Matt Damon is taking steps to address the diversity crisis in Hollywood through his and Ben Affleck's production company, Pearl Street Films, and collaboration with the people behind the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at USC's Annenberg School. They're the latest high-profile names in the industry who are throwing their weight behind the goal of inclusion, including J.J. Abrams and Ryan Murphy.
Damon got a wake-up call with the latest season of HBO's "Project Greenlight,'' a reality show about the production of an independent movie that Damon and Affleck launched in 2001. What had always been a somewhat under-the-radar look at the trials of making an indie, hit a cultural nerve last year with its focus on a film from a white male director, Jason Mann, about mainly white, wealthy characters. It was even called "The Leisure Class.''
On top of that, Damon got some heat for a conversation with producer Effie Brown that was perceived to be racially insensitive. He apologized, but it was clear that the show had become, intentionally or not, representative of an old-guard mentality in a year when diverse representation in film was dominating the conversation.
In response, the team went back to look at who entered the "Project Greenlight'' Facebook contest, which allowed filmmakers to submit a three-minute short film for consideration as an upcoming project on the show. In order to enter, contestants were required to have a valid Facebook ID, be over 18 years old, and not be a "professional director.'' There would then be a public Facebook vote on the entries, but a panel made the final decision.
Damon assumed their system had cast the widest net possible for submission but was surprised at the results: only two percent of entries came from people of color and eight percent from women, he said.
"That shocked us, because that wasn't the spirit with which we put it out there. It was like 'come one, come all.' But it was predominantly white men who showed up and entered,'' Damon said in an interview. "That was a real lesson for us.''
So the Pearl Street team decided it was time to get together with the folks responsible for the Annenberg study, which has detailed the extent of the crisis of representation in the entertainment industry both in front of and behind the camera, to figure out how they could change things.
"They were like, `it's crazy that you reached out to us because we identified you as two of the five people in this business who could actually move the needle if you change this stuff in writing,''' Damon said. "We were looking for real ideas - practical things that could help.''
One idea that took hold was putting clauses in contracts to make it a priority to look at all the roles on a film and hire with an eye toward equity.
"If you actually codify that, there can be demonstrable changes,'' Damon said.
As opposed to merely reacting to outside influences, Pearl Street and several other production companies in Hollywood are trying to change things at the very core of the creative process.
"Notable actors or producers working with inclusion experts brings data-driven evidence and expertise to decision-making tables and production sets,'' said Dr. Stacy L. Smith, Director of the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at USC Annenberg. "It can be the perfect storm for social change.''
At his Bad Robot production company, J.J. Abrams earlier this year implemented a policy to ensure that people are submitted for film jobs proportionally to their U.S. representation.
"It's important to us that the people who are telling the stories and the people who are in front of the camera, wherever possible, are representative of what the country looks like. It doesn't mean that there's a quota or that there are rules we have to abide by,'' Abrams said recently. "We'll make mistakes, we'll screw up and we'll keep trying things. There's no one right way to do this. But to me, the benefit is to the audience, the people who will start to see stories that won't just feel like the same old, same old.''
As for "Project Greenlight,'' while not getting a fifth season on HBO, the idea of assisting emerging filmmakers has evolved into the digital space. Project Greenlight Digital Studios has hosted a number of contests since launching seven months ago aimed at helping more diverse voices get a start.
For his part, Damon doesn't want to put the cart before the horse. The initiative is still in the very early stages as they craft language to use in contracts.
"I'd rather be judged on our actions,'' he said. "It's a cool opportunity and we'll see where it goes.''