The diversity puzzle

While the calls for gender parity in the industry grow and it struggles to respond, Playback looks at the progress already made - and asks whether an even bigger issue is on the horizon.
Killjoys Season 2

Hannah John-Kamen stars in Space and Syfy’s Killjoys as Dutch, one of the many strong, diverse lead characters created by Canadian writer/showrunner Michelle Lovretta

The chorus, in Canada, has reached something of a crescendo.

In late April, the Canada Media Fund (CMF) and Telefilm went to the unusual lengths of issuing a joint statement to the public outlining their current stance on the role of the public funders in influencing gender diversity in Canadian film and television.

The statement outlined the organizations’ contributions to women-focused industry initiatives and events but stopped short of outlining specific policy.

“It’s important for Telefilm and the CMF that any proposed course of action take into account all aspects of this complex issue and end in concrete results. We have committed Telefilm and the CMF to finding viable and lasting solutions to the question of gender parity in the audiovisual industry and that these solutions be implemented in a timely manner.”

The statement followed a public call to action from “Telefilm: This is Easy,” a grassroots campaign spearheaded by director and Ryerson instructor Naomi Jaye, who appeared on CBC’s popular Toronto radio show, Metro Morning on April 21 to promote her cause. Jaye is calling for Telefilm to institute a “representational funding model” to ensure gender parity in the productions it funds, a move undertaken by both the National Film Board and BravoFACT in 2015.

A raft of recent research has highlighted the ongoing imbalance in the industry. In February, Women in View launched 2x, an initiative that aims to get more women in directors’ chairs, on the foundation of a report showing just 17% of directors in scripted Canadian TV are women. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, in a recent study encompassing 11 countries, found that “out of a total of 1,452 filmmakers with an identifiable gender, 20.5% were female and 79.5% were male. Of that 20.5%, seven percent were directors, 19.7% writers and 22.7% producers.

But are quotas, as Telefilm: This is Easy, the NFB and Bravo’s initiatives suggest, the best solution? On the surface, it’s straightforward: tell people they have to do something to get what they want and there’s a good chance many will.

Barb Williams, former president of Shaw Media and now EVP and COO of Corus Entertainment, says she believes in the power of quotas. “Give people room to say no and they will – give them no room and they pretty quickly work with you,” she quips. Shaw Media for several years required the presence of at least one woman in its original-series writing rooms and has aggressively pushed for at least one female director on at least one episode of each series. Williams calls the modest quota a success and says it has helped change the minds of executives within the company, who in the past leaned toward the “let the work speak for itself” state of mind to “we have to create an environment where the work can speak for itself” outlook.

But in speaking with Playback at MIPTV in April this year, Valerie Creighton, president and CEO of the CMF, admits that although the CMF is in a unique position to influence diversity in Canadian TV and digital, the organization has not identified a concrete path to achieve it. She says her gut tells her quotas aren’t the answer.

“If we’re going to do something, I don’t want it to be a platitude,” she says. “I don’t want it to be a ‘we’ll do this because we have to,’ or ‘Oh well we’re going to force a gender-based quota criteria’ – I don’t think that’s going to work. I want to find a way that will trigger creativity – because that’s what speaks at the end of the day.”

Results – in the form of ROI – also speak, and research from Washington-based nonprofit The Peterson Institute bears out the ineffectiveness of gender quotas alone as a means to improve a company’s bottom line: “Consistent with other research, there is no evidence that board quotas have any significant impact, positive or negative, on company performance.” That’s not to say gender diversity in the corporate ranks, however, has no impact. Au contraire. The Peterson Institute found that real impact on a company’s bottom line came from having at least 30% women in leadership roles (the result, it said not of quotas, but of a variety of “national characteristics” like girls’ math scores or paternity leave policies), which, it said, can boost a company’s profits by 15%. “Those are significant financial gains,” Williams points out.

Creighton says she wouldn’t rule quotas out entirely, but that the answer, though still elusive, likely lies within the CMF’s core competency: financing. “My experience at the fund is that people go where there is money,” she says. “Money usually is the answer.”

“The dilemma of this coming up right now is you have an industry in collapse,” she notes.

Carmilla  photo credit - Sophie Giraud

The cast of Shaftesbury/Smokebomb’s Carmilla is certainly diverse, but equally as important, so is the team behind it

Interestingly, while the call to improve gender parity in the Canadian industry has reached fever pitch, organic efforts on multiple sides of the industry look to be gaining momentum successfully, thanks to conscious efforts – driven by business strategy – by those in leadership roles. In every interview Playback conducted for this story, executives and entrepreneurs identified mentorship and strategic risk-taking as key to improving what most seem to view as a bottom-line-positive evolution. Even the Peterson Institute pointed this out in the topline abstract of its report: “The results find no impact of board gender quotas on firm performance, but they suggest that the payoffs of policies that facilitate women rising through the corporate ranks more broadly could be significant.”

