Getting A Foot In the Door Anali, a young woman from Los Angeles, wants to break into the film industry. A local program taught her the skills of the trade and the language, but will any of that that matter in an industry that runs mostly on connections?
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Getting A Foot In the Door

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Getting A Foot In the Door

Getting A Foot In the Door

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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

This is CODE SWITCH. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

And I'm Gene Demby. So, Shereen, are you finna (ph) watch the Oscars this weekend?

MERAJI: I probably will because I think it's gonna be an interesting year.

DEMBY: OK. Why?

MERAJI: (Laughter) Why? You know why. It's a way more diverse crew of nominees, in the acting category, at least. We've got Yalitza Aparicio for "Roma..."

DEMBY: I love that movie.

MERAJI: ...Mahershala Ali for "Green Book." I haven't seen that movie.

DEMBY: I'm not going to see it (laughter).

MERAJI: Regina King, "If Beale Street Could Talk," which I haven't seen yet, but I'm really looking forward to.

DEMBY: She's the best thing in everything she's ever in, so...

MERAJI: Back to "Roma," Marina de Tavira was also nominated for "Roma."

DEMBY: Yep.

MERAJI: And I'm putting her in this diversity category. She plays the mom in the film. And the mom is supposed to be this, you know, upper-middle-class white Mexican. But, you know...

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: I don't know. Would she be white in the U.S.? Would she be Latina?

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: That's another CODE SWITCH episode. But I'm putting her in the mix.

DEMBY: Right. Well in 2015 to 2016, obviously every single nominee in those acting categories, every single one of them, was white, which is what prompted the Oscars So White hashtag.

MERAJI: And here is Alex Nogales of the National Hispanic Media Coalition from right before last year's Academy Awards.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEX NOGALES: We're here protesting the fact that Latinos are not in the industry in any percentage that is acceptable. We are 18 percent of the U.S. population. We are consuming at the rate of $1.5 trillion a year, and we are buying 24 percent of all the tickets at the box office. So at the same time, we're only 3.1 percent of the speaking roles in film.

MERAJI: Three-point-one percent. But you know what? There's nothing new about this fight over who gets to be at the Oscars.

DEMBY: Nope.

MERAJI: It's a fight almost as old as the Oscars.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

MERAJI: The year 1940, the 12th Annual Academy Awards, "Gone With The Wind" was looking to clean up with 13 total nominations.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAX STEINER'S "GONE WITH THE WIND (MAIN TITLE)")

MERAJI: Full transparency, I've never seen "Gone With The Wind."

DEMBY: It's not a good movie. It's too long. It's boring. It's racist. I mean, there's no reason to really watch it.

MERAJI: Well, we have a story that's linked to the movie which maybe should be a movie in and of itself, right? It's about this woman, Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy in "Gone With The Wind." She was nominated for best supporting actress. And she was set to become the first black person to win an Oscar, which she did.

(SOUNDBITE OF 12TH ANNUAL ACADEMY AWARDS)

HATTIE MCDANIEL: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science (ph), fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests, this is one of the happiest moments of my life. And I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of the awards. For your kindness, it has made me feel very, very humble, and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel. And may I say thank you, and God bless you.

(APPLAUSE)

DEMBY: Credit to her race. Wow.

MERAJI: Whew (ph). Hattie gave that acceptance speech right here in LA at the Ambassador Hotel, where the ceremony was being held. That hotel, though, Gene, it had a strict no-blacks policy. But some industry people pulled strings, and the hotel offered a compromise. Hattie McDaniel could come just as long as she sat at a table stashed in the corner away from her white co-stars.

DEMBY: Decades later, in 1962, a black actor named Caleb Peterson formed a group called the Hollywood Race Relations Board. They picketed at theaters and at studios and at the Oscars. In her book "Cinema Civil Rights," the UCLA professor Ellen C. Scott wrote that Peterson, quote, "recognized that although the Academy was not the institution granting the jobs, it was the one that was defining success."

MERAJI: Right. And producers want to hire successful actors.

DEMBY: Right. That's the thinking. That's why people fight over the Oscars so much, right? That's the way we think it works, right? So in response to Peterson's protest, the Academy was like, look, if you calm down (laughter), we will include a tribute to blacktors (ph) - to blacktors (laughter)...

