Honorees of the screenwriting diversity program reflect on their experiences as minority writers in Hollywood. The big picture? The number of employed WGAW minority screenwriters
(January 7, 2013)
Photo: Michael Jones
(L-R) Zak Shaikh, Paula Yoo, Chuck Hayward, Vivian Lee, Dwayne Johnson-Cochran
“I think I'm a very good film writer, not just a very good black film writer,” says writer-director Dwayne Johnson-Cochran, who was recently named an honoree in the WGAW’s Feature Access Project, a program designed to identify outstanding minority screenwriters and facilitate industry networking to promote their scripts and talents. “Sure, there are many opportunities that I have not even been considered for simply because of my race, and that's a shame.”
Johnson-Cochran, whose script Bibi tells the story of a former child soldier hired to kill in a post-civil war African country, is one of five screenwriters selected for the program in its nascent year. “Hopefully this honor will help show the scope of my abilities,” he says.
In fact, despite several decades of institutional efforts, minority writers in Hollywood are still the most underemployed group of writers in feature films. In 2009, the last year for which reliable data is available, representation in features dropped to 5% (from 6%) for the first time in a decade, according the WGAW’S 2011 Hollywood Writers Report.
It was the intention to help remedy the situation that led to the creation of the Feature Access Project, which is sponsored by the Guild’s Diversity Department. Modeled after the Guild’s highly successful Writer Access Project for mid-level television writers, the project helps raise the profiles of selected minority screenwriters by making their scripts available to industry decision-makers which, in turn, leads to access and jobs. Applicants are required to submit a current unproduced spec script, which is judged on a blind submission basis by a panel of experienced WGAW screenwriters. The honorees are also matched with Guild mentors who provide career guidance and support.
That said, the experiences of minority writers are as diverse as the scripts they create. Chuck Hayward, whose script Potluck is a coming-of-age story about a close-knit group of high school friends who come back together after a year away at college, feels that his perspective has been valued in writers rooms and that the problem lies in a paucity of minority characters.
“I think the feeling of being closed out comes from the pervasive notion that stories featuring mainly minority characters do not have mass appeal because ‘mainstream’ audiences find them inaccessible,” says Hayward. “That has led to a massive decrease in films and television shows being produced that feature minority lead characters.”
Vivian Lee, a script coordinator on the upcoming CW series The Carrie Diaries whose script Eve at the Bar explores a Los Angeles teen’s search for her identity after her brother is convicted of being a serial killer, cites the pre-conceived notion that minority writers explore only minority-centric themes in their work. “We don’t write for our ethnicity or our race, we write from a specific point of view,” counters Lee. “My script had nothing to do with race. It was just a different way to look at something that hasn’t been talked about. That’s really important.”
Zak Shaikh, whose script The Ignoble Rise of Lord Rex deals with a young man’s experiences at a British boarding school, asserts that studio executives, like most people, tend to gravitate towards stories they relate to and identify with. “That’s not necessarily defined by color, as people can connect over many things, like musical taste or social opinions or even gender,” says Shaikh. “But connections are also subconsciously based on having a similar life experience, which can partly be a by-product of color.”
For all of the honorees, being selected for the Feature Access Project represents a welcome validation. Paula Yoo, whose family-friendly script Popular Science deals with a teen science geek who recruits a popular girl as her subject in a high school science competition, came to screenwriting via the circuitous route of journalism and childrens book writing. Yoo, who was selected for the Warner Bros. TV Drama Writing Workshop in 2002 which led to her first staff job on The West Wing, concedes that she has been spared the harshest experiences of being a minority writer in Hollywood. Nonetheless, she is acutely aware of the problem and pushing for improvement. “I don’t want to hear in 10 years that the rate of minority representation has only increased to 7%,” she says.
Read more about the Feature Access Project