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How Time’s Up is training a troop of diverse Hollywood executives

by Ace Damon
The program's mentors meet regularly with seasoned professionals about what to do and what not to do in Hollywood.

"I want to be in the room where this happens" sings Aaron Burr at the musical hit "Hamilton". In music, he is referring to a secret bargain at the dinner table that changes the course of the country.

But he may well be talking about Hollywood and the "rooms" where the key decisions are made about which movies and TV shows get the green light.

"It's fair to say that most Hollywood theaters – whether it's development, production, business, marketing, etc. – are terribly homogeneous," said Jenno Topping, president of Chernin Entertainment.

“They are basically groups of white, upper middle and middle class people and they are much more men than women, especially the taller the members. Thus, it lends itself to an echo chamber-like environment – usually insular in taste, perspective, ideas, and troubleshooting methodology. "

Time's Up Entertainment is trying to change that. This year, the organization debuted Who is in the room, a mentoring program designed to increase the presence of people of color and other underrepresented groups in the production and executive ranks.

"Population observation content has never been so comprehensive or diverse," said Topping, a program mentor and member of its steering committee. "It makes sense that the people who create and sell these stories are equally diverse to enhance and maximize the opportunity."

The initiative was launched with a class of 23 people, all in assistant or other entry level positions and all trying to move to junior executive positions. This particular leap is difficult and requires sacrifices that only a privileged few can make.

The program's mentors meet regularly with seasoned professionals about what to do and what not to do in Hollywood.

(Skandia Shafer)

"Accepting a very low-wage job at a large agency or studio is possible for perhaps other children with different socioeconomic backgrounds," said apprentice Chisom Ude.

“Even so, you may not be able to relate to bosses who help young people learn or work in a company that promotes from within. Everyone cares about how you can get into business, but no one really helps nurture you when you get in. "

Working as an assistant in the entertainment industry means long hours and low salaries for years, potentially by paying student loans and facing high rents in Los Angeles.

Anytime off the clock is expected to be used on the net or watching movies and television shows to accompany bosses and customers. It is almost impossible to ask someone who has financial difficulties or contributes to the welfare of a family after graduating from college.

"It's the first survival test of the fittest," tetraVision President Tara Duncan, who is also the program's mentor, told the industry's ranks of assistants. "You work long hours for minimum wages – sometimes even less – and with people who come from Ivy League schools and money.

“Associate this with the fact that you need to understand the dominant culture or fit the profile of what superiors consider worthy of promotion. It may also seem completely random at times, because it is. "

The program aims to minimize this randomness to participants by providing them with funds and financial aid sessions outlining all the unwritten rules of ascension in the Hollywood ranks. This means learning to track and develop important intellectual properties and mastering skills such as negotiation and cool speech. It's like "Hamilton's" Burr describes: "how the game is played, the art of craft, how the sausage is made".

"From the beginning, everything was very action-oriented, asking what are the specific steps to take to basically arm yourself with the tools to become an executive," said Daniel Yu, assistant to Matthew Greenfield of Fox Searchlight.

"Things like being literate in film and TV classics, so you can speak the same language as writers and directors, learning your boss's taste for being a great assistant and dealing with office politics. I found it immensely helpful."

Participants receive mentors immediately informed of their industry experience.

SkandiaShafer_TimesUp_July208Z3B7668.jpg

Liars Shea Myles and D'Joy Falaye take a break between Netflix sessions in July.

(Skandia Shafer)

"It seems like everyone had an uncle or father and that's how they get their knowledge, but I come from places so far from entertainment and didn't know anyone in this city when I moved here," said Joy Falaye, assistant FX CEO John Landgraf. "It's nice to have this space where I can ask questions and learn about things that other people already know."

"We've learned a lot of lessons the hard way," said Priya Swaminathan and Tonia Davis, co-bosses of Higher Ground Productions and program mentors. "If we can save our mentors some time as they learn these rules and, more importantly, if we can start changing some of the most mysterious and unwritten ones, we will be ecstatic."

Although only in a few months, the initiative has already had positive results. More than half of participants made the transition to new roles, either through promotions or securing new jobs.

Bolanle Fapohunda is now a creative executive at Color Force after working as an assistant in various capacities for almost five years. She discovered the work by talking to one of the show's mixers.

"My mentor gave me all the tools and tips to be prepared for all interviews and how to put together my packages," she said. “She sent me flowers on my first day at work. In such a big city, where you may feel so lost, it's good to have people who really care about you. "

This is not limited to mentors only.

"Having this community of people who understand what you are going through, people you can turn to after a hard day, is very helpful," Fapohunda added with a smile. "I think we will all be in this industry for a long time and support each other on whatever path we take."

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