Behind a Hollywood Power Couple's Commitment to Boost Diversity in Film

Notice anything different about the latest Academy Award nominees? Right, they actually look a tad like the rest of America this year. Even Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change is impressed, saying in a statement: "In an extraordinary turnaround after two years of #OscarsSoWhite, the Academy today nominated a field of accomplished Black actors, directors, screenwriters, and others for the industry’s highest honor."

Two years ago, Robinson's organization launched the Hollywood Culture project with the goal of "ensuring accurate, diverse, empathetic, and human portrayals of Black people on television and throughout the media landscape."

This effort, along with others, now seems to be paying dividends. 

Meanwhile, within the film industry itself, one power couple is taking a real stand on diversity, and putting up new funding, too: Will and Jada Smith.

Last year, I looked at a gift from the Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation to remedy pervasive gender inequality in the film world. Now comes word they're broadening their efforts beyond gender disparities.

As part of a two-year commitment, the foundation will support the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters Intensive and year-round work with diverse independent filmmakers and artists.

The Screenwriters Intensive, part of the Institute’s Feature Film Program, provides opportunities for 10 emerging screenwriters from underrepresented communities in a two-day workshop on the creative process. It works in partnership with the Institute’s Diversity Initiative.

This is obviously a big issue for Will and Jada Smith, who famously boycotted the Oscars last year in protest over the lack of diversity among nominees in major categories. (Presumably, now that the academy's 2017 nominees include six black actors—a record—the couple will show up.)

Of course, Sundance and the Will and Jada Smith Foundation aren't alone among funders in promoting diversity in the film industry. For example, we recently looked at the Saul Zaentz Innovation Fund in Film and Media at John Hopkins University, which aims to "empower and embolden new voices," noting: "From transgender artists and a 50+ year-old African American producer to a Jewish writer and an African American lesbian preacher, the fellows' races, ages, religions and genders vary much like the stories they are telling."

We've also written about the efforts to promote women in Hollywood specifically, such as that earlier gift by Will and Jada Smith, Meryl Streep's gift to promote female screenwriters over 40, and support of the Sundance Female Filmmakers Initiative by funders like Ruth Ann Harnisch. 

RelatedMeryl Streep Funds Screenwriting Lab for Women Over 40

In the Sundance press release about the latest Smith gift, I couldn't help but notice the proliferation of words like "stories" and "storytellers." This is no accident. Funders of all stripes are embracing the term and in doing so, expanding the form's reach.

To get a sense of the scale at play, here, simply juxtapose these two recent gifts. The first: Baltimore philanthropists Mark and Patricia Joseph's $3 million gift to make the School for the Arts the first high school in Baltimore to offer a "film and visual storytelling program." Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, the mighty Ford Foundation, with an endowment of $12 billion and change, boldly proclaimed: "We believe creative visual storytelling is vital to the pursuit of justice and equity in the 21st century."

As for Sundance, its diversity Initiative—which recently netted a three-year grant from the Time Warner Foundation—reaches into "new communities of storytellers and audiences across regions, genres, ethnicities, gender and orientation."

Commenting on the Smith give, Executive Director Keri Putnam said, “We are so grateful for the generous support of the Will & Jada Smith Family Foundation. Together, we will build momentum and awareness about the need to create a film and media landscape that reflects the full richness and diversity of our culture.”