Summer 2015

Hiring diverse directors makes 'good business sense': BET CEO

Debra L. Lee, chairman and CEO of BET Networks, says with audiences for television becoming more diverse, so should directors—and the talent is already out there.

1. Do you think the entertainment industry is doing enough to encourage diversity?

I think there is a lot more the entertainment industry could do. With the big franchises and the major studios putting out fewer movies, there are less opportunities for stories from diverse directors and writers. Those kind of movies just aren’t being made as much. We have gone through good periods where maybe a dozen films are made in a year, but that hasn’t happened in a long time. Television is doing better because it’s beginning to recognize that diverse audiences watch a lot more TV, and there have been several successes. So I think people are beginning to pay more attention to that. But I don’t think films have done as much.

2. Why is diversity important for the entertainment industry in general and specifically for directors?

It’s important for the industry as a whole because the moviegoing audience doesn’t want all the people on the screen to look alike, just a singular vision. African-American and Latino audiences go to the movies in larger numbers these days than white audiences. So from just a business perspective, diversity is crucial. It’s [also] important for us as a country to represent all aspects of our culture and to have those important stories told. I loved Selma telling the story of Martin Luther King Jr., but it’s just amazing that it took so long, especially since there are so many different kinds of platforms now. Everyone is looking for content. It just seems diversity should be a part of that.

Now in terms of directors, if we are going to tell our stories from an African-American perspective, it’s important to have African-American directors. And I am not saying that a white director can’t tell our story—I would never say that. But as part of the whole portfolio, we should have different voices, female voices, African- American, Latino, and Asian. I just think it’s good for the history of our industry and our country to be able to tell those stories. Directors with different perspectives who grew up in different circumstances bring different outlooks to directing movies.

3. So how can we get more women and minorities into the director’s chair?

Some of it is just pure economics. There just needs to be capital available for smaller movies or movies that don’t appeal to as big an audience as something like Superman or Batman would. So one thing is to greenlight more movies that appeal to diverse audiences; the second thing is to create funds so people can have the resources necessary to produce movies. I know [Selma director] Ava DuVernay is trying to raise money to produce more movies. There needs to be a grassroots call to give diverse directors more opportunity. Lifetime just announced they were doing something for female directors and writers. I think more programs like that would be helpful. You have to try to encourage more people to get into this industry; we need to keep doing that and free up some resources. If the major studios aren’t doing it, I hope Amazon and Hulu or Netflix will step in and do some different types of projects. It’s an exciting time and there are more platforms than ever before. We just have to keep a rallying cry going and the drum beating to make sure that we have more diversity in the range of directors hired.

4. Do you feel like the talent is already out there?

I do. There are tons of female and African-American directors who have done one or two movies and would step up to the plate quickly if given the opportunity. I think they are being underutilized. There are a lot of people we have hired who are just fabulous directors and don’t get the opportunity to do it because people have a certain idea of what the director should look like. So we just need to increase the opportunity.

5. Do you see BET creating more original content in the future?

Yes, that’s really our future and what is going to distinguish us. We have at least two other miniseries in the works. Because the studios aren’t putting out a lot of movies targeted to African-American audiences, we are going to start doing more movies that either go to theatrical or go straight to our network when the economics makes sense for us. We have been focused on scripted [content] for about 10 years now, and whether it’s a drama like Being Mary Jane or a comedy like The Game, we are really trying to give opportunities to more women and minorities. The more experience they are able to have, the more opportunities open up.

6. What qualities do you look for when you are hiring directors?

That’s a good question. We look for someone who appreciates talent and works well with actors and understands the story and emotion. So I look for directors who know how to tell great stories and get the best performances out of actors. In our case, it’s someone who understands the community and our history and brings that sensibility to it, because that’s important in terms of the stories we tell.

7. In regard to leadership style, you once said women listen more and tend to be more consensus builders and less dictatorial. So how do those qualities translate as a director?

I hate to generalize but in terms of leadership style I have seen that difference between men and women. I think actors appreciate directors who work with them and listen to them and encourage input. Just like the CEO of a company, at a certain point a director has to take a stand and say this is the decision and this is how we are going to do it. I think actors in general appreciate that kind of consensus-building style, but in the end one person has to make the decision.

8. Do you think films and television can and should be a vehicle for social change?

I definitely think that. The Paley Center [for Media] did a retrospective recently on the history of African-American achievements in television. It was so eye opening learning how important it is for communities to see each other on TV and films and get an understanding of other cultures and other ethnic groups. You go back to Julia, the show that featured Diahann Carroll in the late-’60s; that was the first time you saw a professional black woman on TV. That has a tendency to change people’s attitudes. Images are important, and sometimes if you don’t know another ethnic group, the way you get to know them is through films and TV. You have seen that a lot with the LGBT community. Film and TV are designed to be entertaining and should be entertaining, but I think they can be educational and change history at the same time. They are very powerful mediums. I know to have those important stories told well was instrumental in my life.

9. Does it make good business sense at the same time?

Oh, yes, for sure. It definitely makes good business sense. Look at the success of Empire. That’s a TV show that grew in ratings every week and ended up being one of the most successful shows of the season. So even if it’s a show about African-Americans or another minority group, it draws all kinds of people. You have the basic group that is targeted, but it also brings in other groups that are just interested in the story or the actors. So I think it makes great business sense. I know it does for us. We created a multi-billion dollar business off of it.

10. Do you see content in the future becoming more diverse for a broader audience or becoming more splintered for niche audiences?

I think it is going to become more diverse for a broader audience. The promise of cable was to be more diverse, and it did that. There was an African-American channel and a sports channel and a women’s channel. But I think as people watch more and more different channels, and hit shows come from more networks, I think there is going to be a broader audience. We have been very open in expressing that we want all audiences to watch BET.

(Photo: Bennett Raglin/BET/Getty Images for BET)

10 Questions

Question and answer sessions with prominent figures outside the Guild about current creative and business issues.

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