What Can Diversity and Inclusion Mean For You – Taking the Next Steps in Canadian Screen-based Media

I wrote this blog post last week before the article “Why is Canadian Television So White?” by Kathleen Newman-Brebang was posted.  For everyone who responded that yes, Canadian television has a problem and wondering what they as an individual can do about it – well here are some ideas.  Now seems the right time to post this.  Also – because racial credentials have to be laid out on the table these days – I am a white passing multi-racial Canadian.  I acknowledge my privilege and my responsibility and I try to act on it.

Most of the time we look at Diversity and Inclusion from an industry perspective.  How can we make the film/tv/IDM industry more diverse and ensure that a wide range of people with differing perspectives and backgrounds can maintain careers in these industries.  We look at telling stories from underserved communities and advancing casting that reflects our reality.  As with other big societal shifts like the climate crisis, people may think that they as one individual cannot make a difference.  Just like recycling, you too can impact the world around you and help make our screen industries more diverse and inclusive through taking little steps each day.  Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Are you in a position to hire employees or freelancers?  Extend your search beyond your usual network.  Let people know that you are looking for candidates from underserved communities/trying to diversify your team.  Take a risk on promising but less experienced people who may be having a hard time getting their foot in the door. Take a risk on experienced people who you don’t know.  I’ll say it again – extend your search beyond your usual network.
  2. Mentor people from underserved communities. How can you find them?  One way is to talk to friends who teach.  Colleges are always looking for industry advisors and mentors.  Last year I was one of three industry people who sat in on children’s web series marketing plan presentations and two of the students approached me about mentoring.  One (a black woman) is still in touch.  It takes minimal time to give feedback and insights when asked.
  3. Amplify voices from underserved communities. Depending on what you do and where you are you can do this in many different ways.  You can follow talent from underserved communities on social media and RT them, favourite them, engage with them and help them build a network and a place in the larger community.  Champion their creative work, give notes so that their work can improve and let them know about opportunities.  As an audience member you can read books, watch movies and tv shows and web series from emerging talent and share them to your network.
  4. Champion projects that you think are doing a good or great job when it comes to diversity and inclusion. I love “Coroner” not just because it is good story telling but because the world that the (diverse) creative team has created reflects the Toronto that I see around me every day. (Just one example from the first season – white, black, Asian and south Asian characters are eating dim sum on a picnic table in Kensington and all are eating with chopsticks and that’s not part of the story).  It doesn’t have a check box feel to it like some prime time dramas do.  So I tell people why I love it.  Like right now.
  5. Read articles and tweets about representation, diversity, inclusion and equity.  Check out my blog post if you’re not up on the meaning of those terms and how they differ. Follow both experts and fans.  For example, I learned that there is a hashtag #SWRepresentation for discussions about Star Wars representation in the stories across the different platforms.  One of the most effective things that I’ve done to better understand Indigenous issues on an ongoing basis was to follow the “Indian Horse” #Next150 challenge to “Diversify Your News” by following Indigenous journalists on Twitter.  Get outside your bubble and hear different perspectives.
  6. Explore the creative material (tv, films, books, games) from other cultures and voices from backgrounds different from your own. Then follow your favourites on social media.  I love the writing of Nnedi Okorafor.  Following her on Twitter led me to N.K. Jemesin, which then led me to Tomi Adeyemi and I am now a huge fan of black female scifi/fantasy writers.
  7. Let these new voices filter into your perspective. Without even trying it will happen.  Then one day you’ll find yourself reviewing a script and wondering why all the speaking parts have been described as white people.  Or that all the nominees for an award are white.  Then it’s your job to speak out and make change.

REACH – Equity Screening for Content Creators

I recently read a blog post that offered a set of questions that a content creator should ask themselves when creating content to prevent unconsciously recreating stereotypes.  The intended audience is for blog writers and other authors but screen-based creators may also find this useful.  The author calls it their REACH system:  Representation, Experience, Accessibility, Compensation and Harm Reduction.

