In a standing-room-only presentation for GLAAD’s annual Studio Responsibility Index (SRI), GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis was joined by director-writer Kay Cannon (Blockers, Pitch Perfect), actor Nico Santos (Crazy Rich Asians, Superstore), producer Nina Jacobson (Crazy Rich Asians, Hunger Games), and writer Ben Corey Jones (Insecure, Underground) to discuss the drop in LGBTQ representation in film in the past year and how TV is outpacing the big screen when it comes to queer characters.
Ellis started the presentation with talking about how the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements have been inspiring for GLAAD in terms of inclusion in entertainment. “Inclusion makes great storytelling, inclusion makes a great bottom line,” she said. “It’s time for LGBTQ to be included in this movement.” She later adds that the SRI is less about looking what studios didn’t do and more about what they can do.
As reported in GLAAD’s sixth annual SRI, which was compiled by Megan Townsend, Director of Entertainment Research, there was a drop in LGBTQ representation in the 2017 calendar year. The advocacy organization found that out of the 109 releases from major studios, only 14 (12.8%) of them included characters that are LGBTQ. That is a decrease compared to 2016 which saw 23 out of 125 films (18.4%) have LGBTQ representation. 2017 marked the lowest percentage of LGBTQ-inclusive major studio releases since GLAAD began tracking in 2012.
As a result, made a call to action to have the seven major film studios to have 20% of their major releases include LGBTQ characters by 2021 and that 50% of films include LGBTQ characters by 2024. Fast forward to the conclusion of the panel when Endeavor Content announced their commitment to the goal of ensuring that 20% of Hollywood films include LGBTQ characters by 2021, becoming the first major content player to make the pledge. Endeavor Content also committed to its future projects falling under the much-talked-about Inclusion Rider (thank you Frances McDormand) as a best practice earlier this year.
The panel originally included Lena Waithe on the roster, but she unfortunately had to cancel. Nonetheless, Ellis, Santos, Cannon, Jacobson, and Jones kept the conversation going with moderator Tre’vell Anderson from the Los Angeles Times. The panel addressed an obvious question: why is TV seem more progressive than film when it comes to representation — specifically LGBTQ representation?
Ellis said that the reasons she has heard were because studios have a fear of releasing titles that might shun international audiences, legal issues and the long pipeline for development.
Jacobson, who has worked in both TV and film points to control of the project. Having recently worked with Ryan Murphy on The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story and the upcoming series Pose, she said that a “powerful showrunner can will things” and that he has much more influence. She adds that Murphy “can pull the trigger on his own work whereas most powerful directors can’t.”
For Jones, he said it’s easier to launch a career in television because there are more jobs. “When I go into a writers room, I am bringing my perspective in there,” he said. “TV is doing a fantastic job — it’s filled with so much diversity.”
Cannon, who directed the female coming-of-age R-rated comedy Blockers, points out that the film didn’t originally include a queer character. When working on the movie, Cannon wanted to “tap into what is happening in high school” — and that includes young women questioning their sexuality. When Cannon brought that to the story, she said “Universal backed them 100 percent.”
Writing more fully realized LGBTQ characters who have agency lead to more inclusion in film and TV. Santos said that we would go audition for queer roles and admits “I actually have no interest in playing straight characters — there’s already a lot out there!” He points out that his character in Superstore was originally written as a “straight Latino thug.” When Santos came into the picture, the character became a queer, undocumented Filipino guy — which told a fresh, new narrative.
When Moonlight came out and won the Oscar, Jones said that it started an interesting conversation because it told a story about a queer Black man — something that has never seen. To ride that wave of inclusion, Jones once pitched a show that had a queer Black lead, but executives said that “audiences aren’t ready for that?” to which Jones said, “Who says?” He said that storytellers and creators have a job to dispel myths that “permeate the system” — much like Moonlight did.
Cannon — the token straight person on the panel — went back to how studios are iffy about LGBTQ movies and jokingly brags how the movie did well in South China and how audiences there loved it. She says that she has felt a shift when it comes to inclusive storytelling and characters.
“As a woman, I have written a sh*t ton of characters as I do male characters,” she said, adding that she adds a meticulous amount of thought and care. She urges “white straight dudes” to do the same; sit and take time to think about the characters and be more inclusive with the kind of characters they write. Cannon urges writers to look at reality and acknowledge it.