Affirmative Abstraction

By anyone's standards, they were brilliant. Though I had recently placed second in an international speech contest and had graduated from a nationally renowned theater school, their litany of achievements and top-drawer schools - Harvard, Yale, Brown, Cornell, NYU, UCLA - sent me spiraling into neurotic inadequacy. I rushed home and telephoned a friend, hoping he would assure me that I somehow belonged.

They - we, rather - were writers: sensitive, idealistic, emotional, analytical, insecure and opinionated. One had to hesitate before speaking to us. Anything one said was certain to be challenged or dissected; the extroverted among us could use our cynical wit to riff off a statement like a piece of jazz.

We were also predominantly minorities and women, many of us on a mission to change an industry that had traditionally resisted change. And now we were "Walt Disney's children."

In August 1990, a messenger had stood in my doorway and handed me a letter and contract from Disney Studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and president Rich Frank. Underneath the Mickey Mouse logo, the letter said I was one of 26 writers who had been selected, out of 2,000 applicants, to inaugurate the Walt Disney Studio's much-publicized writing fellowship program.

Included in this group were self-assured lawyer Takashi Bufford, who would go on to write Booty Call, House Party 3 and Set It Off, one of Hollywood's most profitable movies in 1996; boisterous Tony Puryear, who later wrote the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Eraser; and pensive Luis M. Meza, writer and director of the critically acclaimed 1996 independent film The Staccato Purr of the Exhaust.

Soon after the group's first meeting, I dropped in at the downtown offices of ARCO, where I had worked three years earlier before quitting to pursue my writing career. Moving from cubicle to cubicle, I collected high-fives and congratulations. It was a triumphant moment. The noisy celebration drew more co-workers into the hallway.

"I read about that program in the Times," one of them told me. I nodded. I had clipped the article for posterity. "That minority program," she sniffed.

With just three words and a disapproving tone, she had cast doubt on my legitimacy as one of Walt's kids. For a millisecond, I had the impulse to inform her that, in fact, there were white people in the program. Instead, realizing that I might be seen as implying that the presence of white people was what legitimized the program, I continued down the hallway.

As I spoke with another worker, the woman's words, and her tone, lingered in my ears. Had she read the whole Times article? Hadn't she seen the quote from the Writers Guild, about how two recent surveys had concluded that writers were being shut out of the market because of age, sex and ethnicity? Didn't she think that was wrong? I finally cast her voice aside. She was not going to fuck up my Disney moment. I had poured my life's savings into my new career.

I had gone hungry and ruined my credit rating. I had endured countless rejections. No one had given me shit. I had earned my right to be part of the Disney family.

Seven years had passed last spring when I spotted a print ad for the movie Booty Call at a friend's home. I chuckled at the title. "I know the guy who wrote this," I told my friend. "He's a Disney fellow." I began to cite other major success stories: Tony Puryear; Reggie Rock Bythewood, screenwriter of Spike

Lee's Get on the Bus and producer, along with Disney fellow Natalie Chaidez, on Fox's New York Undercover; Tim Doyle, today executive producer and head writer at Ellen, formerly at Grace Under Fire; Maya Forbes, staff writer on The Larry Sanders Show and later executive producer of NBC's 1996-97 Top 10 series The Naked Truth.

Moments later, a man appeared on television to disparage government programs that assist minorities. As in the case of my former co-worker, there was no acknowledgment that certain fields have long been effectively closed to women and people of color.

"Most of the writers in the program were as good as those who were earning a living at it," says Takashi Bufford. Booty Call had just opened, and Bufford was preparing to direct his first feature, which fell through after Orion Pictures was sold. He is currently writing projects for Warner Bros., Showtime and USA Network, and is preparing to direct again.

"The program provided access," Bufford continues. "Many whites already have access - they go to the same clubs, the same parties. I can't speak for all black people, but I think most black people don't have that kind of access. I know how difficult it was to get read, to meet the right people. I know it's difficult for white people, too, but still, they have much more access than most black people."  

When Bufford was to address the 1996-97 Disney fellows ("I wanted to give something back"), he prepared a talk on minority filmmaking. But when he walked into the room, he was thrown for a loop. "There were maybe two blacks, one Hispanic," he says, "and lots of white guys. I had to adjust my talk." The program had become, in Bufford's eyes, "a regular situation with some minority participation."

