Black execs leaving film industry concerns legislators

By Antonio Ray Harvey|

Contributing Writer

SACRAMENTO — A group of state legislators have expressed their concerns about the recent abrupt departures of Black women from high-profile jobs in Hollywood.

Led by state Sen. Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, D-Los Angeles, and Assemblywoman Tina McKinnor, D-Inglewood, the legislators questioned film studios’ commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion after the Legislature recently approved $1.6 billion in tax credits for the industry.

The press conference was held July 13, the same day the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), the union representing Hollywood actors, joined striking Writers Guild of America (WGA) members in the biggest labor dispute the American entertainment industry has seen in 63 years.

In recent weeks, Verna Myers, Netflix’s vice president of inclusion strategy; LaTondra Newton, Disney’s chief diversity officer and senior vice president; Joanna Abeyie, the British Broadcasting Company’s creative diversity director; and Warner Bros. executive, Terra Potts, executive vice president of worldwide marketing, have all moved on.

In addition, Warner Bros. Discovery’s diversity, equity and inclusion specialist Karen Horne and Jeanell English, executive vice president of impact and inclusion at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, left their roles.

“We are here today calling on industry executives to meet with the state legislative Black caucus and leaders in the coming weeks to explain what is behind this erasure,” Smallwood-Cuevas said at the press briefing. “(We want them to) provide the evidence of how diversity, inclusion and the progress made will continue to move forward given the lack of leadership and gravitas at the forefront of those proposals.”

Lawmakers at the press conference said the departure of diversity, equity and inclusion specialists from major Hollywood companies gives the impression that creating an inclusive culture in the American film industry is not a priority for a sector that has a well-documented history of discrimination and exclusion.

“As vice chair of the Asian and Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus, we are proud to stand in solidarity with the Black Caucus,” said state Sen. Dave Min, D-Irvine. “I don’t want to accuse anybody of anything, but it certainly looks suspicious when in a short timeframe after we pass the $1.6-billion tax credit … that we see a number of leading African-American female Hollywood executives let go.”

Senate Bill 485, introduced last year by state Sen. Anthony Portantino, D- La Cañada Flintridge, provided $1.65 billion in tax credits, or $330 million annually, in financial support for film and television makers and other media content creators. The California Film and Television Production Tax Credit Program is scheduled to sunset on June 30, 2025.

State lawmakers are now asking for meetings and are now looking for ways to hold television and film studios executives accountable for benefitting from state investment that essentially helped create diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

SB 485 was created after a series of production companies opted to leave California for states that offered larger tax incentive programs. Thebill was amendedto reflect California’s diverse population.

“I was highly offended to see the industry’s response to a $1.6 billion tax subsidy by quietly eliminating Black women from executive positions with a number of studios,” McKinnor said. “Many of these women were involved in their studios’ diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, which raises a serious question about their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in the film industry.”

SB 485 states that “This bill, for credit allocations made on or after July 1, 2023, would revise the definition of qualified motion picture for purposes of the credit to require an applicant to provide a diversity work plan that includes goals that are broadly reflective of California’s population.”

On July 10, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 132 to extend the state’s $330 million-a-year Film and TV Tax Credit Program an additional five years through fiscal 2030-31.

In a statement, the governor’s office said that SB 132 builds “upon a strong track record of success” and “whose productions have generated more than $23 billion” for the economy.

More than 178,000 cast and crew have been supported by the program. The new budget will create the state’s fourth-generation film/TV tax credit program — known as “Program 4.0.”

“The California Film and Television Tax Credit program has led to the creation of hundreds of thousands of high paying union jobs, it’s supported countless local businesses, and pumped billions of dollars into the state’s economy,” said Charles Rivkin, chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association. “The 4.0 version of the program, signed into law by Governor Newsom, will build on that success by creating new commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion and establishing a pilot program on production safety, among other provisions.”

McKinnor said, “While the California film tax credit 4.0 proposal builds upon previous work to solidify California as the entertainment capital of the world, it does not include requirements to increase diversity of its below-the-line hiring.

“The California film tax credit 4.0 only requires a good-faith effort. That’s not good enough,” McKinnor added. “We should all expect more from an industry receiving $1.6 billion in subsidies from California taxpayers.”

Smallwood-Cuevas, McKinnor and other members of the Legislature want to make amendments to SB 132 that will keep diversity, equity and inclusion programs intact.

They expect to sit down with members of the film and television industry, union representatives, and Gov. Newsom to get clarity of the entertainment business’ efforts to promote and stabilize diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

“We want progress towards real inclusion and equity in this industry and we want to make sure that our tax dollars are not in any way involved in this erasure,” Smallwood-Cuevas said. “We hope that these conversations will lead to a commitment and level of trust that will allow us to continue to move forward and expand our investment in this important industry.”

Antonio Ray Harvey is a reporter for California Black Media.

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