Sitting outside of the USC Cinematic Arts school near the Douglas Fairbanks Fountain, Jasmine Peck is waiting for her class to begin. She said one of the reasons she went into filmmaking is to help marginalized and underrepresented communities see themselves on screen.
Much of the conversation going on in the film industry is the lack of diversity and inclusion on screen and behind the camera. The LA Film Festival returns tonight with a high level of representation of women and people of color. For this year’s films, 42 percent of the directors are women and 39 percent are people of color.
“It’s encouraging that the numbers are rising but we haven’t quite got there yet,” said Peck, a black third-year graduate student at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.
The LA Film Festival is produced by the non-profit arts organization Film Independent. Tonight will open with six short films produced from Film Independent’s signature program “Project Involve”, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.
Each year Project Involve gives 30 filmmakers from diverse backgrounds and underrepresented communities the opportunity to hone their skills, create short films, and form partnerships in the industry. Each fellow is paired with a mentor from the film industry to help them succeed in their career goals.
Jennifer Cochis, LA Film Festival director, said that having programs like Project Involve is important because she thinks “those [programs] are vital in changing the landscape and telling the story.”
Former Project Involve fellows include director Aurora Guerrero (Mosquita y Mari); filmmaker Justin Simien (Dear White People); and Kim Yutani (Sundance Head of Programming), and USC Cinematic Arts’ alumni and directors Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) and Tina Mabry (Queen Sugar).
Diversity at the LA Film Festival extends beyond the featured directors and into the selection committee. Cochis said that the committee represents diversity in age, socioeconomic class, gender and sexual orientation. “It’s important to make sure the gatekeepers are a reflection of the world that we live in,” she said.
Although the LA Film Festival shows a high percentage of women and people of color being represented, the motion picture industry as a whole continues to be predominately white and male.
Out of the 1,100 films produced between 2007 and 2017, only 43 women were directors, according to a study done by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at USC this year. The numbers are lower when it comes to people of color. Only 64 were Black or African-American and 38 were Asian or Asian American.
"A lot of people think that because you don't see a lot of representation of people of color in tv and film, it's an issue of racism and discrimination," said Miki Turner, USC journalism professor and former tv critic. "More often than not, it's an issue of nepotism. People tend to hire who they know, who they've worked with before and generally those people are sometimes people who look like them."