CAA's Christy Haubegger explains why diversity is key to Hollywood's future success — and how to make change happen

By Devan Coggan
July 28, 2017 at 12:40 PM EDT
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Latina Magazine

A version of this story appears in Entertainment Weekly #1476, on newsstands now or available here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

From the Academy’s initiatives to diversify its membership to reducing the number of all-male writers’ rooms, Hollywood is devoting more time and energy than ever before to increasing diversity on and off screen. But even as studios, TV networks, and industry groups take concrete steps to address these issues, there’s still a long way to go — and talent agent Christy Haubegger has devoted her career to making that change happen.

A Stanford Law School grad who founded Latina magazine in 1996, Haubegger joined CAA as a talent agent in 2005. Not only does she represent clients like Eva Longoria, Rosario Dawson, Andy Garcia, Shakira, and Jennifer Lopez, but she also heads the agency’s multicultural business development department, advancing the company’s goal to support underrepresented artists, writers, and filmmakers.

“It’s funny,” she says with a laugh. “When I started my career 20-something years ago, if you told me we’d be having the same conversation for the next 20 years, I’d be like, ‘No no no, we’ll have totally figured out diversity by then.’ It’s sort of like, c’mon, really? You look at the statistics and it can sound kind of grim, but I’m also like, wow, think about how much talent we haven’t seen yet. That, I think, is the exciting part of this and the reason that I remain enormously optimistic and engaged.”

Under Haubegger, some of CAA’s efforts include the Writers’ Boot Camp, a workshop to help foster young television writers, and CAA Amplify, a conference designed to bring together leaders from film, television, sports, and technology to discuss diversity. The first Amplify event launched last month, where attendees like Ava DuVernay, J.J. Abrams, Kerry Washington, and Stevie Wonder gathered to discuss social issues and diversity in the industry.

Plus, CAA has been investing in research, launching studies like the Motion Picture Diversity Index, which not only breaks down the multicultural makeup of recent theatrical films but explores how diverse casting can lead to bigger box office returns.

“[Diversity] is not something that’s just ‘nice to do,'” Haubegger says. “It’s actually essential if you want to succeed.”

Here, she discusses with EW what others within the industry can do to make movies and TV more inclusive.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve been a longtime advocate for diversity in media, from founding Latina magazine to joining CAA. How has the conversation changed?
CHRISTY HAUBEGGER: I feel like my life’s work is empowering and elevating who gets to tell stories and whose stories get told. We’ve seen from lots of academic research that diversity drives innovation, and we [now] realize if we bring new voices into our industry — women’s voices, voices of people of color, voices of disabled people — we’re actually going to get better stories.

What are the business benefits of telling diverse stories?
We did this deep-dive analysis of 415 films that have been released over the last couple of years and looked at the audience composition. Seven of the 10 largest movies had an opening-weekend audience that was majority nonwhite. That was fascinating. At every budget level, a movie with a cast that was 30 percent or more diverse outperformed, in its opening weekend, one that was not.

So my colleague Talitha Watkins, who works with me on this and really led that work, we were trying to understand what might that be about. Now, there’s probably a portion of it that’s just the fact that people of color, like everyone else in the world, like to see themselves on screen. [laughs] Like every other human in the world. But more specifically, what we think it is is a proxy for marketing assets. If you have an African-American cast member, you actually have someone who can go on the BET Awards red carpet and talk about the film. If you have a Spanish speaker, you have someone doing Despierta America as well as GMA. If you have someone who is Asian-American, their social media following has more reach among Asian Americans than maybe their white cast members do. So this is a bit of a hypothesis, but we believe that it’s a bit of a proxy for marketing and media reach. In other words, if you’re trying to open a movie, especially a big movie, you cannot not get the attention of half of the moviegoers and not succeed.

What exactly is CAA doing to try to move the needle?
If a network is like, “We’d love to see more diverse talent in our writing rooms,” but there hasn’t been an agency vetting folks and reading all their material and working on their skills, the supply isn’t there. Since I’ve been here [2005], our diverse client list has grown 1,400 percent — 1,400! That allows us to make the change in the marketplace happen faster.

People who are at like the staff writer or story editor level, CAA doesn’t usually represent that many people at those lower levels. But by signing a bunch of folks and representing them, we can look at the collective group and look at how we get them up the ladder faster. For the last couple of years, at the end of the summer, we host what we call our Writer’s Boot Camp. We’ve done it for drama writers, we’ve done it for comedy writers, and we host daylong intensive workshops on how to pitch. We bring in a panel of comedy buyers, who say what they’re looking for this year. We do speed networking, where people meet multiple network executives and producers. It’d be hard to get general meetings for 80 female and diverse television writers, who are at the staff writer or story editor level, but you can meet four of them in an hour at a speed networking exercise. Television writing in particular is a team sport. People are choosing people that’ve got talent and who they want to be in a room with for the season, so we’re trying to be innovative about how we disrupt this process so we can get more people up the ladder faster.

What do you think is the biggest change Hollywood could make to do the most good?
Certainly, they have to consider [diversity] a critical element in box office success. It’s changing the dialogue from “Oh, we should do this” to “This is the smartest thing we can do for our production.”

What kind of firsthand results have you seen?
A couple years ago, I got to meet Malala Yousafzai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize. I stayed up late finishing her autobiography, I Am Malala. And in the book she mentions Ugly Betty, talking about the fact that Betty was a journalist and a young woman who made her think that she might want to use her voice. I sent a note to [Betty executive producer] Salma Hayek in the middle of the night, like, “Oh my gosh.” I said to Salma and [Ugly Betty star America Ferrera], “Don’t doubt for a moment that what you do matters. There are 7 billion people in the world and most of them will never come to the United States, but they’re going to see our movies and our television. And we get to tell them what a hero looks like.”