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'Arrow' producer: 'Diversity is not a burden, it’s just smart business'

Greg Berlanti and ‘Empire’ producer Ilene Chaiken discuss the fight for gender equality in Hollywood

Updated

The CW

The inaugural Alliance of Women Directors awards, which celebrates women behind the camera, was held Thursday night in Los Angeles, and served as another call to arms for the continued pursuit of equal rights in Hollywood.

Empire showrunner Ilene Chaiken and Greg Berlanti, executive producer of shows including ArrowThe Flash, and Supergirl, were both honored for the work they’ve done to break barriers in making their sets more diverse. Chaiken was proud to say the only straight white man who directed during the first season of Empire was the show’s co-creator, Danny Strong. Berlanti added that his most veteran show, Arrow, now has at least 50 percent of its episodes directed by either non-white or female directors, with his other shows not far behind.

“Everyone was in agreement, our directors needed to be as balanced as the writing staff, and the actors, and the stories we were telling,” Berlanti said about his experience on Arrow. “Not just because it was the right thing to do. Diversity is not a burden, it’s just smart business. It actually makes the shows better and more successful. New and different voices make for better storytelling.”

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Gender inequality among actors has been a hot topic of late, but issues behind the scenes haven’t gotten nearly the attention. While the progress being made on shows like Empire and Arrow is something to celebrate, both honorees made it clear that there is still plenty of work left to do.

“We’ve made gains over the years, but we’ve also backslid, as the statistics you’ve heard tonight demonstrate. It’s a much reported fact that the most recent statistics are grim,” Chaiken said. “Maybe it’s progress that some of the behavior that was once rampant is no longer tolerated, and some of the most overt rhetoric now has to be toned down or delivered with subterfuge. But it would still be an understatement to say that women still face obstacles to achieve equality.”

For Berlanti, who says it’s always been natural for him to work with as many women as possible, he found no problem filling his writing staff and editing bay with females, but had a rude awakening when it came to finding directors. “You’d look at the director lists and they always seemed like they were from a different era — like something out of Mad Men. It was all white dudes. You would hear the same Catch-22 refrain — a network and/or studio had to have worked with a person to hire them. Well, if women were getting less opportunities how were they ever suppose to get the opportunities that would get them approved?”

Chaiken echoed similar experiences she’s heard over the years. “In Hollywood, we still fairly regularly hear stories of TV shows on which women directors aren’t welcome. ‘Oh, we tried a woman last year and it didn’t work out.’ Or ‘Our cast… our lead… our showrunner just doesn’t work that well with women.’”

While progress is being made, Berlanti made it clear it’s not acceptable to settle for slight moves toward diversification of the industry. “Obviously, we haven’t done enough yet. I haven’t done enough yet. This needs to keep happening until it’s no longer a conversation — it’s just a way of life. Everyone needs to be doing what they can, even if they feel like it’s not much. I promise you it is.”

Reporting by Danielle Nussbaum

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