Breaking barriers: The ‘risk’ of diversity

When it comes to reaching a growing audience that's chronically under-represented on screen, the real risk is being averse to change. Execs sound off in Playback's 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 one of a story that originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Playback magazine. Part two of the story will appear in Playback Daily on Dec. 15.

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: How are discussions about reaching under-served audiences changing your day-to-day business?

Corrie Coe, SVP, original programming, Bell Media: It’s probably something all of us spend time thinking about daily in our respective businesses. Each of us has different blocks and hurdles in breaking down barriers and getting any story out to both as many people as possible but also to more [under-served] audiences, who might not otherwise be looking for a story on [Bell Media's] channels or platforms. The progress is achingly slow. I’ve noticed on-screen representation [got] a little bit better in the past few years, though it’s still not where it should be. What I worry about the most is, how do we get enough young writers and young directors to share their worlds so that those audiences can find a way in?

Clement Virgo, partner/producer, Conquering Lion Pictures: This conversation [around diversity] has been happening for a long time, ever since I’ve been making films. I got my start in a program called Filmmakers of Colour in the CFC in 1991. The ’90s was a period in terms of film and TV where there was a sense of abundance, a sense of a lot of possibilities and a lot of work to be had [for filmmakers of colour]. You had a whole spectrum of films, specifically black American films and black Canadian films. I started during that time, with Stephen Williams, Mina Shum, Srinivas Krishna, Deepa Mehta. Now there’s a sense of real scarcity. When there’s a sense of scarcity, what do you do? What choices are made?

Jennifer Holness, president, Hungry Eyes Media: I don’t think people understand, when you are working in an environment where you never see yourself and you never see people like yourself getting to make [film and TV], the possibilities become very, very limited. Most of my career has been spent trying to figure out how to convince some of the good folks around this table that the stories from these communities are valuable. It’s been a very difficult road in many ways and I think it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve seen a shift. There seems to be more value placed on some of the things that I’ve always valued as a creator.

Andria Wilson, executive director, Inside Out LGBT Film Festival: It’s interesting looking at it from a lens of LGBTQ media. Whenever you’re talking about anything people consider to be a niche category, like LGBTQ content, [the audience group] is really viewed as a monolith. Queer content is still very much viewed as its own genre, its own category, its own type of programming. For a long time LGBTQ media was primarily gay stories written by cisgender white men, but what we’re finally starting to see is a shift, and other voices entering the conversation.

The notion of what constitutes a queer narrative is becoming much more intersectional. Without question, the greatest queer work we’ve seen in the last 10 years tells stories, and shows communities and perspectives that have not been seen before. So yeah, it might be a coming out story or about a struggle with identity, but it’s a struggle about identity that’s coming from a place that hasn’t been captured before.

Aarti Bhaskaran, head, business insights and analytics, MediaCom: From a media perspective there’s so much interest now in reaching diverse audiences because marketers are recognizing the power of these audiences – when money speaks, money flows. The focus [in marketing communities] is on South Asians and Chinese because they’re the ones bringing the money into the country and they’re the new ethnics. But do people really understand what that means? From a media channel perspective and from a content perspective, do they understand what it means to cater to a diverse audience? I don’t think so.

The fact that we’re acknowledging audiences are being under served is a big thing. I see that as a big difference between Canada and the other markets I’ve worked in (Singapore and India). At the same time, the fact we’re talking about it isn’t a good thing. I find more tokenism in media and in the content and people call that diversity. When you’re casting, [you should be] casting a certain character – not casting a token South Asian cab driver or doctor.

PB: What are some of the barriers preventing more diverse content from getting distribution/greenlights?

Holness: One of the reasons nothing has changed is because the gatekeepers haven’t changed. Most people who make decisions aren’t inherently trying to keep people of colour out of the conversation. But there is a comfort level with people they know. For the other person coming in with a different voice and a different story, they’re met with, “Well, you know, this larger audience might not relate.” To that I say, you have to take a chance and you have to train the audience. It’s not going to happen overnight. [All] Canadian content has difficulty reaching Canadians – it always has. So why don’t we actually put a real investment into some of this [diverse] product and help develop the audience?

Virgo: Within the system, you have to have someone willing to take the risk, a champion [of your project]. One of the things I’m proud of is The Book of Negroes. I mean, I was very nervous about it. We optioned the book, we went to Sally [Catto] and CBC and they said yes. I didn’t know if Canadians would want to see a series about a young black woman in slavery. Would they want to spend their Sunday night watching this? It gave me confidence that the audience is out there, because when we premiered we had big numbers. [The premiere episode of The Book of Negroes debuted to 1.941 million viewers in the 2+ demographic, based on final data from Numeris.] It was heartening.

PB: Did you option the book before it won Canada Reads or after?

Virgo: Afterwards. My thinking was, “What kind of content can I find that has a built-in audience? What IP would have built-in pedigree?” When I read The Book of Negroes it spoke to me. It was a title that was provocative. People knew about it.

I’ve been doings things on the margins or telling stories about people that are not at the centre my whole career. So you start to develop a mindset where [you think] “Okay, how can I make sure that people see this?” Nobody saw Rude [Virgo's 1995 feature] and I didn’t want that to happen again. It was a risk that CBC took, that Sally took, and it paid off. So I felt like it can be done.

Bhaskaran: I think you used a very powerful word: “risk.” This market is one of consolidation with only a few very large players, with very large structures. I find when it comes to decision making, even when it comes to content you want to invest in, a lot of companies in Canada tend to play it safe. It’s a situation where you need to find that one person who wants to take the risk. When they do, magic happens.

Wilson: Something really big has to shift in terms of how we perceive the idea of audience. There’s this narrative that the gatekeepers represent the audience – that they know what the audience wants, because they have that power. That creates a thinking that the audience wants what [the gatekeepers] want, and that’s what’s brought us to the point we’re at.

I think a recognition and understanding about who Canadian audiences actually are, now and in the future, is critical in seeing a reflection of that audience in the leadership of these organizations.

Sally Catto, general manager, programming, CBC: What troubles me is that until we have diverse decision makers within the CBC and other big organizations, how far can we really get?

We have to have more diversity within these organizations that are making decisions, and we’re starting to do that. But it’s tricky too because, when we’re doing that, it is not because we want to have a diverse executive. It’s because it’s someone who is really good. They do bring so much to the table and to the experience for that community that sometimes people who are not diverse can’t bring in the same way. So I think that’s an area we really need to work on.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Playback magazine. Check back on Dec. 15 for part two of the story.

Image courtesy of Kevin Cordick Photography