I encourage you to read the short post but I offer a couple of questions that film, tv and digital media creators can ask themselves under these headings (and I thank the speakers at the recent iLunch Representation in Interactive Digital Media that I moderated for some of these ideas – Megan Byrne, Rob Elsworthy, Winnie Jong and Miriam Verburg).

Representation:

  • How does the story you’re telling impact people from different backgrounds.  Take a look at the list in the blog post and see the description of diversity.  It is much more than skin colour or sexual orientation and also includes age, educational background, family composition, location and more.  If we move away from tick boxes it will be easier to be truly representative. [Yes, tick boxes are a necessary evil when measuring progress but shouldn’t be anywhere near the creative process IMHO]

Experience:

  • I’m not going to suggest that creators should be limited in the stories that they can tell but I will suggest that you ask yourself if you’re the best person to tell a particular story. Ask yourself if the story might be more authentic if you included people with different lived experience in the creative process either as consultants or co-creators.  When you do research don’t limit yourself to books and articles but talk to people. Rob Elsworthy told the story at the iLunch of creating a game with a black woman as the main character.  As a black man he realized he couldn’t effectively portray a black woman until he spoke to several.

Accessibility:

  • Have you made your content accessible to a wide audience.  This means considering more than described video and closed captioning.  It’s considering where colour-blindness might have an impact (e.g. is an important clue to the mystery dependent on the colour of the fabric found).  Do characters speak at the right pace for the captions to follow or do they talk too fast?  Is there too much background noise.  If it’s a game are the controls customizable? Do a little research and you’ll find all sorts of accessibility guides.

Compensation:

  • These questions try to get creators to consider whether they are benefitting financially from other people’s stories and suggest that perhaps creators should find a way to compensate the owners of the stories.  I’ve blogged before about ImagineNative’s excellent “Indigenous Protocols and Pathways” guide to working with Indigenous communities for screen-based creators.  It has suggestions for how to give back to communities even when working with what we would consider ‘public domain’ stories.

Harm Reduction:

  • Do a pass on your creative material and consider whether you have unintentionally reinforced any stereotypes.  Production can also insert stereotypes without thinking (or intentionally) so sometimes it is out of your hands as a content creator. You will be farther ahead though if you think about it before delivering that draft.

Improving representation and being more authentic in story telling is a process.  Guides like this one do a great job in translating the issues for content creators so that we can all be better.

 

 

Diversity and Inclusion Reporting – A Cautionary Tale from the BBC

This morning I read this tweet and I want to talk about it.

First, BAME is a term used in the UK in diversity discussions and means Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic.  After conducting the comparative review of diversity and inclusion programs in screen-based media (to be released in 2020) for the the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel, I have become a fan of the UK broadcasting system and its work in diversity and inclusion from the BBC to BFI to Ofcom to ScreenSkills to the broadcasters Creative Diversity Network.  They feel a generation ahead of the Canadian media sector in terms of measuring diversity and creating programs to improve diversity and inclusion.  I think we can learn a lot from what they are doing.  And their missteps.

This tweet and the blog post that it links to suggests a misstep.  In an attempt to sell a good news story (and I can understand why the BBC would want to do that) they appear to have undermined the good work that they have done by not identifying where their stats have not improved or in fact fallen.  Their reporting of underrepresented groups has worsened the feeling of inclusion for the members of those groups, leading the writer to coin the very unfortunate phrase #DiversityGaslighting.

This is a cautionary tale for the Canadian media sector.  We are just making our first steps towards better data collection (without which we cannot create programs or measure progress so it is the first necessary step).  It would be great if the sector could work together to have consistent definitions and talk the same language.  But in the meantime, as organizations report on diversity it is incredibly important that they avoid spin to try to make the situation look better.  If it sucks – own it and tell people how you plan to improve it.  I believe that if you do that you will engage members of underrepresented groups and encourage them to work with you and not try to bypass you.