MERAJI: Blacktors, I love it. Gene just came up with a new word.

DEMBY: Blacktors.

MERAJI: Blacktors.

DEMBY: We will include a tribute to black actors in the ceremony. Just stop making so much noise. But that wasn't enough to Peterson, who showed up on the red carpet that year with 125 protesters. And, you know, the police came.

MERAJI: Of course.

DEMBY: And things got heated, and a dozen people ended up getting arrested for trespassing.

MERAJI: But this did not stop Caleb Peterson. He got more militant. He promised protests leading up to the following year's Oscars and said he and his group were prepared to defend themselves if things got ugly again. Quote, "we lay the whole responsibility on the Academy, not the police," he told the reporter. "If they rough us, there will be violence. This is no Martin Luther King movement," unquote.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: More than 30 years later, in 1996, even People magazine was like, what is going on? They put out a cover story that read "Hollywood Blackout." And the deck was the film industry says all the right things, but the continued exclusion of African-Americans is a national disgrace. And it seems like we go through these cycles of people protesting and demanding more inclusion at the Oscars, like, all the time. Like, it's just, like, every couple years we revisit - or every decade, even, we revisit this conversation.

But the Oscars are just the tip of the iceberg. The fight over the Oscars hasn't really changed because the dynamics of Hollywood haven't really changed. It's still an industry run by white folks and where the biggest factor in who gets the job and who gets in the door is connections.

MERAJI: It's that phrase: it's who you know.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: And this is true in almost every business. It's definitely true in this business. But it seems to be especially true in Hollywood, where resumes are less important than connects. And today on the podcast, we're going to meet someone who doesn't know a lot of folks in the biz but wants to. And we're gonna hear about an organization trying to help with that and everything they're up against. Producer Anjuli Sastry from It's Been a Minute will take it from here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANJULI SASTRY, BYLINE: So this story starts in June 2013 with a senior at Bell Gardens High School in east LA.

ANALI CABRERA: My name is Anali Cabrera, and I am 17 years old. I'll be graduating in two days. I am my class salutatorian, so I've been preparing for my speech.

SASTRY: Anali's lived in the Los Angeles area her whole life. She's hyperfocused on school and is pretty athletic. She runs track. She wrestles. And about a year ago, she became super obsessed with rollerblading.

CABRERA: People will sometimes catch me, like, pretty much just skating in the middle of the road. And when I'm feeling a little stressed out, it just helps my mind come to ease.

SASTRY: And like a lot of teenagers, Anali loves movies.

CABRERA: "Lady Bird"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LADY BIRD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Take it away, Lady Bird.

SAOIRSE RONAN: (Singing, as Christine McPherson) Everybody says don't. Everybody says don't. Everybody says don't. It isn't right.

CABRERA: ..."The Shape Of Water"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SHAPE OF WATER")

RICHARD JENKINS: (As Giles) The way he looks at me, he does not know what I lack.

CABRERA: ..."BlacKkKlansman"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACKKKLANSMAN")

ADAM DRIVER: (As Flip Zimmerman) Well, I'm not risking my life to prevent some rednecks from lighting a couple sticks on fire.

SASTRY: Her favorite movie by far, though, is "Call Me By Your Name."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CALL ME BY YOUR NAME")

ARMIE HAMMER: (As Oliver) I like the way you say things - don't know why you're always putting yourself down, though.

CABRERA: The stylistic choices that the cinematographer and the director made definitely changed my view on cinema. I think that oftentimes I associated a good film with something that was action-packed and fast-paced. But this film definitely felt like life unraveling for itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CALL ME BY YOUR NAME")

HAMMER: (As Oliver) You're making things very difficult for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SLOSHING)

SASTRY: But she doesn't just love watching movies. She also wants to make them.

CABRERA: I've wanted to be in film since I was about 11, so it's always been a passion of mine.

SASTRY: During her senior year of high school, Anali started working with this program called the Youth Cinema Project. The project partners with schools to teach kids filmmaking in the classroom from fourth grade through high school. And it helped Anali develop the chops to do something she's always wanted to do - write, direct and produce a film of her own. She's been working on it all year long.

