Ri-Karlo Handy Reflects On Disparity In Diversifying Hollywood, Barriers For New Talent & “High-Touch Solutions” – Guest Column


Editor’s Note: On June 22, 2020, veteran editor and Sunwise Media co-founder Ri-Karlo Handy penned a guest column for Deadline on the wide ranging response to his social media call for Black union editors just days beforehand. As Americans took to the streets after the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd to demand an end to institutional violence and racism in numbers unprecedented for decades, Handy turned part of the spotlight on Hollywood. The reaction to his outcry was almost immediate. It was also encouraging from unions, to schools, to studios and every other crevice of Tinseltown. Today, Handy examines what a difference the past two years have made, and what more there is to do as political and cultural sands appear to be shifting again.

Two years ago, following George Floyd’s horrifying murder and civil unrest that followed, every industry including Hollywood scrambled to solve for their lack of diversity. Various IATSE locals formed diversity committees for the first time, studios brought in consultants to learn about what they should do, and every BIPOC professional I know got the same calls I got: “Looking for a Black showrunner, editor, camera operator, etc.,” followed by “do you have a list of candidates we can interview?”

So on June 16, 2020 I posted on a private Facebook group titled, “I NEED AN EDITOR!” My post read, “Looking for Black Union Editors, please DM me.” This simple query caused a viral firestorm when the screenshots of dozens of comments calling the post reverse racism, complete with buckwheat memes, and declarations of uprisings by white editors were shared via Twitter by attorney Nicole French — even tagging their employers to boot. By the next day, her tweet had been re-shared over 80,000 times, and the story was national news.

As a result of that viral moment, I wrote a guest column for Deadline in which we released the first Black Editors List featuring hundreds of Black TV and film editors.

Within days the list was directly downloaded by nearly 2,000 hiring managers from every major production studio in Hollywood that was struggling to meet new diversity goals and looking for solutions.

While this moment shed light onto a disturbing reality that less than 5% of unionized below-the-line staff are Black, it was great seeing my peers get calls to move into bigger roles as well as producers being intentional about who is in the room.

Even more satisfying was the knowledge that a couple of the editors from the list we created and shared with the industry went on to win Emmys for their work, including Stephanie Filo for A Black Lady Sketch Show and Ikpemoghena Ikharo for Sesame Street: The Power of We.

At first this was exciting; it felt like our industry was transforming, with a new diversity list popping up every week! Well-intentioned individuals began raising their hands to volunteer for diversity committees at IATSE locals, studios and networks. The only problem is, neither of these solutions address the systemic barriers for new talent entering the Hollywood workforce. Also, the committees can make recommendations but with the same gatekeepers in place — most of them not directly connected to production and post-production on a daily basis — their impact is patchy and slow.

Today, television production has increased an estimated 300% compared to the decade before. With the technology we use behind the scenes advancing, there is a shortage of skilled below-the-line workers industrywide. Ask any post supervisor or production manager and they will tell you that staffing is getting harder.

With databases and committees insufficient to make up for the deficit in both Hollywood diversity and workforce development, we knew we needed a high-touch solution.

With that realization, in the fall of 2020, we launched the Handy Foundation to run sustainable workforce development programs for Hollywood’s below-the-line workers, starting with the highest turnover job in post-production: the assistant editor.

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Working with Los Angeles Urban League chief operating officer Brian Williams and Editors Guild, IATSE Local 700 national executive director Cathy Repola, we created an apprentice editors training program — the first for unscripted and scripted TV — to maximize opportunities for job placement. The program was launched at Lionsgate in winter 2020. To date, the Handy Foundation has partnered with ITV, IPC, Fremantle, Original Productions, 44 Blue, Critical Content, Warner Horizon, Bunim-Murray and Tinopolis and is currently piloting a Netflix program with its unscripted post-production team.

So far, we have trained and placed 80 first-time BIPOC assistant and apprentice editors on television shows like Snowpiercer, Black Mafia Family, Acapulco, The Bachelor, America’s Got Talent, American Gangster: Trap Queens, Selena + Chef and the recently released feature film Valet to name a few.

It’s been awesome to see our trainees go from dream to first opportunity to fully booked and busy professionals. Over the past two years, 90% of them have not stopped working on shows.