Indigenous Protocols and Pathways – Rights and Permissions in Screen-based Media

Earlier this spring imagineNATIVE launched On-Screen Protocols and Pathways: A Media Production Guide to Working with First Nations, Métis and Inuit Communities, Cultures, Concepts and Stories (the “Guide”).  The Guide “is for use by screen-story tellers and production companies wishing to feature First Nations, Métis or Inuit people, content or concepts (traditional or contemporary cultures, knowledge or intellectual property) in their films, television programs and digital media content”.  I was looking forward to reading it from a Diversity and Inclusion perspective but at a recent Ontario Creates Discussion Series to promote the Guide, I had an eye-opening realization that the Guide was also an essential tool for entertainment lawyers, funders, broadcasters and distributors.

However, there is a lot more to the Guide than a discussion of rights and permissions and I strongly encourage everyone to read it.  At the Ontario Creates discussion it was recommended that organizations break down the fairly large document amongst staff, each one reads a section and then come together in a sharing circle to discuss what they have read.  Or if you have no co-workers, like myself, you read it all and blog about an aspect where you think that you might have something to contribute.

Four key principles of the protocols are Respect, Responsibility, Reciprocity and Consent. I’m going to focus on Consent because that relates directly to chain of title. Full disclosure – I used to be a film, tv and digital media entertainment lawyer.  I am pretty familiar with the various rights that are needed to show chain of title for a film or television or interactive digital media production.  Under traditional ‘western’ ideas of chain of title, the producer must show that they have contracts that demonstrate ownership of the underlying rights or a licence to use the underlying rights and licences or permissions to use any and all copyright works that are contained in the final production (i.e. music rights, image rights, personality rights etc.).  This is an essential step for funders, broadcasters and distributors before they advance any money or make any distribution deals.

Copyright

While there are many Indigenous peoples, nations and communities within Canada, they share an approach to stories that is very different from western legal tradition. Stories are often communal and based on oral traditions. Some stories are sacred and have greater meaning than just as story.  In western legal tradition a communal story would be considered public domain under copyright (they are more than 75 years old) and therefore available to anyone to tell in any form. However, an Indigenous communal story is ‘owned’ by the community. Knowledge is created and owned collectively, and responsibility for its use and transfer is guided by traditional laws and customs.”[1]

Here is an example from Duane Gastan Aucoin, Filmmaker:

 “We need to make sure that the rightful owners give the permission. For example, I used the Raven stealing sun story. I met with a Raven clan leader and he wanted to hear the story; and after I told him the story, as I know it, he gave his blessings because the telling of the stories was the same he heard as a child. I had to get permission from the Raven clan, who approved both the story and the final product. The Teslen have a traditional knowledge policy for stories, medicines or teachings, so I also met with heritage department who to ensure all the conditions are met.” [2]

As the copyright laws of Canada and global intellectual property laws are unlikely to change any time soon to take into consideration Indigenous concepts of intellectual property creation and ownership, a producer (or other participant in the project) may wish to add additional permissions to their standard checklist for Indigenous projects.  The Guide suggests that a producer may want to consider co-creation or co-authorship with members of the community but it may also be as simple as permission from the community and any other bodies who the community feels are relevant.  However, co-authorship will confirm rights of collaboration and approval which the Guide recommends in other parts of the document.

Story Rights

In the case of a life experience, western legal practice is to obtain the rights to tell the story from those who were central to the story.  The guide advises that there are events where the individual is not the sole ‘owner’ of the story as it happened to the community as much as to the individual.  Dr. Jenny Kay Dupuis, author of ‘I Am Not A Number’, a book about the author’s grandmother’s experiences at residential school, shared at the Ontario Creates Discussion that she had to obtain the consent of the community to tell the story as well as family members.  This again flows from the concept that rights are communal rather than personal.

Archival Footage

The Guide also offered a different perspective on archival footage.  Legal practice is to gain rights to the footage from the owner of the footage (e.g. NFB or CBC) however the Guide points out that there were situations where the appropriate permissions were not obtained in the first place when the footage was shot so any licensee would have to go to the community in question (even if the original individuals are no longer available) for permission as well as the owner.  Situations also existed where filming should not have taken place (e.g. sacred ceremonies) so the community should have the final say on whether the footage can even be licensed.  The NFB is currently undertaking a research project on global best practices on Indigenous archival footage so it is expected that the protocols in this area will be further developed shortly but in the meantime producers should ensure at a minimum that the necessary permissions were originally obtained and that the community in question consents to the reuse of the material.