CABRERA: I made a film called "Luna At Moonlight." So it takes place in the Moonlight Rollerway in Glendale. And it's about this girl who falls deeply in love with a guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LUNA AT MOONLIGHT")

FREDDY TIJERINO: (As Leo) Are you OK?

LEONISSA DUARTE: (As Luna) Yeah, yeah.

TIJERINO: (As Leo) Are you sure?

DUARTE: (As Luna) Yeah. Yeah, I'm OK.

TIJERINO: (As Leo) You don't look fine. Here, let's go get you some ice.

CABRERA: And she spends the next couple months roller-skating around her neighborhood trying to reunite with him.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LUNA AT MOONLIGHT")

DUARTE: (As Luna) I told you already. It's not an obsession.

BENITO AVILA: (As Mari) Then what is it?

DUARTE: (As Luna) I don't know. I just have to find him.

SASTRY: So Anali's film, "Luna At Moonlight," was a short film - just under seven minutes. There's rollerblading. The characters are from LA. They're Latinx. And it highlights the neighborhood that Anali grew up in, a part of LA that rarely makes it onto the big screen.

CABRERA: I know for, like, three months, they just really wanted us to get, like, our creative juices out. And they had us writing in journals every day and brainstorming all our stories and really digging into our plots.

SASTRY: The they Anali's referring to here, she's talking about project mentors assigned to schools like hers every year. These mentors lead filmmaking classes as part of the school curriculum.

EDWARD JAMES OLMOS: OK. I'm going to take a shot real quick, and then I'll be right back. Keep on talking.

SASTRY: The project was founded by the famed actor, producer and director Edward James Olmos. He's been in iconic movies like "Stand And Deliver" and "Selena" and TV shows like "Miami Vice" and "Battlestar Galactica." He's a big deal.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I want you to be in this...

OLMOS: All the sounds that you're hearing, by the way, I'm on set right now. We're doing - making a film as we speak. I'm about to go on in front of camera. But you'll hear the first AD scream...

SASTRY: I caught Edward for a second on the phone last year. He was on the set of an upcoming movie he's starring in with George Lopez called "Walking With Herb." Edward says his project works 'cause it starts young.

OLMOS: To, you know, learn how to direct, how to produce, how to write, how to act, how to do locations, how to do wardrobe, how to do all the aspects of the departments of filmmaking - so by the time they get out of high school - going into college, these kids are really well-versed in the whole understanding of the artform.

SASTRY: Since the project launched five years ago, it's now in 16 school districts across California and works with about 1,300 kids each year. And to run the project, Edward turned to another Hollywood insider, Rafael Agustin. He's a writer on the CW TV show "Jane The Virgin."

RAFAEL AGUSTIN: I was like, no, thank you. I'm very busy. I'm doing my own thing. I'm selling my own projects, trying to, like, fight my way through this industry myself. And then he said, just go visit a class. Just go visit a class, and see if you change your mind. So I did. And I went to one of these emerging communities. And I watched 9-year-olds do the work that I didn't get to do till I got to college. And I just cried because I knew right then and there that this is how we change Hollywood.

ERIKA SABEL FLORES: Today's the last day of school, so after lunch, they're going to have parties. We have, like, popcorn and chocolate. But just...

SASTRY: That's Erika Sabel Flores. She's another project mentor. I met her back in June of last year at an elementary school in LA that's participating in the project. So I'm walking in with all my equipment - my headphones, mic, recorder - and immediately, the kids spot me.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: She's hearing us. She's hearing us.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Yeah.

SABEL FLORES: You know what this is, right?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Yeah, it's the boom.

SABEL FLORES: And what is this?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Recorder - mixer.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: It makes the...

SABEL FLORES: The what?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: The mixer.

SABEL FLORES: Yes, the sound mixer. Yeah.

SASTRY: So these kids are learning how to use boom mics, Blackmagic 4K video cameras, fancy film-editing software. Rafael says it's all funded by grants, private donors and the school districts themselves. The majority of the fifth-grade kids in this particular classroom are Latinx, and they were really cute, but the stories they're telling are not - a story about an alcoholic father, a family member in jail, a family getting deported.

