Executive suites of studios are still mostly lily-white

September 08, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

HOLLYWOOD — The first time Stephanie Allain met John Singleton, the 21-year-old film student sat in her office at Columbia Pictures as she voiced a few minor criticisms about a screenplay he had written called "Twilight Time."

With every suggestion, Mr. Singleton bristled.

"He looked at me, like, 'What are you talking about?' " Ms. Allain recalled. As she continued her critique, Mr. Singleton would break in: "Excuse me? I don't see anything wrong with that!"

But from that encounter, a friendship was born that would catapult the careers of both young African-Americans. For there was another script Mr. Singleton refused to show Ms. Allain that day, but which she eventually brought to the attention of her bosses at Columbia. It was "Boyz N the Hood."

"Basically, Stephanie is now the only person I feel is qualified to give me comments," said Mr. Singleton, the Oscar-nominated director who currently is working with Ms. Allain on "Poetic Justice," another film for Columbia.

As a vice president of production, the 32-year-old Ms. Allain is one of only two African-Americans today who are in the upper ranks of film development at a major studio -- and both are working at Columbia.

"African-Americans have been as far away from that as they have in the development of nuclear bombs," said Doug McHenry, who produced "New Jack City." "Although we have been in front of the cameras, we really haven't been behind the camera much."

With the exception of Sony Pictures Entertainment, no blacks hold creative positions at the level of vice president or above at Disney, Universal, 20th Century Fox, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount and Warner Bros., according to Sandra Evers Manley, president of the Beverly Hills-Hollywood chapter of the NAACP.

And it isn't only blacks who are scarce. MGM, Paramount, Universal and Warners, said they have no ethnic minorities at the level of vice president or above on the creative side, although there are minorities in junior executive and business affairs positions.

Disney refused to comment about the ethnicity of its executives, although sources said that there were no ethnic minorities at the level of vice president and above on the creative side with the possible exception of Hollywood Pictures President Ricardo Mestres. Disney refused to discuss his ethnic background.

Spokesmen for Fox also declined to provide information on the ethnic natures of its executives.

Ms. Manley said the studios have taken strides to bring in people of color on the business side. For example, Richard Nanula, an African-American, is senior vice president and chief financial officer at Walt Disney Co., the top financial post under Disney chief Michael Eisner. Bob Holmes is executive vice president of music at Sony. Tami Masuda, an Asian-American, is executive vice president of worldwide advertising at MGM.

Ms. Manley said several studios are beginning to hire minorities at the junior executive level and only time will tell if they advance.

At the same time, some studios have programs in place that seek to attract minorities at the creative level.

Each year, Paramount funds the Eddie Murphy Fellowship, in which four graduates of Howard and Hampton universities are brought to Los Angeles and given one-year contracts to spend a year as a screenwriter.

The studio, in cooperation with the Black Filmmaker Foundation and Hollywood craft unions, also hired 10 African-Americans as observers during the filming of Eddie Murphy's "Boomerang." The program allowed them to watch employees perform their tasks in such jobs as lighting, sound and photography.

At Disney, a writer fellowship program geared toward minorities is now in its third year. Under the program, 20 to 30 men and women are brought to L.A. to write for one year, paid an annual salary, and put to work with an executive at the studio.

"The goal is to increase the talent pool," said Helene Hahn, executive vice president of business affairs. "I do think [the program] has had an impact. One of our writers [Reggie Bythwood] who worked with us the first year now writes for 'A Different World.' "

But as far as penetrating the studio system itself, progress has been slow.

Columbia Pictures Chairman Mark Canton conceded: "All the major studios have to face the fact that minorities are not well represented in terms of the inner workings of the studio executive system."

It is at Sony Pictures Entertainment, parent firm of Columbia and TriStar Pictures, where minorities currently hold several key production positions. At Columbia, Teddy Zee, an Asian-American, is an executive vice president of production, while Ms. Allain and Kevin Jones, both African-Americans, work on the next rung down as vice presidents under production chief Michael Nathanson. At TriStar, the senior vice president of production is Chris Lee, an Asian-American.

Mr. Canton, who was named head of Columbia last year, said he sees it as his "mandate" to provide opportunities for minorities.

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