The closed-ecosystem nature of TV and film has traditionally been the main barrier to diversity of any sort. With millions of dollars on the line, limited opportunities for broadcast licences and tight schedules, people’s natural instinct is to go with who they know will deliver. And in a small industry like Canada, this naturally creates a small pool of talent at the top, as credits beget credits and the industry closes in on itself.

“The issue from many people’s perspective is really about opportunity. Nobody wants a token situation,” says Jocelyn Hamilton, president of eOne Television Canada. “What everyone is asking for now is to allow for the opportunity to have your name be on the table. As executives, we can have something to say about that.”

The business case, from eOne’s perspective, has proven itself. Almost all of its successful original productions feature a woman in charge in a critical position, from eOne’s own ranks through showrunners and directors. The list is significant; two Ilana C Frank-produced series: the Tassie Cameron-helmed, Morwyn Brebner and Ellen Vanstone-created Rookie Blue (six seasons on Global and ABC) and Brebner-Malcolm MacRury co-created Saving Hope (five seasons on CTV), as well as the ratings-record-setting Bitten on Space and Syfy, showrun by Daegan Fryklind, and the upcoming Nisha Ganatra-directed (all eps) You Me Her for Direct TV and Mary Kills People, created by Tara Armstrong, showrun by Tassie Cameron and directed (all eps) by an undisclosed woman director.

Having built itself on the mini-studio model, eOne is able to put new names on the table by attaching them to established ones, like it has done with Mary Kills People. Tassie Cameron was brought on not just to showrun the series but mentor Armstrong, whom both Hamilton and Williams see as a bright young talent (see page 22).

Jeff Alpern, founder and president of Toronto and L.A.-based literary agency The Alpern Group, sees the effects of that momentum first hand. In fact, he has purposefully fostered it. After noticing in the ’90s that TV was overly represented by men in decision-making positions creating TV for a largely female audience, Alpern decided to focus his agency’s efforts on developing female showrunning talent through its support of writers.

Those efforts can be seen self-replicating across Canadian TV. Alpern Group clients include Emily Andras, who debuted as a showrunner this spring with Wynonna Earp (Syfy, CHCH) and worked as a producer on Lost Girl (Showcase, Syfy), created and initially showrun by Michelle Lovretta; Rookie Blue‘s Brebner, who went on to co-create Saving Hope and Sandra Chwialkowska, another Lost Girl alum, who is currently helming two projects: translating LGBT web series hit Carmilla to linear TV for Shaftesbury (overseeing an all-women writing room) and developing an original drama for Rogers Media.

“A good writer is a good writer and that’s fine,” says Alpern on the audience impact of having an equal number of women in leadership positions on productions. “But the person who’s in charge, that showrunner or the creator, I think that’s what makes a show unique – that female perspective at the top.”

And at Sinking Ship, the Toronto prodco that this year earned a collective 20 Daytime Emmy nominations for its series Annedroids, Odd Squad and Dino Dan, a pilot project to increase the number of women directors on those shows has worked out so well, it is becoming permanent. “Our goals were twofold, increase the membership of new female directors in the Guild and create a new pool of directors for our own shows to draw from. We’ve been successful on both fronts,” explains executive producer J.J. Johnson.

The pilot saw three women shadow an established director for three of the four episodes in a four-episode shooting block, then direct the fourth episode herself, a strategy that Johnson says allowed the company to test-drive new talent while maintaining the visual continuity of the series. Critically, it gave each woman a valuable directing credit on a well-recognized production. All will return to mentor the next crop of directors.

“This strategy will absolutely become a mainstay of how Sinking Ship will diversify its talent pools, first with female directors – we should hit parity by the new season of Odd Squad – and then with diverse directors in 2017,” he says.

Credit: Sinking Ship & The Fred Rogers Company

Odd Squad coproducer Sinking Ship has embarked on a mentorship program that sees women directors – and soon, diverse directors – shadow established directors for several episodes and then helm one of their own.

Johnson’s comments touch on two critical points in addressing diversity in Canada’s film and TV industry. One, mentorship and risk-taking on the part of decision makers is critical in expanding the role of women in both the executive ranks and in key leadership roles on productions themselves. And two: racial and ethnic diversity is an equal consideration.

Barb Williams argues that quotas can help aid in increasing diversity, especially in an industry where credits, even on the executive side, are everything.