The Disney fellowship program, as originally conceived, was a bold experiment. Yes, it was flawed. Yes, there were problems. Some of the Disney executives were indifferent to the project, if not downright hostile. Some of the fellows wanted too much too soon. There was plenty of room for improvement, but there was also plenty of talent, and plenty of room for growth.

But now, apparently, the Disney fellowship program had undergone a significant, if quiet, transformation.

Following a 1989 "Hollywood Writers' Report," commissioned by the Writers Guild of America and citing Disney's dismal record in hiring minorities and women (the worst record of 27 surveyed media companies), then-Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg decided it was time to take action.

"Jeffrey told me, 'This is a problem. I want to fix it. How do we do it?'" says Helene Hahn, then-executive V.P. of Disney Studios.

"Katzenberg really was trying to do something for writers, primarily minority writers," says Bridget Johnson, former V.P. in production at Disney's Touchstone division, "although we didn't want to call it a 'minority program.' We tried to be as inclusive as possible. We definitely didn't have a quota system."

"We read colorblind and gender-blind," says Steve Tao, a creative executive at both Disney and Touchstone Pictures. "We wanted the best writers."

"We were looking through thousands of scripts for exciting new voices, writers who didn't necessarily know how to write for the studios," says producer Cheryl Hill, who oversaw the fellowship program at Disney's Hollywood Pictures. "And we chose not to completely close off the fellowship program to white males."

Disney executives scoured the country for participants, contacting colleges and notifying professionals within the industry. Articles heralding the program appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and Jet magazine. The final group tallied 11 African-American males, three African-American females, two Latino men, two Latinas, one Asian male, one Asian female, three white women and three white men. I was one of the African-American males.

Tim Doyle, of ABC's Ellen, was one of the white males. "The literature didn't promote the program as an access program for women and minorities," he says, "although the publicity certainly did. I signed up for everything and took my chances. I was pleased when they accepted me. It wasn't a token thing. It showed the program was based on merit . . ."Of course," Doyle adds, laughing, "it's self-serving of me to say so."

Of 12 Hollywood Pictures fellows, Yves Andre Martin, co-screenwriter of Hidden Assassin, starring Dolph Lundgren, was the sole white male. "The script I submitted to Disney was sort of Zorba the Greek set in the Caribbean," he says. "Every character is either Latino or black. When I met Cheryl Hill [who is African-American], she laughed. I laughed. I saw the program as giving a break to people who otherwise might not have access."

Despite precautions to ensure the Disney fellowships not carry the "taint" of a minority program, problems did arise. "Some executives looked upon the program as a showpiece, a token thing," says Hill. "The fellows' ideas just weren't taken all that seriously. I had pictured another little division - black films, smaller films that could still be quite profitable. There was no real support for the idea, though Jeffrey was considering it when I left."

A secretary to one of the executives remembers her boss telling her that many of his fellow executives saw the program as a "nuisance."

"I think affirmative action is important, but I vow never again to participate in another through-the-back-door program," says Jay Dyer, story editor on the Fox midseason replacement Getting Personal. "Because they get you through the door, and then they don't want you there."

"We were treated with disdain and distaste," agrees comedy writer and performer Mark Archuleta. "We had been given access we hadn't earned."

"There were times when we were treated as an inconvenience," concurs Eraser screenwriter Puryear, "although I had great mentors - producers Chip Diggins and Michael Peyser. They were hard on me. They didn't treat me like a charity case. They treated me like a writer. The worst disrespect you can get is somebody patting you on the head and telling you everything is okay."

Indeed, much seems to have depended on the luck of the draw. Working with my mentors, Diggins and Jim Wedaa, executive vice president at the Jacobson Company at Disney, was the most satisfying part of my fellowship experience. Cheryl Hill acknowledges, however, that while some executives were committed to the program, others weren't, and that basically the fellows' experience was defined by the junior and senior executives with whom they were matched.  

"My executives gave me all the time I asked for, and were genuinely interested in getting something done," says actor J.D. Hall. "As for the powers that be, I don't know how serious they were."

Wedaa explained in a phone interview how the typical creative-executive workload may have contributed to an impatient attitude on the part of some of the executives: "At one point, I had three or four movies in production, 35 development projects and a fellow to cope with. From the fellow's point of view, his project is his entire life. It gets 100 percent attention. For an executive, this is just one of 40 projects he or she has to deal with. Many of the fellowship people didn't realize that."

"We were feeling our way," says Dominique Lett, who presided over the Hollywood Pictures fellows in the second year of the program. "You guys were guinea pigs. I heard a lot of frustration. And Hollywood is frustrating. Writers came in with high expectations. They didn't realize how hard it is. A good percentage of the scripts in development simply don't get made."

