In 2015, #OscarsSoWhite drew attention to a glaring lack of diversity in Hollywood that was obvious to everyone except perhaps the predominantly white male power structure. Since then, diversity in film and television (both behind and in front of the camera) has come under increasing scrutiny.
In 2021, job portal Indeed has partnered with Emmy Award-winning writer, producer and actress Lena Waithe and her company Hillman Grad Productions along with 271 Films to develop Rising Voices, a BIPOC career acceleration program for filmmakers. They just announced the launch of Indeed: Rising Voices Season 3, which will focus on the “future of work.”
“Indeed will provide each of the 10 shortlisted filmmakers with up to $100,000 to produce their film, which will debut at a film festival in New York City. In addition, they will be mentored by Lena Waithe, executives at Hillman Grad and 271 Films, managed by sisters Constanza and Doménica Castro. The filmmakers will receive compensation of $5,000 for writing an original screenplay and $5,000 for directing.”
Applications are possible until November 11, 2022.
Film production achievers like Ryan Coogler, Jordan Peele and Ava Duvernay are indeed exceptional in terms of talent and rarity. “There’s a lot of nepotism and gatekeeping in filmmaking, so finding your way into the industry was a challenge,” explains Travis Wood, Rising Voices season 2 contestant and Brooklyn-based filmmaker. “As a young black man, I always wanted my filmmaking to have a strong attitude and POV, and I think finding the right opportunities was also a challenge. Whether it’s funding a project or using my portfolio to secure commercial deals, more and more opportunities have been created in recent years to highlight diverse voices, including Indeed with the Rising Voices program, which has greatly helped my filmmaking career .”
Indeed has arguably taken on this challenge in a unique way. “Every day at work, we see that talent is universal, but opportunity is not,” said Indeed CEO Chris Hyams. “Rising Voices was born from a simple idea. We could spend $1 million on a TV ad – what if we instead invested $1 million in 10 BIPOC filmmakers to create short films about the importance of work?” Hyams explains that since the program began in 2021 during more than 1,000 jobs were created throughout the film production process.
Lena Waithe’s Hillman Grad Foundation is also helping to bridge the “connection gap” faced by so many BIPOC filmmakers by offering valuable mentorship and information-sharing that many black and brown artists without elite pedigree, family connections, or other miss out on professional benefits. “While the industry has made great strides in promoting diversity in representation both in front of and behind the camera, creatives from underrepresented backgrounds are finding it more difficult to access the training and opportunities traditionally afforded to majority communities,” explains Lacy Lew Nguyen Wright, Executive Director, Hillman Grad Foundation. “Our work does not end until the BIPOC communities have fair pathways into the industry, from which we have been systematically excluded for decades.” Wright hopes the program will not only benefit program participants, but also allow them to “build their platforms use it to open pathways to other creatives who follow.”
After just two seasons, the Rising Voices program has already achieved tangible success as the participating filmmakers have been recognized by prominent film festivals such as Tribeca, Sundance and the Pan African Film Festival. Program alumni have continued to direct episodes The Chi on Showtime; became a Netflix writer and directed the Disney+ show American-born Chinese among other notable achievements. While the program offers invaluable hands-on learning, perhaps the most significant benefit realized is the personal sense of pride and confidence gained through the program’s empowerment of their talent, brilliance and worth.
For Wood, the recognition and validation of simply being accepted into the program was just the beginning of many future benefits. “Coming from a very DIY filmmaking background, and the program works like a mini studio, I’ve learned a lot about this next level of filmmaking and how traditional TV and film production works,” he explains. “We have many high-quality mentors reading our scripts and advising our productions, so working closely with them has definitely made me a better filmmaker.”
The program also allowed Wood to go with a professional work sample. “Having my short film Black Santa Claus can show people what I’m capable of and has already begun opening talks that will hopefully lead to more film, commercial and television opportunities,” stresses Wood. Having access to mentors like Emmy Award-winning writer, producer and actress Lena Waithe is certainly invaluable. Wood says he often thinks about the best advice she gave him during the trial. “In one of the first calls we had for the program, Lena said we should do something that really sticks with people, that they leave the theater and think about it. That was always my guiding principle throughout the program,” he says.
Many would argue that filmmaking is one of the hardest nuts to crack when it comes to creating equitable jobs. Film and television productions are individual, discrete events, and historically there has been a closed club of rulers who control funding, creative opportunities, and decisions about which projects get the green light and which don’t. This one program challenges the status quo, one short film at a time.