Hollywood Wakes Up to the Idea Profit and Social Justice Can Coexist

When Nina Yang Bongiovi founded Significant Prods. with Forest Whitaker in 2009, her optimism about the opportunities that would come from starting a production company with an Oscar-winner was quickly challenged. “I was so overly positive because I didn’t realize how color takes such a precedent in the business,” she said.

But things turned rosier when they produced Ryan Coogler’s 2013 “Fruitvale Station,” which grossed $17.4 million on a $900,000 budget. “It was a shock to us,” Bongiovi said. “Getting that film made was practically impossible because of all the biases against it. Once it proved it could be successful, we realized there’s something deeply sustainable here.”

This week, she announced the launch of a multicultural film fund rooted in that ethos. AUM Group is a joint venture between Bongiovi, Gold House chairman Bing Chen, Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin, XRM Media’s Michael Y. Chow, MNM Creative’s Michael K. Shen, and Silicon Valley veterans Jason A. Lin and Maggie Hsu. First up for AUM is financing Rebecca Hall’s thriller “Passing,” starring Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, Andre Holland, and Alexander Skarsgard. Based on Nella Larsen’s novel set in the Harlem Renaissance, it explores the intersection of race, class, and culture.

Bongiovi said she wants AUM to lead this movement by financing projects from Latino, Asian, and black creators across genres. “To be able to do more of them, you need to be able to create a culture shift and make it so that stories featuring people of color are the norm, not the niche,” she said.

Financiers are numbers people, and this is where the numbers are in favor of producers like AUM: A 2019 UCLA study found Americans increasingly prefer diverse film and TV. In 2016 and 2017, the highest median global grosses belonged to films in which people of color comprised the majority of cast. The poorest performers were racially and ethnically homogenous.

Recent examples include Coogler’s 2018 Marvel blockbuster “Black Panther,” the Significant production “Sorry To Bother You” (Writer-director Boots Riley sat on the script for eight years, Bongiovi said, because “people were deathly afraid of it.”), and the trajectory of Ava DuVernay, which includes a $100 million deal with Warner Bros. and her Emmy-winning Netflix series “When They See Us.”

At the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Netflix found another fresh black multi-hyphenate voice in Radha Blank when it acquired her “The 40-Year-Old Version.” And Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s content accelerator Imagine Impact, which helps unknown or underrepresented writers get their projects ready for sale, is expanding to Australia after selling 22 projects since it launched a year ago. 

Participant was one of the first producers to successfully scale social imperative and a bottom-line mindset. Founded in 2004 by former eBay exec Jeffrey Skoll with a goal of producing films that spur social change. “An Inconvenient Truth,” helped jumpstart the global conversation about climate change while grossing $50 million worldwide. Participant helped finance the 2011 period drama “The Help” as well as 2018 Best Picture winner “Green Book.”

“Socially conscious films have always been made, but what Jeff identified with was this inherent power that hadn’t yet been recognized,” said Participant CEO David Linde. “We’ve built a process and a system that’s working by achieving both commercial success and accelerating impact around the world.”

Linde said that means looking not just at an individual film’s performance, but also at the entire slate and producing content on  a scale that helps create lasting, lucrative relationships between Participant and its distribution partners. The impact side of the business is run alongside its production business — it’s funded differently, including through partnerships with distributors and nonprofits.

“Roma” won three Oscars in 2019 and was nominated for seven others while spurring movements among domestic workers in the US and Mexico for increased rights. While indigenous actor Yalitza Aparicio’s Oscar-nominated role as housekeeper Cleo helped drive conversations about indigenous representation on screen.

AUM isn’t the only new company interested in this space. Leveller Media, a platform that connects independent producers and creators with nontraditional investors, says it has a business model that allows them to embrace stories that studios often won’t touch. Its first project was “The Night,” an American-Iranian co-production (half Farsi with English subtitles, half English with Farsi subtitles. It stars Shahab Hosseini (“The Salesman,” “A Separation”), and co-CEO Ryan Clarkson said it represents the kinds of stories Leveller would like to fund. It’s debuting its first slate for funding consideration next month.

“You need equal access to capital, or you’re not going to have true diversity in entertainment,” he said. “What we intend Leveller to become is a place where creators of all stripes can take a project that they believe in, that they believe will resonate with an audience, and present it to the crowd (of investors) to determine what the appetite is.”

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