This is the whole point of getting these kids to be part of the film industry one day. It's to tell stories we might be missing out on when we have a Hollywood where every other movie is a rom-com or superhero sequel. And Anali Cabrera's own filmmaking dreams have also been inspired by family stories, like hearing her grandma talk about crossing the border.

CABRERA: My grandma remembers, like, sometimes seeing people, like, starving, you know, because there obviously wasn't food at their disposal while they were coming here.

SASTRY: This is the story Anali wants to tell. But she has no connections in the industry. She's not financially well off. And she's not alone. Latinx people are underrepresented in front of the camera. They get just around 3 percent of the industry's top film roles and roughly 1 out of every 10 film directors are people of color. These disparities continue in the writing and creating of TV shows and movies, too. It's all according to the 2013 Hollywood Diversity Report, which measures diversity on and off camera. For Anali, part of the dream is to go to UCLA's film school. It's one of the most competitive film schools in the country, and the Youth Cinema Project is devoted to getting her there.

Its stated goal is to help send kids to college. The thinking goes, if you don't have a family member in the business, you'd better have a college degree. And that's why the Youth Cinema Project isn't just about your filmmaking skills because the industry is all about who you know. Even the fifth-graders I met are learning that.

SABEL FLORES: You guys are going to go to middle school. So who can tell me...

(SOUNDBITE OF CLASSROOM CHATTER)

SABEL FLORES: ...Who can tell me - think about it. Discuss it with a friend, or whatever. But who can tell me one thing you learned at YCP that you think you can use when you go to middle school?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Networking.

SABEL FLORES: Networking. Yes, networking.

SASTRY: As for Rafael Agustin, the project's executive director, he's using his own network to make sure the handoff happens for the students from grade school to college to a job in Hollywood.

AGUSTIN: Our next step is to go to every single studio, every single network, every single production company and say, hey, you need to provide not just educational experiences for these students, but you have to be creating internships for these students of color.

SASTRY: He says he reached out to a friend at Paramount and has others in mind.

AGUSTIN: And I need to find these like-minded executives at all these places to help us do exactly that.

SASTRY: So this is the real test. The kids can learn to hold cameras and write scripts all they want, but if the handoff doesn't happen, all that training might go to waste.

MERAJI: Anjuli has more on that after the break.

DEMBY: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SASTRY: There are dozens of programs just trying to improve diversity in Hollywood, from the Ghetto Film School to the City University of New York's Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema. But they haven't made much of a dent. To talk about why, I called up someone who studies how the film industry hires, Kristen Warner. She's an associate professor at the University of Alabama.

KRISTEN WARNER: A lot of the pipelines that have been operating and been functioning in this business are through traditional relationships. You know, alumni networks, family-member relationships.

SASTRY: So guess what?

WARNER: It has often been seen that you would pick people who look like you or remind you of yourself.

SASTRY: Over and over again, decade after decade, this is how it happens. Folks tell Kristen this process turns into real jobs.

WARNER: I started here, and I had a friend who was an alumna of my school and so she gave me an opportunity to work, and so I started doing this and I would take the mail to FedEx. And then from there, I would start typing in the writers' room. And then from there, that's how I learned to write. So it's not even the schooling, necessarily. It's not even, like, the education. The education would happen on the job as they moved through.

SASTRY: If kids like Anali Cabrera are going to make it, they're going to need more than just an education.

WARNER: A lot of the discourse, a lot of the language around entry is through, like, the best at the job, right, in terms of merit and in terms of skill set.

SASTRY: It's a paradox, she says. People with less training might get jobs because of their connections, and people who actually know the how-tos of filmmaking can't even get into the room.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SASTRY: Around the same time Oscars So White went viral a couple years ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences realized they needed to do something more than just change the voter makeup of its white male-dominated institution. I reached out to the Academy for this story. They told me about the Academy Gold internship program, which started just after Oscars So White. Their stated goal is to make the film industry more inclusive.

Of the 107 students in last year's class, 35 percent of them were first-generation college students. Almost 30 percent were Latinx. Almost 30 percent, white. Twenty percent were African-American. And almost 20 percent were Asian. The program offers workshops, the chance to meet with directors and get mentored by Academy members. End of the last cohort, around 50 got jobs in the industry.

