4.11.2016

How New York Looks to Remedy Hollywood's Diversity Problem with Legislation

Legislation would provide incentives for TV shows to hire women and minority writers and directors

Originally published in Crain's New York.


Writers’ and directors’ unions are hoping the controversy at this year’s Academy Awards will push New York to tweak a tax credit to encourage diversity in the film and television industry.
A bill with a majority-party sponsor in both chambers of the state legislature would designate $5 million of the already allocated $420 million Empire State Film Production Tax Credit for incentives to television productions that hire female or minority writers or directors. It would be the first time a film state tax credit has included a diversity clause.
Intended to spur employment of rank-and-file writers and directors, the diversity tax credit would be capped at $50,000 per hire. The women and minorities hired must be qualified New York taxpayers, which the bill's backers say addresses the fact that most scripts of New York productions are being written out of state.
“We are quite confident that if passed, the bill would lead to the hiring of more storytellers—both writers and directors—who are women and/or people of color and build a much better, more diverse industry,” said Lowell Peterson, executive director of the Writers Guild of America.
The bill, first introduced in 2013, passed the Assembly last year but stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. It is being carried by Assemblyman Keith Wright, D-Manhattan, and Sen. Kemp Hannon, R-Garden City, and would take effect 120 days after being signed by the governor, should it make it that far.
In addition to Peterson's union and the Directors Guild of America, various local unions including Theatrical Teamsters Local 817 and International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 52, which represents theater and movie workers, support the bill.
“The entertainment industry has long struggled with the issue of diversity,” said Tom O’Donnell, president of Teamsters Local 817. “Any incentive that prods the industry in the right direction, the Teamsters support.”
In August 2015, the Directors Guild of America released a report analyzing the ethnicity and gender of directors hired for prime-time episodic television. Of more than 3,900 network episodes produced in 2014-15 and 270 scripted cable series in 2014, women directed just 16% of episodes, while minorities directed 18%, the latter a slight decrease from the prior year.
“Simply put, the hiring pipeline is broken across the entertainment industry,” said Neil Dudich, eastern executive director of the Directors Guild’s eastern wing. “New York has taken a leadership position in production incentives, and we look to the state to take a leading position on diversity.”
Peterson said the measure would bolster support for the broader film and tax credit, which the industry views as crucial to maintaining its level of activity in New York.“People have been quite critical of the entertainment industry and its lack of diversity,” he said. “This is a way for the industry to say, ‘Hey! We are doing something about it.’ ”
On the issue of shows produced in New York City but written by non-New Yorkers, the bill’s authors cite 15 prominent TV productions filmed in New York in 2008 that collectively employed 122 writers, only 24 who lived in New York. That number has remained stagnant for eight years, according to Writers Guild representatives.
“Some of these writers worked on scripts for shows such as Ugly Betty and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, where the City of New York is a main character, without even visiting New York prior to writing an episode,” the bill sponsors wrote. “At the same time, many New Yorkers have found it impossible to maintain a career writing for television without leaving the state, uprooting their families and depriving the state of tax revenue.”
Earlier this year, the Writers Guild produced a YouTube video (see below) in support of the bill. It features several writers from shows including House of CardsThe Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver who at one point in their career had to move to Los Angeles to gain employment in a writers room.
“The problem in New York state isn’t a lack of talent, it’s a lack of opportunity,” said Holly Walker, a writer for Wilmore's show.
Correction: Lowell Peterson is executive director of the Writers Guild of America. The organization's name was misstated in an earlier version of this article published online April 11, 2016.
 For advice on how to comply with the requirements of this and other production incentives, contact me here.

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