Breaking barriers: Diversity needs ‘margin for failure’

In part two of Playback's roundtable, execs talk international biases against diverse casting, the need for a higher risk tolerance and the growing demand for representation.
Diversity Roundtable

Reaching under-served Canadian audiences has long been a topic of discussion in the domestic film and TV industry, but while talk and good intentions are plentiful, demonstrable progress has been harder to pin down. 

There’s no question that the face of Canada is changing: 21.9% of the population, or 7.54 million Canadians, are foreign-born individuals, according to the 2016 census. By 2036, Statistics Canada predicts a full third of Canadians will be visible minorities. But the country’s heterogenous cultural makeup isn’t reflected in the media it produces.

Playback gathered some of the industry’s finest minds, from broadcasters and distributors, to creators, producers, festival programmers and media insights experts to hash out what needs to change and where the opportunities lie in reaching these audiences. This is part two of a story that originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Playback magazine. Part one of the story appeared in Playback Daily on Dec. 14.

The participants in the roundtable discussion were: Aarti Bhaskaran, head, business insights and analytics, MediaCom; Andria Wilson, executive director, Inside Out LGBT Film Festival; Clement Virgo, partner/producer, Conquering Lion Pictures; Corrie Coe, SVP, original programming, Bell Media; Hussain Amarshi, president and founder, Mongrel Media; Jennifer Holness, president, Hungry Eyes Media; and Sally Catto, general manager, programming, CBC.

Playback: Are there barriers to selling diverse Cancon stories internationally?

Corrie Coe, SVP, original programming, Bell Media: We have found that when [international] distributors take world rights, they have concerns about Canadianness [of the content], about specificity, about things like inter-racial relationships – about too much overt anything.

Maybe it’s the buyers they’re selling to who have some of these institutional biases, but I feel like the audiences they’re buying for probably have more openness to other stories than they give them credit for.

PB: Are there any markets in particular where the content is struggling to sell?

Coe: European markets.

Sally Catto, general manager, programming, CBC: I would say the same. The U.S., oddly, gets skittish over seeing things that aren’t the U.S., to be honest. And I don’t know whether that’s actually the audience [in the U.S.], or whether it’s the buyers who just don’t feel their audiences will relate to it, or a bit of both.

Clement Virgo, partner/producer, Conquering Lion Pictures: You feel like there’s an inherent conservatism?

Coe: I do. It’s the same with 19-2, which was up for an International Emmy. It’s got an extremely diverse cast and is set in Montreal – these are just beat cops. And it has not sold well in Europe at all because of that casting, even though it’s won all sorts of awards.

Virgo: Do you feel, in terms of the casting, that certain faces don’t sell internationally?

Coe: I don’t understand it. I don’t get it.

Jennifer Holness, president, Hungry Eyes Media: You know this though. We’ve been told our whole careers that [programs with diverse cast] do not sell internationally. I feel like there are just some tropes that Europeans like about diverse people. And if you don’t fit into that trope, it does not work.

I was recently pitched a project that I really loved with a black German man at the centre of the story. But the writer is German and, I’ve got to tell you, the inherent perceptions about black people in that storytelling were shocking. It was to the point where I said I’m really interested in taking it on, but I won’t do it unless we’re able to find a Canadian co-writer and we are be able to address these issues.

The European [hesitation around diverse stories] is real, it is an impediment, it stops us from getting our films financed, it stops us from getting our films made, because inherently if it doesn’t follow one of the tropes that Europeans and often Canadians like to see in black and brown people, it’s not going to work.

Hussain Amarshi, president and founder, Mongrel Media: But also the cultural context in Europe is very different.

It may be a public policy issue in Canada, where if we are dealing with racialized drama or diverse drama, perhaps the funding structure has to change to allow for the possibility of financing projects entirely out of Canada, rather than trying to appease the Europeans.

The fact is, if you want to create content that reflects us – or reflects the possibility of what we can become – that is not necessarily going to appeal to other audiences.

For now, we have to find a way to be able to make that [content] without relying on the Europeans to co-finance it. The key thing is make it for the Canadian audiences, and if it requires full financing [in Canada], let’s figure out a model that allows for that.

Thinking about cultural policy and the whole emphasis from the new Minister [of Canadian Heritage, Melanie Joly] on exportability, I think we need to challenge that notion. If we are [focused on] exporting, then [the content] will have to be sanitized stories that will not reflect Canada to us, or anybody else.

Andria Wilson, executive director, Inside Out LGBT Film Festival: Truly, I think the more specific [the content], the more universal, really. The more we feel we’re seeing something real, that it’s created by the people that are telling it – that’s what makes audiences connect to it.

Virgo: It’s a very crowded marketplace and you have a lot of competition. How do you stand out in that competition? Being generic doesn’t make any sense – your content must be very specific. One of my favourite films from last year was Moonlight. It’s a very specific movie and you feel authentic truth in that film. It’s not for everybody, but it’s done for a budget that makes sense for that particular project.

Wilson: Moonlight is such a beautiful example. Mainstream festivals are starting to pluck some of the gems of LGBTQ content and putting them in that [mainstream] track, which is amazing. So you’re seeing more movement with those films.

PB: So you’re seeing films have a life after they’ve screened at Inside Out festival?

Wilson: Yes. The shifting distribution picture is also a huge part of that, because it absolutely used to be LGBT festival run, DVD release, and then maybe [something else beyond that]. But now the majority of films that premiere at Inside Out, Outfest, or Frameline are on Netflix or Amazon, and they have a real life now.

That is shifting the narrative as to what is taboo, what is accessible, what is normalized, because it’s all about access. I’m only 35, but I remember as a teenager, trying to seek out [LGBTQ] content and it being essentially impossible. That’s just not the case anymore and that’s hugely exciting.

Carmilla‘s success [it has more than 70 million combined views on YouTube], and [Sarah Rotella-directed feature] Almost Adults [which was picked up by Netflix in the Canada, U.S., U.K.], are just two examples of the fact that you can’t underestimate how starved people are for content. When it’s there, especially if it’s accessible online, audiences are there. And what people think of as a “fad” or “fanbase” is actually a community seeing themselves represented for the first time.

And, the whole conversation around audience – it’s like, we’re all watching the content that doesn’t represent us. We’re there, in those numbers too. But when there is the content, the audiences come.

PB: What needs to change in order to get more content out there that caters to under-served audiences?

Amarshi: There must be a tolerance, or some kind of margin for failure. The problem is that we aren’t seeing many [diverse projects], so when one comes up people say “Okay, this is our one opportunity. If this fails, you won’t see it again.”

The fact is, there’s a ton of stuff that fails all the time. That’s the nature of the beast. If you greenlight one or two non-white projects, and they don’t work, people say “there’s no audience.”

But that’s the problem, because you have to do 10 shows to get one hit. The goal is to create a media that reflects what Canada has really become, what Canada already is, and is becoming. It’s really an investment more than the fast returns that we, or the industry, expects. It has to be an investment in the overall culture.

At the end of the day you may not get audiences. That is the reality. You do a black film – I mean, apart from Moonlight – the audience may not be big enough for right now, but it needs to be built.

Our audience is diverse, our audience is young, and that audience probably needs to see themselves.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Playback magazine. Part one of the story appeared in Playback Daily on Dec. 14. 

Image courtesy of Kevin Cordick Photography