Releases

There is a lot of advice in the Guide on rewriting releases to be easier to understand as well as culturally appropriate.  One suggestion is to create audio or video releases to account for differences in language or writing skills.  But a fundamental cultural difference is to consider that a producer is making a commitment to the individual rather than the individual is granting rights to the producer:

‘It was amazing to shift my idea around release form and look at it as a commitment that I am making to the person versus the other way around. It is vital to discuss the vision for project and then make that commitment to them. I do not own what they have done in perpetuity; the family owns it and it will go to children and grandchildren so it is important to spend time with that family getting permissions based on vision and determine how they would like to have influence.[3] Helen Haig-Brown (Filmmaker)

One of the principles of the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is the right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent.  That means taking the time to discuss releases, understanding that there are many factors that must be considered before giving consent and many parties involved.  The process of obtaining releases will necessarily be more time-consuming than in a traditional film or television program.

It will be helpful if in time the industry could share examples of these new forms of releases, particularly as they need to balance the needs or expectations of funders and distributors regarding rights and chain of title.

As an intellectual exercise this community-based way of considering rights is fascinating to me but I recognize that it is more than that.  Understanding the Indigenous concepts of intellectual property rights is an important step in reconciliation. The bottom line is that if you are a Producer, Funder, Broadcaster or Distributor looking at a film, television or digital media project with Indigenous elements such as story or location, even if only ‘inspired by’, do not rely on your tried and true checklists for rights but dig deeper, using the Guide, to ensure that you have the necessary rights not just in accordance with the laws of Canada but in also accordance with the On-Screen Protocols.

[1]On-Screen Protocols and Pathways: A Media Production Guide to Working with First Nations, Métis and Inuit Communities, Cultures, Concepts and Stories, pg. 57

[2]ibid, pg. 25

[3]Ibid, pg. 41

A Few Thoughts on Web Series Budgets

Web Series are not the same as television programs.

Sounds like a reasonable statement, right? Not everyone gets that.

A few times a year I review web series applications for different funds. Increasingly we see people with tv backgrounds producing web series. Web series can be a way to explore stories and topics that broadcasters won’t greenlight, companion series to broadcast, a way for both producer and broadcaster to incubate new talent or a new revenue stream for the tv producer.

Evaluators can always tell when the budget and production plan have been prepared by tv people rather than those who come out of web series production. Why does it matter? TV-based budgets are usually bigger and they will need more money to finance the budget. There are limited funds so funders will question whether that much should go to a tv-based production. There is the issue of recoupment as it will take longer for that production to recoup its budget and pay profits. Finally, does the budget need to be that big to meet the needs of the audience or is it big out of habit.

To help you avoid these questions (and potential loss of evaluation points), here are clues evaluators look for:

  • What are the rates? Even with union cast and crew there are usually discounts for web series. Frequently web series are non-union and give training opportunities to emerging talent.  Can you justify higher rates?
  • What is the size of the crew? Web series have smaller crews. The productions are smaller so the need isn’t there and often, because of budget size, crew fill multiple roles. The cast and crew are also usually smaller because of the size of the storytelling for a web series – smaller cast, fewer locations, little in the way of special effects or stunts.
  • With a smaller budget there is less room to allocate a share of admin costs that the production company is already spending such as computers, rent, photocopying etc.
  • Sadly, one of the ways I can tell the difference between web and tv producers is that the tv producer will always charge maximum allowable producer fees, corporate overhead and contingency to the budget but a web series producer will allocate what they think can they can finance and take the risk that they will be able to pay themselves from revenue. Web producers may be more optimistic (or naive) than tv producers.
  • Web producers have a better handle on the promotion that needs to be done to get their web series in front of their audience and will be allocating budget to paid social media ads, social media content creation, paid influencers etc. TV producers sometimes just replicate their standard tv promotion and allocate money to attend festivals, international markets and creating press kits. However, if there is the opportunity to look for funding of a discoverability budget or a marketing budget then these costs will not be in the production budget.

