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Writers, lawmakers team up to promote tax credit for women, minorities in TV

NYC already provides a tax credit to local productions, but now two new bills could add an incentive to hire female and minority writers and directors, as well.
A camera operator prepares with his team and extras to film on location at Union Square, New York City, April 16, 2013. (Photo by Daniel Leal-Olivas/Corbis)
A camera operator prepares with his team and extras to film on location at Union Square, New York City, April 16, 2013.

In the wake of the Academy Awards and weeks of debate over Hollywood's lack of diversity in front of and behind the camera, New York City writers and lawmakers are promoting legislation that could give real teeth to post-#OscarsSoWhite reforms.

The Big Apple already provides a tax credit to TV productions made locally, but now two new bills would add an incentive to hire female and minority television writers and directors, as well. The bills have bipartisan support, the backing of various local film unions and the support of the Writers Guild of America's east coach branch, which produced a video promoting it featuring several  artists behind popular shows like "The Americans," "House of Cards," "Nurse Jackie," and "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver." MSNBC reached out to the sponsors of the bills, Democratic Assemblyman Keith Wright and State Sen. Kemp Hannon, for comment, but has not heard back at this time.

"We've reached the time where we do need to take action and not just wring our hands," Lowell Peterson, executive director of the Writers Guild of America, East, told MSNBC on Monday. The WGA has been championing diversity legislation for years, and Peterson says their cause "definitely" got a boost due to increased scrutiny over the issue in the wake of the Oscars. "We're hopeful that we can get it through both chambers this year," he added.

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After the Academy Awards failed to recognize actors and actresses of color for the second year of the row, the film industry started to do some private and very public soul searching about their hiring practices and lack of diverse representation. Recent studies have shown that not only are minorities given dramatically fewer lead and/or speaking roles in major productions, but women are also largely left on the sidelines, too. At the Oscars, host Chris Rock called out the industry, saying "Damn right, Hollywood's racist," before making an earnest plea for equality of opportunity for performers of color.

Peterson said the WGA seized onto the Production Tax Credit as a kind of Trojan Horse for diversity initiatives, because of its track record of success in the television industry. Instead of lobbying for brand new legislation they were able to fit reforms within an existing framework, and the heightened awareness hasn't hurt.

"Year after year we see studies on the lack of diversity in television writing [and directing]," he said. "People know it's a problem, its clear and dramatic."

Should the legislation to reform the Production Tax Credit prevail, Peterson says the WGA has a number of other initiatives up its sleeve aimed at broadening the scope of storytelling and storytellers. "The more programs like this one become successful the broader the circle of hirees becomes," he said.

Meanwhile, academy president Cheryl Boone Issacs has spearheaded reforms to the Oscar voting process. Now, there will be term limits imposed on Oscar voters if they are no longer actively working in the industry, and she has invited several hundred more women and minorities into the academy's ranks, which have been disproportionately white and male for decades. "Our audiences are global and rich in diversity," she said on Sunday at the Academy Awards, "and every facet of our industry should be as well." 

Veteran Broadway producer Ken Davenport ("Kinky Boots," "Spring Awakening") thinks Hollywood should look to Broadway for a blueprint for how to do diversity right. "The Hollywood model is not built in a way to embrace all types. It's built to put the most bucks on the bottom line," he told MSNBC on Monday. Unlike in film and television, he says the theater industry has largely resisted corporate influence, so artists and independent producers still have more sway on casting and representation. And according to Davenport, who's the star of any given show is less important than the quality of the art, citing the breakout success of the racially diverse musical "Hamilton" as an example.

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"That project was totally derived from one man, an artist [Lin-Manuel Miranda]. It was born from him. He was able to cast it according to his artistic vision," said Davenport. "If Broadway had a studio model, shows like 'Hamilton' wouldn't even happen."

Davenport believes if Hollywood has any hope of truly being an inclusive industry the creative people must wrest back some measure of creative control from the conglomerates that mostly call the shots on what projects get made, and who gets promoted as likely awards contenders. "We have never been a quote-unquote big business. Sony does not own a Broadway producing entity," he said. In the meantime, he believes that at the very least this year's snubs have started a productive conversation.

"I don't know how the [Oscar] nominators next year don't have this issue ringing loudly in their ears," he said, although he cautions against new-found self awareness veering into tokenism.

Meanwhile, he concedes that if Broadway isn't careful, they too are in danger of losing their autonomy. The success of Disney productions on Broadway has inspired theatrical arms at most of the major studios to get into a industry that Davenport says "10 years ago ... no one thought was big enough for anyone to care." And a sign of the changing times will come in the form of the upcoming "Spongebob: The Musical." Although there's no word yet on whether people of color will be considered for the leads of that show.