Maybe Hollywood culture is changing.
In the last decade we have seen a large exposure of bad behavior such as sexual harassment and abusive behavior. Now that a new generation – diverse, female and multicultural – is taking over leadership roles, the question is: will it be possible to bring about positive change? This is where three new leaders from this year’s class come into play.
Jeanell English, Executive Vice President of Impact and Inclusion at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, believes that empowering the entertainment industry’s new leadership is key not only to advancing careers, but also to creating compassion, closeness and connection within the communities.
“I feel like so many of us who are recognized as new leaders have been leaders in some way our entire lives,” says English. “This leadership has taken us to different communities to expand our sense of community, to connect with different people, and to feel drawn to advocacy in a way that feels very deep with who we are. If you work in entertainment, film and media, you have to take that education and that encounter with different communities and advocate for them in this industry.”
For this reason, English is particularly proud of the work she and her colleagues at AMPAS have done to promote the short documentary films in competition for this year’s Oscars.
“It’s a reminder of the power of film and how a 10-minute short film can enlighten, inform and spark conversations that have never been had before,” says English. “After a film, I had conversations with members [of the Academy] for the first time about agriculture. With others we were [talking] about adoption. There are just so many topics. The film creates a door for us to explore.”
Manager and producer Christian Rodriguez, founder of AAO Entertainment, represents a number of clients in the film and television space, including directors James Cotten (“Painted Woman”) and Alfredo Ramos, who directed comedy “Welcome to Our World.” 2021,” starring Danny Trejo. For Rodriguez, promoting the careers of artists is at the core of his daily work.
But while the entertainment industry is primarily a medium for that — entertainment — it can also function as a terrain to create positive, systemic change and make a difference in the world, Rodriguez says. This aspect of Hollywood motivates him to not only advise his clients on what roles and projects to take on, but to provide emotional support as they explore the often stormy waters of showbiz. He believes it’s all about what the new leadership is all about.
To that end, he says: “First and foremost, I want to advocate for mental health. [Coming from a Latino background,] I was always taught to be strong and keep my head up. Feelings are not always shared in Latino households. And because of that experience, I feel like there are parallels in our industry. We have a culture where you should have a thick skin.”
Reaching out to those he represents for information on their well-being is a key component of what it means to be an effective manager-producer.
“We all struggle with inner thoughts, and sometimes we just need that moment to see how people are doing and to review their day and hopefully turn around that day or that week,” he says. “It’s about feeling like you matter. Whatever the project – it could be a four-quadrant feature, for example – but what’s really the message? What kind of exposure does the film get?”
Adds Rodriguez, who doesn’t mince his words, “The projects my clients undertake can evoke emotion or alter a state of being. It’s important that they have a strong voice because their work has the potential to impact the world.”
Influencing the world through entertainment is an area where Zoe Katz Samuels, VP, Entertainment Partnerships and Head of WCPG Content at Weinstein Carnegie Philanthropic Group, has real expertise. During her roughly nine years at WCPG, a non-profit agency founded by Sara Weinstein and Harrie Bakst, Samuels has helped expand the philanthropic efforts of organizations such as CORE, founded by Academy Award winners Sean Penn and Ann Lee improve The Elton John AIDS Foundation was established in 1992 to eradicate the AIDS epidemic.
Samuel’s mission was to partner with prominent figures in entertainment – actors, producers, filmmakers – to spread positivity.
“People in entertainment and entertainment as a medium – be it television or film – are undoubtedly the most influential way to drive change and make a difference,” says Samuels. “We’ve seen that happen with political and cultural changes [fictional] Characters on TV shows, with the impact of things like Live Aid or the way the entertainment industry comes together to help communities.
The purpose of WCPG, she adds, has always been to see “how we can use the space of entertainment and sports and pop culture to make a difference.”
English agrees. What she appreciates most about her leadership role at the Academy is the opportunity to take positive action through filmmaking. “Whether through the community programs that our museum champions or through programs that encourage dialogue around film and make it more accessible to communities, this is part of the great work we do in our library and archive afford,” she says. “What films do we keep? How do we design them? How do we encourage filmmakers to contribute to our collection so that it is diverse, representative and inclusive?”
Groups like the Latinx Affinity Group and the LGBTQ Affinity Group are another powerful way the academy can leverage the power of film “to connect, create and generate professional opportunities,” English says.
“I take it very seriously to be in an environment where I can speak to the industry and engage on behalf of Academy members,” she adds. “Being able to challenge studios and production companies and encourage filmmakers to keep going is something I feel privileged to have.”