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Awareness & Inclusion with Tiffany Smith-Anoa'i

When “Best Friend” won the Awareness Award for the 2017 Easterseals Disability Film Challenge, not only were we awarded the sweet triple-pronged trophy, but as the filmmaker I was invited to meet with Tiffany Smith-Anoa'i. Tiffany is the Executive Vice President of Entertainment Diversity, Inclusion and Communications for CBS Entertainment. Here's a recap of how that meeting went.

Like a good writer/director I did some research so I could learn a little about Tiffany and her work before I entered the room. Online you can find some great interviews and articles that feature her. I suggest you seek them out if you're interested in stretching the bandwidth of diversity in your productions; they're all a good listen/read. And trust me when I say that if you're creating productions that include a diversity of talent or subject, Tiffany is as an ally. In short, my take-away is that she is a champion and match-maker for creatives, promoting diversity and she is focused on bringing like-minded people together.

The past week has been a whirlwind for me and team “Best Friend". Still reeling from the award win, and promoting it to various media outlets, I am also busy putting a new polish on the film that includes things not possible in the Easterseals Disability Film Challenges (EDFC) timeline. Like a proper color grade, sound mix, and adding a few shots. In addition to that, several film festivals have had deadlines approach and pass, so we've been trying to submit to as many as we could before we lost our opportunity. And then... Nic Novicki, creator of the EDFC, let me know I should go and check out the latest Hollywood Reporter, to which I did and found a 1/3 page picture of team “Best Friend” accepting our Best Film Award! #HolyCrap - We're in THR!!! There's been little time to de-compress from all that, so when being escorted to Tiffany's office by her intern Ariana, I might have unleashed my whirlwind of good fortune, because that was the moment I let it all out. #whew

Tiffany is warm and gracious and outgoing, but I could tell she's a boss. Her job is to get directors, producers, writers, and executives to include diversity in their stories and productions. Any woman who can do that on a daily basis is definitely a lioness, no matter how kind the smile. #respect I sat down and we talked for a few moments about her enjoyment of “Best Friend” and how the layers of the film were articulated and created. But then something happened that I didn't expect.

She asked about me, where I came from, and how I became a filmmaker. I had imagined this meeting would be a bit of a pitch on the CBS Entertainment Diversity program and maybe, just maybe, how I might be able to get involved with one of the many programs Tiffany has created. But no, she wanted to know my story. Well, like a kid in front of a triple scoop ice cream sundae, I dug right in.

We got into my upbringing in Orange County and how I discovered my dad’s movie camera, which seeded my creativity. I carried my love of film and filmmaking from adolescence, to high school, to Cal State Fullerton, collecting mentors along the way. We talked about my creation of Renaissance Man Productions and the choice to move from Fullerton to Los Angeles (including many helpings of humble pie), finally leading up to how I became involved in the EDFC.

With a clear picture of what she had to work with, Tiffany began doing what she does best. Since directing is my passion, she suggested I seek inclusion/relationships with members in the DGA, since that's where I'm going to need to be if I want to be working in TV and features. We talked about the importance of building those relationships and, more importantly, retaining them. She is amazed how many meetings she takes with inspired people who then just fall off the map. She pressed the point, "you've got to keep people informed about what you're doing or they can't be on your team. This industry is about creating AND maintaining relationships." #GreatAdvice

I asked her about how I could parlay the current windfall of good fortune into helping my career advance. Anyone who works freelance knows the hardest part of the job is finding the work. I asked if it's better to seek a manager, agent, or both. Her advice was to email managers; agents only play if I've got paying work. A good manager will hustle, find work and take some of the burden off my shoulders so I can do what I do best: #dream #imagine #create

"When crafting emails to managers, brevity is your friend," she said. Design the email so it is visually pleasing and keep the message short― a quick bit about me, a bit about what would make me a good fit with them, and then a simple request for a meeting. Also... SPELL CHECK.

I asked: “As a white male, how do I not get written off as a ‘ladder climber’ or insincere when I want to include diversity in my stories? It seems native for people with disabilities, or ethnicity to be championing these causes, but I'm a suburban white dude who cares, and I don't want to be misjudged.” To this she said, “Just keep doing what you're doing and people will see your intentions through your work.” I will hold tightly to a compliment she gave me, "You're the real deal, and your intentions prove that in the work. That is no joke, and people see that." As an artist, this is all I ever want: to tell stories, connect with people, and if I'm lucky- inspire, or motivate things for the better. What I heard when she said that to me is that I AM connecting. #gratitude

That question transitioned into a discussion of the overall business of media creation and inclusion. It must be understood that no matter how important the agenda we put forth in our productions, our medium is a business and that business needs to make money. That is why so many choices are made in TV and film to not diversify, simply because it can become harder to sell. Not just in the US, but to foreign markets too. So if you or I want to champion these things, it needs to be rooted from the ground up. As the creator of that content, take it as a mission to stand by your choices when writing ethnic, disabled, obese, tall, short, or any characters into a script that a "bean counter" might consider to be non-financially viable. Concessions will always have to be made, anyone who works in this industry knows it's a process of compromise, but if it's not established from the beginning, it's harder to have a foundation to build upon.

We discussed programming and how it is shifting and expanding throughout the network. HBO, AMC, Netflix and Amazon are all shifting the way content can be created and delivered. The way stories can be told, and the subject matter broadened. Though there will always be a desire to have daily TV broadcasts and shows to watch, younger generations are cutting cords and looking for less formulaic stories and distribution models. For that reason CBS has created CBS All Access, which gives viewers instant programming and will also be streaming its own unique content that will not air on the CBS network, but online, such as Star Trek: Discovery. What makes this important is, as a filmmaker, and therefore a storyteller, no matter what story I am developing, there is a home for it: network, online or theatrical.

As our conversation closed we did discuss some of the opportunities and programs that are available with the CBS Diversity Institute, which has opportunities to foster writers, actors, directors, and more. But they also have programs that reach into communities to encourage and educate people what jobs exist in entertainment, and how find them.

All of this keeps her a busy, busy person, but she assured me that she keeps her door open. Email is key, keep that relationship alive, ask questions like, "how do I," not "can you"―this was more sage advice. She and everyone else in this industry have their own work to do; don't expect them to do more work on your behalf. For example, if you are seeking a job at CBS, don't email and say, "let me know if there are any job openings" instead say, "I found an opening on the CBS job board, have any advice or direction before I apply?" Seems so simple, but I know it's a mistake I've made in the past that I will not make again.

To be honest, while the whirlwind is still spinning from “Best Friend,” the Easterseals Disability Film Challnege Awards and now marketing it further into the world, this meeting with Tiffany spun me even further. But the direction I'm spinning is closer and closer to my dreams coming true. I may be dizzy as hell, but I'm having a great freaking time! Thank you once again to Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i and Raiza McDuffie for the meeting, parting gifts, and passion you put into your work. I'll work to keep my artistic vision of inclusion ever growing, knowing that I've got a great champion in my corner.


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