However, this is only one job of myriad trade crafts. So where do we go from here? For us the answer was clear: We must duplicate our assistant editor program across all film/TV crafts as soon as possible.

Currently, Hollywood productions rely on lists, internships and production assistant jobs as the main pathway into a career in production or post-production jobs, much more so than skill-based apprenticeships. This common theme in workforce development in general needs to change. Internships and PA jobs are great for exposure, but unfortunately those pathways rely on someone taking you under their wing all while working a high-pace, full-time job. If you don’t socially connect, that could be difficult.

Personally, I was very lucky to have found mentors at a young age, but I don’t believe my career was all luck. There was a process I went through that can be repeated and scaled.

I was just 14 years old in a 9th grade TV production class when I first learned to edit on an analog tape-to-tape system. That one class has been my only formal training to date and the next three years of high school I got to put those skills to use daily after school at KDOL, a student-run TV station in Oakland, CA. By 18, I was directing music videos for Master P and Bone Thugs N Harmony. Later I would edit television shows like My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé and Hell’s Kitchen for Fox; executive produce shows for BET and MTV; become a network executive at Bounce TV; and create a scripted drama, Saints and Sinners. I can say without any doubt that my editing skills created those opportunities, which started with having a place to use my skills in a real work environment.

My story is not an anomaly. Chrysta Marie Burton, who is now EVP of Physical Production at Bad Robot, went through the exact same high school program in Oakland. While Chrysta’s career and my career took different paths, our foundation was the same. Mastering technical film and television skills is a major key to a sustainable career in Hollywood.

Hollywood has always known this. In 1929, after Louis B. Mayer helped establish the International Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, they seeded USC Film school. USC was the first in the nation to acknowledge film was a new technology and that training more workers was key to sustainability. Since then, we have not innovated much in education and workforce development pathways specific to below the line. We have pretty much resigned to the “it’s all about who you know” rhetoric.

To this day, there is no television trade school to certify and place workers with the technical skills needed most, like script supervision, digital imaging technicians, virtual production softwares, unscripted Avid workflows, online or turnovers for finishing, and so many more. Creating pathways like these and more is our focus at the Handy Foundation.

We have examples to look to for this like the medical residency system as we know it today. It was first introduced 125 years ago and has evolved with technology. For example, today’s medical residents post-Covid learn how to treat patients virtually and spend more time working with technology, significantly reducing the minimum requirements for in-person hours needed to become a doctor. Its time to make similar advancements in Hollywood.

With this group-think or regional model concept in mind, during the fall of 2021, the Handy Foundation developed a program alongside the County of Los Angeles, San Antonio College, and CVL Economics. This group was tasked with building a similar system for Hollywood with prerequisite courses, apprenticeship training and direct work experience. The municipality did something that most do not, and that is acknowledge the disparity in diversifying Hollywood.

Together, this partnership has taken on the EDA Good Jobs Challenge, a $500 million fund that’s part of President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which will bring up to $25 million to Los Angeles County for this apprenticeship training and job-placement pathway for the Hollywood trade crafts, expanding on our assistant editor model.

During the Covid lockdown, we were one of very few programs working with the City of Los Angeles’ Hire LA program to train low-wage workers remotely for high-paying jobs that are also remote. This helped transform unemployed or minimum-wage workers into six-figure earners, all while never leaving their homes. Professionals with these skills are paid much more than your average laborer. In fact, the Hollywood skilled worker makes a salary 47% higher than the national average and 65% higher for jobs directly tied to production.

Dalia Soto Beltran, who we placed on Apple TV+’s Acapulco, had previously done an internship in post but was never able to get enough traction over the years to leave her administration job at a local community college. After eight weeks in our program, she ended up being an invaluable asset to the show as its only native Spanish speaker in post-production. She translated much of the English subtitles for the series, which is half in Spanish, before moving on to the NBC comedy Kenan with her editor. Now, she is back at Lionsgate on a new series and has been working non-stop for the last year and half.

This summer we are launching our virtual production program in partnership with the Los Angeles Urban League as well as a hair and make-up assistant program. Applications for both are open now.

We believe that the last two years we’ve proven out a model that could be duplicated and standardized across the industry, but for it to scale and be sustainable, we need long-term corporate partners and legacy organizations to dig in with us.

If you, your company, or organization is committed to playing a role in building this pathway, join us!

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