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Ava DuVernay, J.J. Abrams Champion Diversity in Hollywood at CAA Summit

Variety logo Variety 6/21/2017 Ricardo Lopez
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Ava DuVernay and J.J. Abrams on Wednesday challenged their industry to boost diversity on the big screen and behind the camera and all aspects of entertainment, stressing that diverse representation makes both moral and business sense.

DuVernay and Abrams were on hand for the first-ever CAA Amplify summit in Laguna Beach, a gathering of entertainment figures, executives and leaders across many industries, including film, sports and politics.

DuVernay, who has been tapped to direct Disney’s “A Wrinkle in Time,” shared her experience of pitching to the venerated studio a multicultural interpretation of the 1963 novel by Madeleine L’Engle.

Because of her familiarity with Disney execs, production chief, Sean Bailey, and Tendo Nagenda, executive vice president for production, DuVernay said she felt comfortable in asserting her vision for the film.

Bailey and DuVernay both serve on the Sundance Institute board. Nagenda, she joked, was easy to know. “There are five black people in Hollywood and he is one of them,” she said, eliciting some laughter.

“I was able to walk in there like a white man does,” she said, explaining that she did not have to sell herself but instead focus on the project. “All of the other stuff and baggage was not there.”

Abrams said diverse casting is paramount to undoing conventional wisdom about what kind of stars can bring studios commercial success. He said he expects casting lists to be diverse.

“All we are trying to do is change assumptions,” Abrams said, adding “It’s simply smart to bring in voices that are not the same old, same old.”

Both directors said the focus on diversity has already wrought changes reflected in television and other media.

“I think there is massive change,” Abrams said. “If you just look at the last five years, it’s an incredible thing to see what happens when someone who might not have been given a shot, is given a shot.”

DuVernay said she was heartened to see changes made by the Academy in the light of #OscarsSoWhite, an outcry partly driven by social-media activism. “there was systematic change that happened in the organization,” she said.

Sometimes, “we don’t actually get under the hood to create change in the system to make sure [the push for more diverse representation] doesn’t end.”

CAA President Richard Lovett said the two-day conference is an opportunity to bring together fewer than 200 celebrities, directors, show runners, producers and studio heads to foster connections to improve diversity efforts.

“This time together is our way to speed date the creation of a new network of allies,” Lovett said.

Other attendees include actor and producer, Kerry Washington, Warner Bros. Chairman Kevin Tsujihara and former Obama White House adviser, Valerie Jarrett.

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