By Dinah Eng
Everybody in Hollywood wants an agent. If you’re a talented minority seeking representation, you may be seen as a good potential client or as the pink elephant in the room nobody wants to talk about.
Diversity has become a definite factor in television hiring, but while everyone says they’re eager to find new minority talent, few people are willing to discuss the topic in print, fearing that anything they say will offend one of their clients or someone they want to do business with.
When it comes to signing new clients, agents readily acknowledge that doors open only to those with great persistence, talent and connections. And even though network and studio diversity programs have encouraged minority hiring, the industry overall has yet to embrace the business case for diversity.
For agents looking to make the most of their 10 percent commissions, that means signing people whose work can most easily be sold.
“Generally, people pay attention to, `How am I going to get the ratings up next week?”‘ said John Bauman, an agent with The Gersh Agency who handles mostly drama writers. “It is in television’s best interest to diversify their employee base because even if those particular people have more trouble hitting the target at the moment, they’ll also broaden the target over time.
“If you’re focused on recreating `Seinfeld,’ you’ll hire all white, Harvard-educated writers. But at the end of the day, you’re digging your own grave in the long term. For example, there’s no question one of the most talked-about shows now is `Ugly Betty.’ It’s got a very Latino, assimilated flavor, which is a great step in evolution toward the more inclusive mainstream culture.”
Agents note that it’s easier to get a minority into an entry-level position, but if the client doesn’t land with a hit show, the hardest job is getting them that second job, where people of color find it tougher to integrate into social circles in which established writers tend to hire friends they’ve already worked with and that they trust.
Doug Fronk, an agent with Paradigm, said good training and mentoring are needed to break through the barriers to success.
“TV is a business,” said Fronk, who represents TV and feature writers and talent. “You need to know how to behave in a room, your place on a staff, the composition of a show. As casts get more diverse, people want different perspectives on the writing staff.
“A lot of times, the networks and studios will say they need a Latino voice, a female or an African American at the mid-level or co-producer level. More and more, the requests are getting more specific as the pipeline grows.”
At least 30 percent of Fronk’s clients are minorities, most of them writers.
“TV staffs should reflect the diversity of the nation,” he said. “I think there’s a particular need for Latino and Asian writers. I’d really like to see more shows on-air exploring different points of view.”
Creating such shows, finding diverse talent and growing that client base requires a conscious commitment. The best agents, who maximize profits short term and long term, do more than just look for clients to fit a current trend. They’re savvy enough to spot talent, develop it and market it as the next trend.
Fronk said there’s a growing appetite for different things in society and, just as hip hop doesn’t appeal only to African Americans, different cultural interests will push us toward greater understanding of each other.
“I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico, just to study literature in college,” Fronk said. “I’m Roman Catholic, and my wife is Jewish. At the end of the day, the people I want to sign have to be terrific at what they do. But a lot of it comes down to being open to new things.”
Clearly, agents-the gatekeepers to making deals in television-don’t think minority candidates are worth recruiting unless they’re proven commodities. It’s a shame, because those who make the most money are also those who have the vision to see beyond today’s limitations.
The nation’s demographics are changing. Viewership habits are changing. Advertising buys are fractured. And one day soon, people of color will be the majority population. Smart agencies should be diversifying their own agency ranks now and nurturing minority clients with in-house mentoring programs, teaching the politics and practicalities of the business.
Jennifer Good, an agent with Metropolitan Talent Agency, said she sends her new writers to classes that teach how to work in a writers’ room. Learning the intangibles-like when to speak up and when to shut up in the room, what to ask your boss and what you must learn on your own-is harder, she noted, especially when showrunners are too busy to take an interest in a new person.
Women, she said, are also too often counted as “the diversity hire” when a writing staff is overwhelmingly male.
“I think it’s important that more women are hired routinely, in addition to minorities,” Good said. “Women are more than half the population, and half the TV audience. If the networks want to attract a bigger audience, they should hire a staff that is reflective of the viewer base. This business is not a meritocracy. There are many forces that want to keep it their club.”
But as we all know, everything in life changes. It’s whether we resist that change or embrace it that determines whether we become pink elephants or not. Dinah Eng is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who writes a syndicated column for Gannett News Service.