Helping Hollywood Avoid Claims of Bias Is Now a Growing Business
In the summer of 2020, not long after the murder of George Floyd spurred a racial reckoning in America, Carri Twigg’s phone kept ringing.
Ms. Twigg, a founding partner of a production company named Culture House, was asked over and over again if she could take a look at a television or movie script and raise any red flags, particularly on race.
Culture House, which employs mostly women of color, had traditionally specialized in documentaries. But after a few months of fielding the requests about scripts, they decided to make a business of it: They opened a new division dedicated solely to consulting work.
“The frequency of the check-ins was not slowing down,” Ms. Twigg said. “It was like, oh, we need to make this a real thing that we offer consistently — and get paid for.”
Though the company has been consulting for a little more than a year — for clients like Paramount Pictures, MTV and Disney — that work now accounts for 30 percent of Culture House’s revenue.
Culture House is hardly alone. In recent years, entertainment executives have vowed to make a genuine commitment to diversity, but are still routinely criticized for falling short. To signal that they are taking steps to address the issue, Hollywood studios have signed contracts with numerous companies and nonprofits to help them avoid the reputational damage that comes with having a movie or an episode of a TV show face accusations of bias.
“When a great idea is there and then it’s only talked about because of the social implications, that must be heartbreaking for creators who spend years on something,” Ms. Twigg said. “To get it into the world and the only thing anyone wants to talk about are the ways it came up short. So we’re trying to help make that not happen.”
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The consulting work runs the gamut of a production. The consulting companies sometimes are asked about casting decisions as well as marketing plans. And they may also read scripts to search for examples of bias and to scrutinize how characters are positioned in a story.
“It’s not only about what characters say, it’s also about when they don’t speak,” Ms. Twigg said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, there’s not enough agency for this character, you’re using this character as an ornament, you’re going to get dinged for that.’”
When a consulting firm is on retainer, it can also come with a guaranteed check every month from a studio. And it’s a revenue stream developed only recently.
“It really exploded in the last two years or so,” said Michelle K. Sugihara, the executive director of Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment, a nonprofit. The group, called CAPE, is on retainer to some of the biggest Hollywood studios, including Netflix, Paramount, Warner Bros., Amazon, Sony and A24.
Of the 100 projects that CAPE has consulted on, Ms. Sugihara said, roughly 80 percent have come since 2020, and they “really increased” after the Atlanta spa shootings in March 2021. “That really ramped up attention on our community,” she said.
Ms. Sugihara said her group could be actively involved throughout the production process. In one example, she said she told a studio that all of the actors playing the heroes in an upcoming scripted project appeared to be light-skinned East Asian people whereas the villains were portrayed by darker-skinned East Asian actors.
“That’s a red flag,” she said. “And we should talk about how those images may be harmful. Sometimes it’s just things that people aren’t even conscious about until you point it out.”
Ms. Sugihara would not mention the name of the project or the studio behind it. In interviews, many cited nondisclosure agreements with the studios and a reluctance to embarrass a filmmaker as reasons they could not divulge specifics.
Sarah Kate Ellis, the president of GLAAD, the L.G.B.T.Q. advocacy organization, said her group had been doing consulting work informally for years with the networks and studios. Finally, she decided to start charging the studios for their labor — work that she compared to “billable hours.”
“Here we were consulting with all these content creators across Hollywood and not being compensated,” said Ms. Ellis, the organization’s president since 2013. “When I started at GLAAD we couldn’t pay our bills. And meanwhile here we are with the biggest studios and networks in the world, helping them tell stories that were hits. And I said this doesn’t make sense.”
In 2018, she created the GLAAD Media Institute — if the networks or studios wanted any help in the future, they’d have to become a paying member of the institute.
Initially, there was some pushback but the networks and studios would eventually come around. In 2018, there were zero members of the GLAAD Media Institute. By the end of 2021, that number had swelled to 58, with nearly every major studio and network in Hollywood now a paying member.
Scott Turner Schofield, who has spent some time working as a consultant for GLAAD, has also been advising networks and studios on how to accurately depict transgender people for years. But he said the work had increased so significantly in recent years that he was brought on board as an executive producer for a forthcoming horror movie produced by Blumhouse.
“I’ve gone from someone who was a part-time consultant — barely eking by — to being an executive producer,” he said.
Those interviewed said that it was a win-win arrangement between the consultancies and the studios.
“The studios at the end of the day, they want to produce content but they want to make money,” said Rashad Robinson, the president of the advocacy organization Color of Change. “Making money can be impeded because of poor decisions and not having the right people at the table. So the studios are going to want to seek that.”
He did caution, however, that simply bringing on consultants was not an adequate substitute for the structural change that many advocates want to see in Hollywood.
“This doesn’t change the rules with who gets to produce content and who gets to make the final decisions of what gets on the air,” he said. “It’s fine to bring folks in from the outside but that in the end is insufficient to the fact that across the entertainment industry there is still a problem in terms of not enough Black and brown people with power in the executive ranks.”
Still, the burgeoning field of cultural consultancy work may be here to stay. Ms. Twigg, who helped found Culture House with Raeshem Nijhon and Nicole Galovski, said that the volume of requests she was getting was “illustrative of how seriously it’s being taken, and how comprehensively it’s being brought into the fabric of doing business.”
“From a business standpoint, it’s a way for us to capitalize on the expertise that we have gathered as people of color who have been alive in America for 30 or 40 years,” she said.