“I believe, and this is just me, in almost all of the situations I can imagine in trying to move the social agenda forward, that quotas are not a dirty word. They are a necessary step to get forward momentum and action. But they don’t need to last forever. Once you get stuff happening it proves itself… that Rolodex of non-traditional people – whether they be writers, directors, whatever – starts to grow really quickly.

“And then you don’t need to worry about it anymore, they just see that that director, who happens to be a black woman, is fantastic, she did great and she’ll do great on my next show,” she continues.

From many points of view, ethnic and racial diversity is one area the industry is ignoring at its peril. This winter, the Ralph J. Bunche Center at UCLA delivered a new report examining the top 200 theatrical film releases and 1146 TV shows in 2013-14. It sought to identify trends in the representation of women and minorities in front of and behind the camera, and how they correlate to box office and ratings.

It found that “films with relatively diverse casts enjoyed the highest median global box office receipts and the highest median return on investment,” that “minorities accounted for the majority of ticket sales for four of the top-10 films in 2014, ranked by global box office,” and that “median 18-49 viewer ratings peaked for broadcast scripted shows featuring casts that were greater than 40% minority.”

It concluded, after finding little progress in diversity in film and TV, that as the U.S. grows more racially diverse, “Hollywood’s business as usual model may soon be unsustainable.”

So, does Canadian entertainment too have a looming problem more pressing than simply gender diversity in its leadership and decision-making ranks? Census data indicates that might be the case.

Statistics Canada, in its most recent projections of the diversity of the Canadian population, showed that in 2006, 19.8% of Canadians were foreign-born (first-generation immigrants to Canada) compared to 12.5% of the U.S. population that year. In 2031, the organization projects that the foreign-born population will reach between 25% and 28%. Moreover, the composition of the foreign-born population in Canada is changing. Where it was once mainly European (66.7% in 1981), it will have almost completely reversed by 2031, with 55% of foreign-born persons in Canada coming from Asia and only 20% from Europe.

“The foreign-born population from non-European countries stands out from the rest of the Canadian population in having a larger proportion of visible minority persons, individuals with neither English nor French as their mother tongue and persons having a non-Christian religion.

“Consequently, the changes observed with regard to the places of birth of foreign-born persons are accompanied by a diversification of this population in several respects,” the report states.

A 2012 Ryerson University roundtable on “Cultural Diversity in the Toronto Screen Media Production Industry” charged that “the objective of cultural diversity on and off screen in the broadcasting industry is not being vigorously pursued. Despite many ‘diversity initiatives’ by broadcasters and governmental agencies, progress has been unacceptably slow.” The roundtable specifically focused on the industry (off-screen) side of Canadian film and TV, and made the business case for cultural diversity central to its conversation, pointing out that benefits of a diverse approach include greater appeal to Canadian audiences and greater international opportunities.

“Culturally diverse content is also a way for Canadian producers to open the doors to international markets, and increase the global competitiveness of the industry. This could not be truer in a sector where consumers have more choices than ever regarding platforms and content,” the report noted.

A good example of this could be seen at MIPTV this April, where a panel of five international broadcasters outlined their interest in international partnerships. National Ivory Coast broadcaster Radiodiffusion Télévision Ivoirienne (RTI) exec Sandra Coulibaly said at her four-channel network, copros are now the net’s “main method” of production, with 50% financing the norm and sometimes 100% if the show “has international potential.” She identified international sales and increasing the skill set of the country’s domestic industry as key drivers in pursuing a copro-first strategy. Denmark and Italy also echoed the interest in copros, provided they had an “international” feel.

All of this points to an industry that, as Creighton said, is currently “in decline,” and could use a shot in the arm. Is overall diversity, driven by increased diversity and awareness in TV’s leadership ranks (executives, showrunners and programmers included), that shot?

UCLA’s data suggests so. And although Creighton was arguing in favour of a more gender-diverse Canadian industry, her comments represent a viewpoint that logically extends to overall diversity.

“It’s the country that’s losing out if we don’t do something about this,” she says. “It’s the creative ingenuity of Canada that’s losing out if we don’t do something about this. If we want to drive forward and remain competitive, we’ve got to get these young women into the system to help us trigger that creativity. Because it’s not coming from the old thinkers and the old system. And it’s not to denigrate anybody’s work or what anyone’s done, but it’s a whole different day out there. And if we miss this opportunity, we should just be ashamed of ourselves.”

Correction: In the previous version of this article, Ms. Jaye was incorrectly referred to as a producer; she is a director. Additionally, the article incorrectly referred to her request to Telefilm as a “quota” when in fact she would like to see a “representational funding model.