You could call Ryan Murphy the prolific creator of primetime series, a four-time Emmy winner, or even the $300 Million Man for the megadeal he made to move his allegiance from Fox to Netflix. But if you asked him for the accomplishment that has made him most proud, he’d tell you it was becoming an early proponent of a hiring system he launched in 2016 called Half. His goal: to give women, minorities and LGBTQ people a foot in the door of a world that has been next to impossible to crack.
While the phrase ‘inclusion rider’ only really became industry parlance after Frances McDormand’s Oscar acceptance speech, it is something you have been doing for two years. What was your reaction to hearing her say that?
Anything that anybody says to demand equality is a great thing. I was also thrilled with the result, where several companies in the next two weeks came forward and said, “We’re going to start doing that.” I was already doing that; my company and I started the Half Initiative two years ago, so we’ve been doing it for two years and the company is building and building. We started with the directing end of my company. We started with the hope of 50% or more. Now, actually, our average is running like 60% female. We have been branching out for the past year on the crew side. Within my company, we’re looking not only at 50% equality male to female, but beyond that into all areas. We’re looking to add more minorities, more LGBTQ people.
How did this start?
What used to happen when I started on television back in the day, as a gay person, I would walk onto the set and it would be me and 99 straight guys over 40 who were white. What I’m trying to do is have an experience where you walk onto a set and there’s absolute inclusion across the board. We’ve had great luck with it.
But it started from a place of me feeling like I had failed. This came out of a personal connection where I realized, “You know what? I should be doing better here.” The initiative came from a personal place, and I always think that helps. What I’m trying to do in my career right now is sort of what my friend and idol Norman Lear was doing. Now it’s about me finding people and empowering them to change an antiquated system.
So for example, with Pose. Pose started off as a script written by Steven Canals, an Afro-Latino gay male who was having a lot of trouble breaking into the business. And now he’s the co-creator of Pose, making hiring and casting decisions, and he is trying to create a workplace better for the next generation. So it’s a very empowering thing that we’re trying to do here.
When you mentioned Norman Lear, do you mean from the standpoint of the diverse subject matter or hiring?
He was doing a version of it in his hiring and what he was advocating for. If you look at Norman then and now: He was doing The Jeffersons, and more recently the all-Latino version of One Day at a Time. Is Norman a member of those communities? No. But he’s advocating for them, taking people from those communities, and saying, “Expand people’s minds in the writing and in the casting. And let’s turn a spotlight on different social areas that need attention.” That’s what I’m interested in doing as well, not just in casting and in hiring practices, but also in terms of what the shows are about.
Many of your peers might want to do the right thing, but they hire the same people over and over because there’s a shorthand and a trust. What would you say to them about the results you’ve gotten, not just in changing the look of a set, but in executing your programming?
I think the quality is actually higher. I feel like in that period within my company, we’ve had more success across the board. A lot of times in the television business, the idea is you hire somebody who’s already done the job because that way you can protect the investment. But I feel like when you hire somebody new-—when you give them a chance—my experience is 10 out of 10 of those people will work even harder because they know that this is a great opportunity; that they cannot fail. And the work will be better. There is more communication, because new people—who are not straight white guys in their 40s—ask questions. They’ll say, “Tell me about this.” “How could this be better?” “Explain this to me.” I am more deeply invested in the work because it’s like that.
Also, it’s better to have more women on set. It just is. The environment’s better. It’s better to have a set that has 50% inclusion because you have more opinions, and with more opinions comes better work because you have people questioning more, and being harder on the material and wanting to understand it and get inside it in a different way. It feels much more exciting and expansive to me.
There is no downside. I feel like the work has been better. The sets have been better. Now, 10 years ago I didn’t probably have the power within my company to say, “Okay. I’m just doing this.” But now I do, so that’s what I’m doing. I wish I could have done it 10 years ago.
You have statistical breakdowns of your hiring. Some might fear a quota system. What would you say to them?
That it’s not a quota system. I mean, if you look at the Hollywood I came up in, it was 99.9% straight white males. So talk about a quota. This is a break; a much-needed correction of a system that for too long has been dominated by a single voice. I feel if you look at the movies and the television shows that are breaking out, they are doing so because they have a new, different point of view. They offer a different worldview than we’ve had before. The world has changed so I think our process needs to change. It’s a much more multicultural world than in the beginnings of the internet and social media. All I’m trying to do is reflect the world that we really actually live in. It doesn’t feel strange. It feels like the new normal to me. This is what life really is, and not some fantasy of life or Hollywood. The idea is, tell as many stories with as much passion as you can and as many viewpoints as you can, and that’s what we’re trying to do now.
Everybody across the business is changing and embracing this idea. You can feel it. I don’t know anybody on any level who’s resistant to the change that’s happening now; the idea of inclusion and equality. Hollywood is a very liberal place, and it’s great that you don’t have to ask permission. Everybody is encouraging you to do it. Everybody I work for on the higher level at FOX and at Netflix is always saying, “This is great. Keeping doing more of this.”
Is that enthusiasm a byproduct of the Harvey Weinstein exposé stories, and the subsequent men who were shamed for their behavior? Some feel there is a connection between a lack of opportunities and bosses who prey on ambition.
I guess. I started doing this a couple years before so for me, it has no connection. But I do think that what has happened in the past six months is, there was a large group of people—women and minorities—who, for a long time, accepted a certain kind of behavior and status quo, myself as a gay man included. “Don’t rock the boat. Just feel lucky to be in the room. Take whatever’s handed to you.” Now, everybody’s saying, “You know what? F*ck that. F*ck the system. Let’s change it. It doesn’t work. Why should we be afraid to speak up?” What you’ve seen is a removal of fear, and people are now speaking their truth. And that has led to a lot of great changes as well.
But in terms of my work, I’ve always written great parts for women. And two years ago, right during the middle of O.J. is when I started the Half Initiative, and it was just because I realized I didn’t have enough women directing Marcia Clark episodes on The People v. O.J. Simpson. I do think that any movement starts with a personal tipping point, and that was mine. And I think other companies have different tipping points. The #MeToo movement being one of them.
Is there an exceptional discovery you made after this commitment towards diversity? Or feedback from someone who got a break that most touched you?
I hear it all the time from people. The thing I’m most proud of, that means the most to me, is being an employer who’ll say, “I’m going to give you your first shot.” The hardest thing in Hollywood is to break into the business. It’s a Catch-22 paradigm because you can’t get a job unless you’ve had a job. So I hear that from women all the time, where they’re like, “We could not break into directing because we couldn’t get an episode to direct. Those jobs went to men of a certain age who’ve already proven that they could do it.” So, for so many women, gay people and minorities, that has been the hardest thing to get past: “We can’t hire you because you’ve never done it before.” Once you give people that break and you believe in them, it changes their lives. I’ve given so many directing jobs to first-time female directors and many of them are now having hugely successful careers. Because if they directed one of my shows, people from other shows say, “OK, well they’re already broken in. They know the business. They know the rules. This is great.”
I have talked with some of the people who’ve come through the Half Initiative about just how hard this is. I didn’t really understand. As a person of privilege, even though I consider myself to be a minority, I’ve always created shows and my own opportunity. But that first opportunity is hard and our job is to not just hire women and minorities, but also to hire a lot of first-timers so that you can molecularly change the system from the beginning. That’s what I’m trying to do. The big mission statement for me is to add as many new voices to the business as possible. Fresh voices, different perspectives, people who otherwise could not get a break.