"If you want to play the game, do it. If you don't, don't," says Sheila Anthony, one of the white females in the program. Anthony worked on the sitcom Home Improvement as a fellow, and afterward did a two-year stint as a story editor on Family Matters. "I went into television thinking it was about talent, when it's actually about politics and making connections. That's a good reality to know."

As of September 1997, there were 8,117 active members of the Writers Guild, 252 of whom were African-American, 81 Latino, 48 Asian, 13 Native American and four Eskimo. At the same time, there were 708 women in television and 246 in film, vs. 1,868 and 1,215 men respectively. There were nine working Latina writers during the last television season. On predominantly African-American shows, nearly three-quarters of the writers are white.

For 1997-98, the television division of the Disney fellowship program consists of three African-American women and one white male. For the same period, there are one white man, two white women, one Latino man and one African-American woman in the film division. (In late 1996, when Takashi Bufford addressed the writing fellows, the film division had four Caucasian men, two Caucasian women and only one African-American.)

"It is now an inclusive program, with an emphasis on making women and minorities aware of it," says Janet Blake, who was head of the television fellows in 1990 and oversaw the entire program until 1997. "We just pick the best writers. "Is the fellowship program still focused on minorities?

"Originally, that was the idea," says Mark Vahradian, former executive in charge of film fellows and today vice president of production at Touchstone Studios, "to give minorities and women a leg up in Hollywood. And that's still the case, although the screenplays are read blind. No names are attached to them. "What happens if the fellows chosen blind all turn out to be white males?

"Then I haven't done my job," says director of writer development and special projects Karen Horne, who is African-American and has succeeded Blake in overseeing the fellowship program and choosing the television writing fellows. "I haven't done my outreach. My focus is on creating a pool of more ethnically diverse applicants. But there are only great writers - not great white writers, not great black writers, not great Latino writers. Great writers. No race has a monopoly on that."

Many of the former Disney fellows point to the need for a range of people of color in hiring and decision-making positions, people who will be more receptive to hiring other minorities and more interested in creating diversified cross-cultural projects.

"The film industry needs more than just a program," says Conrado Terrazas, a former junior executive at Hollywood Pictures. "It needs people of color, especially where decisions are made. In marketing and production, the upper levels are mostly white. But go anywhere in L.A. - this is a city of color. And lots of us have talent."

To create more opportunities and expand the range of creative expression, many of the former Disney fellows have worked hard to avoid being pigeonholed as minority artists. They write what - and for whom - they please. Since Tony Puryear's success with Eraser, he has written a screen adaptation of the Ray Bradbury classic Fahrenheit 451 for Mel Gibson, along with Buck Rogers for Disney Pictures. Jay Dyer - who has written an original screenplay for Disney animation and, while an executive at Disney animation, oversaw development of the upcoming Mulan - decries the proliferation in recent years of 'hood movies, and hopes to write thrillers and other genre pictures with black characters.  

"Different points of view challenge others' perspectives," says Get on the Bus screenwriter Reggie Rock Bythewood. "It's what makes writing interesting. On the other hand, that's why a lot of writers get shot down, because their writing doesn't jibe with majority thought processes. When you give them what they're used to, you're applauded."

Takashi Bufford says that when he's written hip-hop movies, studio executives have gone out and hired Caucasian writers to "white them up," often for more money than the original writers were paid.

Why would you "white up" a movie directed at a black audience?

"Don't forget," Bufford says, "the executives have to like it first. They have to understand it. It may not end up seeming very real to black people, but it's 'black' enough for white people to have their comfort level."

Experience has taught this once-impatient bunch that change in Hollywood is gradual. However, their influence and power are growing. "When I'm in a position to hire," says Jay Dyer, "I will give people the respect they are due. Affirmative action should be about 'We are going to open the doors to more minority writers - and treat them like every other writer.' When a new writer comes into the system, he doesn't know anything. You learn as you go. It's about getting to the table."

"There are two sides to everything," says Dominique Lett. "It's always so hard to get your foot in the door. Anything that helps, great. Disney studios took a step no one else had taken. But did they release any movies that came directly out of the program? No. Did they wind up ahead of everybody else in terms of minority pictures? No. Did the fellows succeed in changing the situation significantly? No. So I feel split. I praise Disney for doing the program. I applaud them for trying. They just didn't think everything through."


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