How do you solve a problem like Hollywood’s lack of diversity? It’s no secret that the film industry has a rough track record when it comes to telling stories from underrepresented backgrounds. It’s historically an elitist club, where success is often found through industry connections and further education courses with hefty fees. Up until recent years, people from minority backgrounds have barely got a look in.
Just three years ago, UCLA’s annual Hollywood diversity report found that “no progress” had been made in diverse representation over the previous decade. This year, the report tells a different story, with people of colour proportionately represented in lead actor and cast categories to their presence in the US for the first time ever. But even as we start to see more diverse faces on screens, it’s often a completely different story behind the camera.
Disney’s new Launchpad programme is putting in the work to change this. Years in the making, the initiative hand selected six filmmakers from underrepresented backgrounds – out of over 1,100 applicants – to produce short films that drop on Disney+ today. Each film spotlights stories and cultures that have been long ignored by Hollywood, from Aqsa Altaf’s American Eid to Ann Marie Pace’s Growing Fangs, a touching story about a Mexican-American teen coming to terms with her mixed vampire-human identity.
“We really view this programme as offering two things,” says Mahin Ibrahim, Director of Disney’s Diversity & Inclusion. “The first is training in the studio system, which you cannot get elsewhere. This really took our six filmmakers through the nuts and bolts each step, from development all the way to marketing. The shorts got the same love and attention that any of our films would, so our filmmakers now are fully equipped to go on to the next directing opportunity.
“Something else that became really important to us was using this as an opportunity to train our filmmakers on how to be inclusive leaders from the get go, and how to build a culture of inclusion to take on for the rest of their careers,” she continues. Exactly what does inclusive leadership look like? “We’re really looking to build inclusion from top to bottom, with a 360 approach in terms of crew members. We were really looking to provide access and opportunity in each department, from kind of camera to post-production, from our composers to our heads of departments. It wasn’t just about the filmmakers, but the entire crew.”
It’s an approach that audiences are clearly hungry for. American Eid, for instance, tells the story of a teen Muslim Pakistani immigrant in the States, as she embarks on a mission to make Eid a public-school holiday. Even before it landed on Disney+ this morning, positive feedback was pouring into the comments section of its trailer on YouTube.
“It’s been so amazing to see these shorts become a way for all of us to bring out the child within us who hasn’t seen themselves on screen before,” says Ibrahim of the response. “All the comments are along the lines of ‘my elementary self feels so seen right now’ and there were so many people wishing each other Eid Mubarak from Indonesia, the UK, all over. It’s just people getting together and celebrating the representation they didn’t see growing up.”
Going forward, these are values that Disney intends to uphold throughout the company. “I think it is the responsibility of each studio to also really do their part to rectify the past,” says Ibrahim. “To do that, it’s about what Disney can do now to commit to really representing and reflecting the world we live in. [Diverse talent has] always been here, essentially, but we’ve just been systematically denied the opportunities.”
But diversifying Hollywood doesn’t only benefit creators; when more cultures are represented on screen, society at large reaps the rewards. “The power of the media cannot be understated. It tells us what to think about the world,” continues Ibrahim. “[We need to] work towards knowledge sharing, starting with understanding, really learning about different communities, with the goal of increasing empathy and building bridges for people who are different from you.”
All six Launchpad films are available to watch on Disney+ now. Series two of Launchpad is currently accepting US applicants. Fancy shooting your shot? Apply here