Walter Kaitz Foundation's Michelle Ray Offers Insights on Industry's Diversity Efforts

Hollywood Creative Forum

This past Spring, the Hollywood Creative Forum returned to Los Angeles after nearly four years, bringing together more than 200 diverse, high-level writers, producers, directors, showrunners, and content creators along with talent and acquisition executives from television networks, streaming platforms, and production companies across the entertainment industry. The Forum is one of the major events hosted by the Walter Kaitz Foundation, which raises significant funds for its targeted grants program while promoting programs and initiatives that provide women and diverse professionals access and opportunities for leadership and professional development in the industry.

As cable networks continue to produce rich and diverse content for millions of viewers, the work of the Walter Kaitz Foundation and the access that the Forum affords are vital to increasing representation of diverse creatives on TV and behind the scenes. This week, NCTA sat down with Michelle Ray, executive director of the Walter Kaitz Foundation, to learn more about the important work of the Forum and the Foundation in creating a more inclusive media and entertainment environment where underrepresented people have the chance to contribute, grow, and thrive. 

Below are some highlights from our conversation. 

Can you explain the role that the Hollywood Creative Forum plays within the cable industry and in the world of media and entertainment as a whole?  

As an idea that launched over thirteen years ago to address the lack of diversity in the images being seen on our screens and the stories being told in Hollywood, the Hollywood Creative Forum was born out of the need to address this lack of representation. We had been collaborating with UCLA’s Dr. Darnell Hunt who produced the highly respected Hollywood Diversity Report, and we were taken aback by the numbers and the glaring underrepresentation of women and diverse creatives in Hollywood. We then reached out to our programming networks, sat down to hatch a plan to create a marketplace where diverse creatives could meet with talent executives in a carefully designed matchmaking process. Along with the elements of matchmaking, we brought in experts who could help creative talent better understand how to navigate the business and provide them with access to Hollywood insiders. Then as now, we continue to work intentionally to address and ameliorate the pervasive challenges faced by the lack of representation in content curation from both the talent as well as the executive side.

As part of our work, the Foundation identifies credentialed creative talent from underrepresented communities and gives them access to leading development executives who are responsible for acquiring content and hiring talent. The talent pool of diverse creatives that we identify bring their unique perspectives and experiences to our industry's content providers. 

What were some of the highlights from this year's Hollywood Creative Forum and in years passed? 

Year over year, we have identified themes that speak to current issues and trends. Last year's virtual Forum centered on Stories from the Diaspora and attracted over 800 participants. This year, we explored The Art of the Possible, where a greater emphasis was placed on data and how it drives content decisions in content acquisition. Executives from Warner Bros. Discovery, TV One, and the Africa Channel were among leading content platforms who addressed the changing demographics of our audiences, how global cultural shifts impact content, and the blurring of traditional genres. In fact, we hosted our first in-person screening which was sponsored by Warner Bros. Discovery and our participants were treated to the first public screening of the new film, "Father of the Bride," which is launching soon on HBO Max.

This year, the Forum drew an increasingly high caliber of experienced creative talent, network, and studio heads, as well as showrunners representing current leading television shows. We are continuously working to build our roster and broaden our sphere of influence in the creative realm. 

How else is the Kaitz Foundation helping to change the state of diversity in the industry?
As many are aware, the Kaitz Dinner, as part of Diversity Week, has become a seminal time for our industry to come together to celebrate our work in advancing diversity and inclusion across the broad embrace of media and entertainment. It's one of the biggest events of the year and serves as the driver of our annual fundraising efforts which fuels or targeted grants program. 

In fact, the Foundation awards grants of close to $1 million annually to support: (1) professional and leadership development programs for women and diverse professionals, (2) internships and scholarships for college students, (3) mentorship programs, (4) capacity-building support, and (5) research which yields a biennial report on the state of diversity within the industry. To date, the Foundation has distributed over $24 million in grants to support ground-breaking programs and initiatives. That is how we make an impact – through an intentional focus on DEI that is supported through critical funding.

Speaking of Diversity Week, what future events by the Kaitz Foundation does the industry have to look forward to?

We are excited to be back in-person, on October 12, 2022, at the New York Marriott Marquis. This will be an important opportunity to address how we are moving diversity and inclusion forward in ways that include funding two critically important diversity studies (PAR and AIM Reports). The reports benchmark the state of diversity for women and ethno-racial minorities in our industry and will be presented at a Town Hall Meeting during Diversity Week on October 11, 2022.

In addition, we are working to bring back our virtual Courageous Conversation series to spotlight the work of changemakers and innovators who are making an impact around diversity and inclusion. And as always, we work to foster new collaborations with leaders and organizations that move the needle on diversity and inclusion.