So, if you are a tv producer exploring the opportunities for web series I suggest that you take a second look at your budget with the above in mind. You might even want to bring an experienced web creator onto your team (and get credit in evaluation for that experience). If you are a web producer – allocate maximum producer fees and corporate overhead in your budget. Funders are ok with you paying yourself.  Really.

Prime Time in Ottawa 2019

For an ‘in the moment’ feel for this year’s Prime Time in Ottawa conference hosted by the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA), look up my twitter feed for Jan 29 – Feb 1, 2019 and/or check out the hashtag #PTiO to get other perspectives as well.  I used to Storify my tweets but sadly that’s no longer an option.

I have to say that this was a pretty good conference.  Attendance felt up (I don’t know the actual numbers). The opening cocktail was packed and that means interest from local Ottawa media, politicians and bureaucrats as well as delegates.

I like to pick a theme for the conference after the fact, often an unintended theme that comes out of what people are thinking and talking about, regardless of what is actually programmed.  I have to say, I am pleasantly surprised to declare that this year’s theme was diversity. I need your help sharing my blog post on terminology widely as the misuse of the term diversity as a synonym for people of colour was pretty widespread but more and more people are getting it and talking about what needs to happen, how to improve it and why.  It came up in a variety of panels that technically were not about diversity. The fact that we’re still talking about why is a little depressing but at least more people accept the fact that better reflecting our own audience and reaching a global audience is a pretty good why. Netflix was pretty clear. They target a global audience so need a diversity of stories and storytellers. The panel on working with Netflix therefore veered off at one point to talking about how to improve the diversity of talent in Canadian production with producer Noreen Halpern calling for more training programs and showrunner Dennis Heaton telling the audience it was everyone’s responsibility to mentor emerging talent who aren’t otherwise getting opportunities.

I do object to a call from talent agent Glenn Cockburn (on the Scarcity of Talent panel) for more programs that target kids in high school since I know that many colleges and universities are already graduating pretty diverse classes but everyone who isn’t white and male are having a harder time getting hired.  I tweeted out the story of my daughter who graduated from Centennial’s Broadcasting and Film program, one of a very diverse class, and did her work placement where she was the only non-white face. How can you hire an all white crew in the city of Toronto?? Two of her female non-white friends are DGC trainees and they are getting great support from that union so it’s not all bad news.  I am in the camp of mentoring and financial support to give emerging talent work opportunities. Hold the door open everyone.

Now was the conference itself diverse?  Only if you measure gender balance. Conference producer Marguerite Pigott was pleased to announce that 50% of the speakers were male (I did enjoy the stat being flipped like that).  But by my rough calculation (and this is not scientific as ethnicity and identity are the choice of the speaker, not the person counting) only nine of 56 speakers were people of colour. Yeah, we’ve got some work to do.

The marketing pitch session (Prime Time Throwdown) was a glimpse into that future.  All three projects were pitched by women. One was an LGBTQ team and one was a half-POC team.  Two of the projects are web series that will likely earn good audiences but are the kinds of shows that are unlikely to find a home on traditional broadcast.  Barbelles is targeting ‘queer women 18-34’ and as we have seen with Carmilla that audience segment is very hungry for content. Tokens on Call won the pitch and I’m looking forward to its launch later in the spring as it takes a very funny look at attempts to subvert traditional casting to create more diversity (see that theme again).  In general though, it was an entertaining and informative session as the audience learned about the marketing strategies, and potential pitfalls, from producers who will be undertaking an aspect of marketing themselves.  Two out of the three had received Bell Fund funding for a Discoverability Plan so it was also interesting to see how that new program can impact producers.

