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Directors Forum Tackles Issue of Minorities at the Helm


Luis Valdez, the writer and director of films including "La Bamba" and "Zoot Suit," once got turned away at the Universal Studios gate by a guard who mistook him for a food delivery man and sent him to the service entrance.

"It was 1981, and I was cutting my own film on the lot," Valdez told about 200 people who attended a "Summit on Diversity" sponsored by the Directors Guild of America over the weekend. Valdez said he resented the guard's mistake but understood it. "The only other Latinos I saw were the guys who brought the pastries."

The ranks of Hollywood directors have become somewhat more diverse since then, when Valdez remembers being one of only two minority film directors in town. But the movie studio and television network executives and directors who took part in two panels during Saturday's summit agreed that too often today, the people who occupy the top creative jobs still tend to be white men. And that, some panelists said, may be bad for business.

Leslie Moonves, the president of CBS Television, recalled that when he first took over the network two years ago, one of the first meetings he had was with a black producer.

"She said, 'You know, Leslie, CBS has always stood for the Caucasian Broadcasting System.' I realized I had my work cut out for me," Moonves said. "We were considered too lily white, too old. We weren't getting enough urban audiences or younger people. . . . We weren't going to get younger by staying with the tried and true and the non-diverse."

During four hours of lively debate, that theme came up again and again. Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment, called hiring young minority and female directors a "gamble"--though one he is determined to take more often. Ken Lemberger, president of Sony Corp.'s Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group, likened the hiring of less-tested directors to "throwing the dice." Everyone agreed that the huge amounts of money being spent tend to discourage executives from making risky decisions.

"The fear that most of our executives face is not a question of whether it's a minority or female director," Lemberger said. "Often the fear is of a first-timer. The willingness to take a risk is generally accompanied by a reduced cost structure that simply makes it easier to take a chance on a first-time director or a director who seems to have the 'wrong' kind of background."

But Jeffrey Berg, chairman of the International Creative Management agency and the lone agent on either panel, warned executives that to be too conservative--to succumb to what he called "a kind of risk-averse timidness"--would be to put their financial health at further risk.

"The studios today are basically in the risk-management business. They're Fidelity. They're Magellan. They're funds, trying to eke out these very primitive rates of return in a punishing market," Berg said, calling for executives to "renew or reform or remediate the business" by expanding the artist pool. "And the expansion of the artist pool is not necessarily going to come from 35-year-old Stanford-educated white men."

Jesus Salvador Trevino, a director whose television credits include "NYPD Blue" and "Chicago Hope," told of once signing a contract to direct an episode of a series, then being fired before he got started because the producers said they felt "very uncomfortable" with him at the helm. He was crushed, and considered suing.

"I didn't file any lawsuits," he said. "Instead, I was persistent with this particular production company, and they hired me again."

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