? I’m here all the time just for fun with my friends, but you should check it out for other reasons because there’s talent there.” It’s going to NerdMelt and seeing Amanda Seales’ or James Davis’ show and then telling your buyers and peers at the company, “Hey, this is another cool place to check out talent.”
WATKINS We also utilize this building. We hosted targeted screenings for Roots with Will Packer and Everything, Everything with Stella Meghie. We meet a lot of people that way.
DAKHIL The point is to activate the community at large. If you take care of people, you’ll get that referral when it comes. I’d love to see our outreach be greater. I think we’ve done well with the African-American community; a lot of that is because there are people in the building who are intrinsic to that community. But I’m boggled that we live in L.A., a predominantly Latino market, yet I don’t know where all the Latino filmmakers and talent are, even with Christy here. Native American cultures are really important. We’re excited about our accomplishments, but any measure of success is always considering what you could be doing better, and what communities you could be serving better. The disabled community is obviously undeserved in Hollywood.
HAUBEGGER We actually have some of those relationships now. A woman who was on my desk, who’s a little person, is now at SAG-AFTRA working with their Performers With Disabilities committee.
Where would you like to improve next, either personally or as an agency?
HOLLAND I just hosted eight writers with the L.A. Skins Fest. This man sent me an email saying, “Hi, I work at this film festival focusing on developing Native American writers. Can we come to your office to talk to you?” I didn’t know anything about their program, and they came in and talked to me about who they were. Mind you, like three weeks beforehand, I was staffing a show, and the showrunner needed Native American writers, and I didn’t represent any. I didn’t even have a place to go to find them.
DAKHIL The Sundance Institute has been really helpful, like Bird Runningwater, who runs the Native American program.
WATKINS I’m really excited about this year’s You’re Up, and our next Boot Camp. Every year we try to be very bespoke about how we plan those so that we can address the needs in the marketplace in support of what our colleagues are facing.
HAUBEGGER We’re also bucketed. There are things we do that are internal-facing, external-facing and client-facing. Each of them is a prism into a very different experience and set of needs. We’re this odd fulcrum in the ecosystem that means we have to be bicultural too.
How do you take the passion in this room to the agency and beyond?
KYDD LEE Amplify is our baby.
WATKINS Christy cheers us on by telling us it’s the early days.
HAUBEGGER For most of us, when we go to meetings with our buyers, we’re often the only person of color in the room. I’m excited about sitting with people facing the same issues in the tech and sports worlds. What can I learn from them, and what can I help them with? We’ve been doing a lot at the client level and [Amplify] is a more macro, cross-industry, interdisciplinary look at some of the issues that we probably all share.
ROSENFELD It has to be individual initiatives that are then joined with the collective. If you decide something’s important to you personally, once you’ve done it, you say to your friend, “Hey, maybe you should interview people of color for your desk when your assistant leaves next week.”
GARCIA It wasn’t long ago that people thought a diversity initiative was just to check off a box. That’s not to say there aren’t companies or industries that still have a bit of that antiquated philosophy. But these days, we have lunch with executives at Warner Bros. and we go, “Whoa, you can’t do all of that at once. What’s the priority, and how can we be your partner?”
HAUBEGGER Talitha, Ruben and I met with some studio HR execs who wanted to know what we’d learned. We said three things: It’s really hard, it takes a long time, and it’s expensive. You come into this issue and you’re like, “If we just change the pipeline …”
ROSENFELD It doesn’t just happen.
HAUBEGGER That’s necessary but not sufficient. Or, “We just need to sign a bunch of female and diverse writers.” That’s necessary but not sufficient. You have to develop their skills and prepare and support them in a way that is more embracing than what we would have done 10 years ago. It’s like climbing a mountain. You think you’re at the top but there’s another peak to get to. The thing that’s really helpful for me is that I’m not alone.
DAKHIL We still have work to do. We do not have enough agents who represent all of the world. We’re getting there — I’ve been here 13 years and watched how this company has changed. Our assistants look a lot more diverse, and I’ve wondered a few times, “Where do they go?”
HAUBEGGER Ruben’s placing them at Bad Robot. (Laughter.)
DAKHIL We care, and it starts with that. There’s an openness and an initiative, but we haven’t kicked this by any stretch.
(1) After producing Spanglish and Chasing Papi, Haubegger, who founded Latina magazine, joined CAA in 2003.
(2) In 2005, CAA began a campaign to recruit diverse students from elite schools, historically black colleges, women’s colleges and those with high Latino populations.
(3) Nearly half of CAA’s interns worldwide are women; about 40 percent are people of color.
(4) Interns recruited through CAA’s multicultural outreach have gone on to work at Ryan Murphy Productions, Bad Robot and Warner Bros.
(5) Writers’ Boot Camp is an annual workshop for midlevel TV writers.
(6) ICM-repped Michelle MacLaren was tapped to helm Wonder Woman before CAA’s Patty Jenkins took the reins.
(7) This 2014 NYC Fashion Week photo sparked a viral social media post imagining a Rae-penned, DuVernay-helmed heist pic starring Rihanna (left) and Nyong’o. CAA packaged and sold to Netflix a film inspired by the meme in May.