In the summer of 2020, not long after the murder of George Floyd sparked a racial settlement in America, Carri Twigg’s phone kept ringing.
Ms. Twigg, one of the founders of a production company called Culture House, was asked time and again if she could watch a television or movie script and raise any red flags, especially about racing.
Culture House, which mainly employs women of color, has traditionally specialized in documentaries. But after a few months of handling the requests about scripts, they decided to turn it into a business: they opened a new department dedicated solely to consultancy work.
“The frequency of check-ins did not slow down,” said Ms. Twigg. “It was like, oh, we have to make this a real thing that we offer consistently — and get paid for it.”
Although the company has been advising for a little over a year — for clients like Paramount Pictures, MTV and Disney — that work now accounts for 30 percent of Culture House’s revenue.
Cultuurhuis is not alone in this. In recent years, entertainment executives have vowed to be genuinely committed to diversity, but they are still routinely criticized for falling short. To signal that they are taking steps to address the problem, Hollywood studios have signed contracts with numerous companies and nonprofits to help them avoid the reputational damage associated with a movie or episode of a TV show is accused of bias.
“If there’s a great idea and it’s only talked about because of its social implications, it must be heartbreaking for creators who spend years on something,” said Ms. Twigg. “To get it into the world and all anyone wants to talk about is the ways it fell short. So we’re trying to help don’t let that happen.”
About being transgender in America
The consultancy work runs like a production. The consultancies are sometimes asked about casting decisions and marketing plans. And they can also read scripts to look for examples of bias and explore how characters are positioned in a story.
“It’s not just about what characters say, it’s also about when they’re not talking,” Ms. Twigg said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, there’s not enough agency for this character, you use this character as a piece of jewelry, you get judged for that.'”
When a consulting firm is on a commission basis, it can also get a guaranteed check from a studio every month. And it’s a revenue stream that has only recently been developed.
“It’s really exploded in the past two years,” said Michelle K. Sugihara, executive director of the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment, a nonprofit organization. The group, called CAPE, is subject to some of the biggest Hollywood studios, including Netflix, Paramount, Warner Bros., Amazon, Sony and A24.
Of the 100 projects CAPE has consulted on, Ms. Sugihara said, about 80 percent have come to fruition since 2020, and they have “really increased” after the Atlanta spa shootings in March 2021. “That has really raised awareness for our community. “, she said. said.
Ms. Sugihara said her group could be actively involved in the production process. In one example, she said she told a studio that all the actors who played the heroes in an upcoming script project appeared to be fair-skinned East Asian people, while the villains were played by dark-skinned East Asian actors.
“That’s a red flag,” she said. “And we need to talk about how those images can be harmful. Sometimes it’s just things that people aren’t even aware of until you point it out.”
Ms. Sugihara declined to name the project or the studio behind it. In interviews, many cited nondisclosure agreements with the studios and an unwillingness to embarrass a filmmaker as reasons for not being able to release details.
Sarah Kate Ellis, the president of GLAAD, the LGBTQ advocacy group, said her group spent years doing informal consulting work with the networks and studios. Finally, she decided to make the studios pay for their labor — work she compared to “billed hours.”
“Here we were talking to all these content creators all over Hollywood and getting no compensation,” said Ms. Ellis, the organization’s president since 2013. “When I started at GLAAD, we couldn’t pay our bills. And meanwhile we’re here with the biggest studios and networks in the world, helping them tell stories that were hits. And I said it doesn’t make sense.”
In 2018, she founded the GLAAD Media Institute – if the networks or studios wanted help in the future, they should become a paying member of the institute.
Initially there was some setback, but the networks and studios would eventually come. In 2018, there were zero members of the GLAAD Media Institute. By the end of 2021, that number had grown to 58, with nearly every major studio and network in Hollywood now a paying member.
Scott Turner Schofield, who spent some time as a consultant for GLAAD, has also spent years advising networks and studios on how to accurately portray transgender people. But he said the work had increased so significantly in recent years that he was brought on board as an executive producer for an upcoming horror film produced by Blumhouse.
“I went from being a part-time consultant – barely gaining weight – to an executive producer,” he said.
According to the interviewees, it was a win-win arrangement between the consultancies and the studios.
“Ultimately, the studios want to produce content, but they want to make money,” said Rashad Robinson, the chairman of the Color of Change advocacy group. “Making money can be hindered by bad decisions and not having the right people at the table. So the studios will want to look for that.”
He cautioned, however, that simply engaging consultants was not an adequate substitute for the structural change many Hollywood advocates want to see.
“This doesn’t change the rules with who gets to produce content and who gets to make the final decisions about what goes on the air,” he said. “It’s fine to bring people in from the outside, but ultimately that’s not enough to show that there is still a problem throughout the entertainment industry in terms of not enough black and brown people in power in the executive ranks.”
Still, the burgeoning field of cultural consulting work may be here to stay. Ms. Twigg, who helped establish Culture House with Raeshem Nijhon and Nicole Galovski, said the amount of requests she received “illustrated how seriously it is taken and how extensively it is incorporated into the fabric of doing business.”
“From a business standpoint, it’s a way for us to capitalize on the expertise we’ve gathered as people of color who have been living in America for 30 or 40 years,” she said.