What else went on?  The talk of the conference was the opening panel of broadcasters.  Every year Prime Time starts with this panel and it’s usually pretty tame as the broadcasters say the same thing year after year – the CRTC needs to deregulate as life is just so hard, they love producers, the broadcasters have great CanCon (that they’re doing because they love it, not because they have to) etc etc.  Well, not this year (and not just because of a controversial statement from the head of CBC – see here). There was a feisty dispute between Stéphane Cardin of Netflix Canada and Catherine Tait of CBC (which was a little strange since Netflix buys a lot of CBC comedy and dramas) and between Stéphane and Mike Cosentino of Bell Media (which made more sense since Bell is calling for Netflix to make a contribution to Canadian programming of 20% of their annual revenues).  Reynolds Mastin tried to squeeze Terms of Trade into the conversation by calling it Code of Practice – not sure that worked. Stéphane suggested that more people in the room wanted to work with Netflix than would likely admit it and judging by the packed room for the Working With Netflix panel later that morning and the very positive experiences of the panelists, I’d say he’s right.

There were a few panels on the latest info on a topic and they provided up to the minute insights and that was refreshing.  Too often we’re lucky to learn one thing new in a panel but I enjoyed the insights from the Kids panel (don’t think tv first automatically, might be better to build a game first to get their attention), the Distribution panel (distributors are increasingly getting involved at development because of increased competition) and the last minute (due to keynote cancellation – a conference producer’s worst nightmare) Future of Features panel (producers have to use digital platforms and interactivity to find audiences where they are and not leave it to distributors). 

While it is discouraging that we still have to have conversations about the need for diversity and exploiting digital platforms, it did feel like the dial had moved a bit in the right direction so there was cause for optimism.

 

Imperialism Explained

I was thinking about the British Empire and how, if you were there and you were the viceroy of India, you would feel that you were doing only good for the people of India. Or similar, if you were in French Africa, you would think, ‘I’m educating them, I’m bringing their resources to the world, and I’m helping them. There was a time when cultural imperialism was absolutely accepted.” Catherine Tait at Prime Time in Ottawa conference, January 31, 2019

By now most of you have read or heard Catherine Tait’s comment comparing Netflix to imperial Britain and France in their ‘cultural imperialism’.  I was immediately shocked but then surprised that there wasn’t much of a reaction in the room to the comment. Then I saw a growing reaction to it on my twitter feed and then in mainstream media.  It became a topic of conversation in the halls for the rest of Prime Time with some people admitting to having been speechless in shock while others, well, didn’t understand or think it was that bad. So for the benefit of the confused, this why her statement didn’t go over very well for some of us.

Imperialism in India and Africa killed a lot of people.  A lot. Here’s are a few examples. In 1943 approximately 3 million people died in Bengal from famine caused by British imperial policies and exacerbated by British war time policies that prioritized sending relief to Europe over India. From 500,000 to 1 million Algerians were killed or died from famine when France conquered Algeria from 1830s to 1860s. In 1898 the Voulet-Chanoine Mission was mandated to conquer the area now known as Chad to bring it under French control.  They did it by looting, raping, killing and burning entire villages as they marched.

These are just a few examples of the impact of imperialism in India and Africa. I did a bit of googling to make sure that I had the numbers right but it wasn’t hard to find this info.  Many, many books have been written about it. Imperialism’s goal was the economic success of the Empire in question, in disregard of the life and liberty of the local residents. Millions died as a result.  You can’t separate ‘cultural imperialism’ from actual imperialism as the Empires never did. The valuing of the Empire’s culture over that of the local culture was just one of the tools used to subjugate the local population and maintain control.  

So, in my mind, to compare policies that resulted in the deaths of millions to an OTT service that wants to offer Canadians another choice for the delivery of content and to provide Canadian content with a pathway to a global audience trivializes those deaths.  Yes there are (very good) arguments to be made for Netflix to contribute into the system that it participates in and to ensure that it is spending a portion of its money on Canadian production (and not just production in Canada) but is talk like this helpful or disturbing.  For me, it is disturbing.

I write this not to slam Ms. Tait but to try to use this as a teachable moment for anyone in a public position, those who advise those in public positions and well, everyone else who was confused by the reaction.  We can do better.