Meanwhile, Youth Cinema Project founder Edward James Olmos and project director Rafael Agustin were also paying a visit to the Academy president when Oscars So White was happening, to pitch the Academy on taking up their project.

AGUSTIN: And our conversation was essentially, the answer to Oscars So White is not changing voting regulations, the answer to Oscars So White is developing and investing in communities of color, and that's exactly what we do with the Youth Cinema Project.

SASTRY: At first, Rafael says, Academy leadership did not take action. So Rafael started doing what people do in Hollywood. He called up a friend who works in the Academy. And because of Rafael's friend, the students premiere their films every year at the Academy. Also the high school students in the program get to attend an annual Academy Gold career summit. As for the Youth Cinema Project, it's only 5 years old, and none of the kids in it have graduated from college yet and officially gotten internships. So it's too soon to say how and whether this is working. Professor Kristen Warner says the program is trying to address a lot of problems all at once.

WARNER: Each step of that way seems, you know, it's like its own project. Like, getting through high school, getting you into college, getting you an internship. Like, each of those things is a project in and of itself. It's completely admirable. It's just, it's a lot.

SASTRY: But this conveyor belt the project is trying to put together is building a lot of momentum. Chapman University, another top film school in Southern California, is providing 10 full-ride scholarships each year for the program's students in the Santa Ana Unified School District. The program received a new grant recently from the California Endowment Foundation, and they've hired Stanford researchers to track how many of the project's students make it to college, like Anali Cabrera.

CABRERA: There was this crazy event that happened yesterday. They screened "Eighth Grade," and Bo Burnham was here.

SASTRY: Wow.

She's now at UCLA, and she's loving college.

CABRERA: They have a lot of events like that here at UCLA. So I'm excited for that.

SASTRY: Anali has found her footing. She's in a co-ed film fraternity. And UCLA's film school doesn't just put you behind the camera immediately. You have to go through classes where you think about the story you want to make. And you know what? She's ready for it. But she's also a college student facing hurdles. UCLA's wealthy Westwood neighborhood is very different from Anali's working-class community back in Bell Gardens. Anali hasn't even entered the industry yet, but she's already having to fight for her place in it.

CABRERA: When you're a minority and you're entering the college life, not only do you have to get used to not being with family and, you know, going through college work and the stresses that come with that, but you also have to learn to not feel alienated when you're the only, let's say, Hispanic in the crowd or, you know, African-American in the crowd.

SASTRY: Anali wants to be a cinematographer or a director of photography. But for now, she's trying to soak up everything so she can put all of that back into the films she one day creates. She tells me she's going to be watching the Oscars on Sunday. She's hoping "Blackkklansman" wins for best picture and will be closely watching the other folks of color nominated for awards, too.

As for fixing Hollywood's diversity problem, it's bigger than just the Oscars, and it's bigger than just the Youth Cinema Project and programs like it. I'll give the last word to professor Kristen Warner.

WARNER: It cannot just be different-looking bodies. I think, you know, Hollywood can prove, when put under pressure, as they have every 15, 20 years, you know, they can give you the smallest thing that you ask for. And I don't want to invalidate that. But I think that we also need to be having conversations about, what is it beyond counting the bodies that would count as progress?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show. Please follow us on Twitter. We're at @NPRCodeSwitch. You should follow Shereen at @RadioMirage. That's...

MERAJI: No trolling.

DEMBY: Yeah. No trolling. Be kind.

MERAJI: I keep it real positive on there.

DEMBY: (Laughter). I don't do that. You can follow at...

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: (Laughter). GeeDee215. That's @GeeDee215. We want to hear from you. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. And send us your burning questions with the subject line ask CODE SWITCH.

MERAJI: You can sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/newsletter/codeswitch and subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts. Next week on the show, in honor of Black History Month, we'll introduce you to three black activist athletes you probably didn't read about in history class.

DEMBY: This episode was produced by Leah Donnella and Kumari Devarajan. It was edited by Sami Yenigun, Leah, and Steve Drummond.

MERAJI: Shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team - Walter Ray Watson, Karen Grigsby Bates, Adrian Florido, Maria Paz Gutierrez and Kat Chow. Our intern is Tiara Jenkins.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy.

MERAJI: Peace.

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