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Social Impact in Hollywood Begins with Community

Social Impact in Hollywood Begins with Community

Color photograph of two people participating in a panel discussing social impact in the entertainment industry.
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Ever heard of climate change? Of course you have; it’s ubiquitous. You can find reference to the climate crisis daily in articles, tweets, policy budgets and watercooler conversations.

But in Hollywood? It’s barely mentioned.

“A STUDY DONE HERE AT USC [Annenberg School of Communication] analyzed 30,000 film and TV scripts between 2017 and 2020 and found only 0.6 percent mentioned climate change,” Daniel Hinerfeld, director of NRDC’s REWRITE THE FUTURE, said. “In this country, our culture on climate is holding back solutions. We feel Hollywood has a role to play here.”

Hollywood is a multibillion-dollar industry poised to influence and provoke perspectives on nearly every topic, but an eye on profitability alone can often lead to promotion of the status quo. Increasingly, more companies are working to shift the narrative. At a recent panel, hosted by USC MARSHALL BRITTINGHAM SOCIAL ENTERPRISE LAB (BSEL), panelists representing three of these organizations discussed the causes they care about, strategic approaches to engaging Hollywood in problem-solving and the challenges of creating sustainable movements that bolster company bottom lines.

The panel included Executive Director of GROUP EFFORT INITIATIVE Sumi Parekh, Co-Founder of REVOLVE IMPACT, Mike de la Rocha and Hinerfeld. Focusing on “How Businesses are Making a Social Impact in Hollywood,” this event was the fourth installment of the 2022-2023 Jacobson Family Sustainable Impact Lecture Series, moderated by BSEL’s Managing Director Christina Fialho.

“We need more honest, authentic, and inclusive storytelling in Hollywood,” said Fialho, who previously consulted for Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. “Hollywood has the power to dispel stereotypes and uplift the most pressing social and economic issues of our time.”

Challenges in Changing an Entrenched Industry

The idea that Hollywood can be pivotal in advancing social progress is at the core of Parekh’s work with GEI, where she partners with over 250 companies in North America to create diverse and inclusive workforce pipelines for the entertainment industry. “There are a lot of DEI issues in Hollywood, from trans people not getting proper bathroom access to people of color being underpaid. Heads of studios are straight white men who don’t really understand,” she said.

At GEI, staff focuses on providing underrepresented populations with training and exposure to Hollywood productions. But to truly have an impact, Parekh says partners need to support more than just entry-level hiring of underrepresented individuals. “We’d love to see them do more for those communities: teach them how to network with executives, help them get promotions, provide tools and resources to bolster their success at higher levels.”

For Hinerfeld and Rewrite the Future, part of the challenge has been figuring out why Hollywood is so resistant to climate storytelling in the first place. “On the creative side, there’s a perception that climate stories are boring and preachy. On the business side, climate is seen as a divisive topic here in the U.S. and thus corporate sponsors are not thrilled about climate storytelling. Emotionally, working on a climate story for multiple years is daunting. We have to combat all of these problems and perceptions,” he said. One approach that Hinerfeld shared: branding it as one of the biggest human stories to ever be told—one that is just getting started.

The 2022-2023 Jacobson Family Sustainable Impact Lecture Series looks at how businesses are centering community in their social impact work. “This year, we set out to highlight proximate leaders in business,” Fialho said. “Historically, our institutions have been built to exclude the knowledge and expertise of people who are closest to the problems we seek to solve. We need an entirely new approach to social problem solving that centers the voices and talents of these leaders, especially from BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities.”

For GEI, Rewrite the Future and Revolve Impact alike, the communities they want to support are those they work hard to partner with and develop enduring, dynamic relationships with. A part of this process is knowing where the organization’s teams have expertise and knowing where outside expertise could better bolster the results of their programs.

Looking at the Bottom Line

If it’s not profitable or sustainable, it’s hard to sustain organizations, ideas and movements. “In storytelling,” de la Rocha said, “We can interweave multiple issues for collective benefit.”

While these multilayered stories often bear the richest impact, they also are the ones Hollywood views as most risky. But things are changing. Hinerfeld says many moviegoers and television viewers are younger generations looking for a connection to causes they care about. Ultimately, there is a new demographic to reach, one who wants to spend money on products and services that fuel social change and progress.

Aligning with values that bolster surrounding communities can also mean earning support from government agencies looking to promote DEI in businesses, as well. Parekh, who formerly worked with the Deputy Mayor of Economic Development in the City of Los Angeles, said, “Government does a lot in terms of funding and incentives to companies to encourage diversity and pipeline strengthening. This forces companies to think about DEI more creatively on sets.”

In the end, de la Rocha, who also co-founded a community-based coffee company called Tepito Coffee, said there is a place for everyone in creating social impact, but people who want to create real impact in the world must be willing to be led by people most directly impacted. “Every single person has a chance to get involved in moving ideas. Our work is grounded in community and in helping folks who have a platform connect with people on the frontlines,” he said.