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The MPAA’s John Gibson Weighs in on Diversity in Film

There has historically been a lack of diversity in film, but in recent years, the issue has come to the forefront. We spoke with John Gibson, Advisor for Inclusion and Multicultural Outreach at the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) about steps being taken so the industry can become more inclusive, his commitment to diversity and more.

Before joining the MPAA, I worked on diversity issues at two international corporate law firms, serving as Director of Marketing and Media Relations for the Corporate Diversity Practice Group at Holland & Knight, LLP, and Special Assistant to the Senior Partner at Akin Gump, LLP. 

While both firms provided challenging and enriching opportunities, I must say that my tenure at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) really positioned me for the work I’m doing now.  As a presidential appointee and close aide to then-U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, I was able to witness firsthand his navigation of the massive civil rights issues facing the department both internally with employees, and externally with such groups as black and Hispanic farmers. I was also his representative on the USDA/1890s Taskforce – the governing body that oversees the partnership between the Department of Agriculture and the 1890 Historically Black Land-Grant Universities.  

Today, I am proud to lead MPAA’s inclusion program, including our partnerships with civil rights and multicultural groups. MPAA’s Chairman and CEO, Senator Chris Dodd, is a strong leader on these critical issues and it’s an honor to work with him and the rest of the MPAA team to promote diversity and inclusion in the filmmaking industry.

What are some of programs or initiatives that are currently being implemented in order to achieve your objectives?

The MPAA and our member studios (Paramount, Sony, 20th Century Fox, Universal, Walt Disney and Warner Bros.) are committed to creating a film industry that more accurately reflects America as a whole, and we do that in many ways — including educating the public and encouraging dialogue within the industry, forging partnerships that advance a more inclusive entertainment industry, and working with students to ensure we’re creating a diverse pipeline of talent.

We’re currently partnering with more than 20 national civil rights organizations and multicultural organizations to drive change in the filmmaking industry. For example, we work with the American Black Film Festival to showcase the diversity of films from our six major studios with annual screenings and conversations. We’re also working closely with the Hispanic Heritage Foundation on a short film competition, where the winner will be announced at the annual Hispanic Heritage Awards.

At what point did you realize you wanted to be involved in the promotion of diversity on a professional scale?

Interestingly enough, this wasn’t an area I actively pursued.  However, I’ve been blessed with an inherent ability to appreciate and celebrate the uniqueness of people.  I’m just grateful that the wonderful people I’ve had an opportunity to work alongside have recognized this gift and allowed me to operate in it.  Regardless of our backgrounds, we all want to be engaged and to have our voices heard.  I genuinely find great satisfaction in contributing to our industry’s commitment to telling diverse stories. I love the following quote as it best describes what I’m trying to accomplish through my work at the MPAA, “Diversity is inviting people to a party.  Inclusion is dancing with them.”

You’ve worked on diversity and civil rights initiatives throughout your career in different industries like Legal and Entertainment.  Are there differences in the ways these issues are addressed in those industries?

The legal and entertainment worlds are very different, the public sector even more, but they all share some of the same problems when it comes to diversity and inclusion. One of those is the talent pipeline. We need to ensure men and women of color know careers in these industries are available to them and we need to create ladders of opportunity for them to join our ranks.  

Given the backlash from last year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy, what are some of the ways the MPAA is addressing the lack of diversity in film, as well as recognition and representation?

We understand the frustration of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign and we believe the key to progress on that issue is making films that reflect the broad, diverse viewpoints and experiences of all Americans. When our films and their producers are just as diverse as our audiences, everyone benefits.

One thing we are doing is convening people to have much-needed conversations on diversity and inclusion — and then taking action. And one of those action items is the need to focus on identifying new talent rising up in the pipeline. Another is sharing what has worked and what doesn’t work with our member studios to drive change. There are no quick fixes to the diversity problem in the film industry, and we believe we need to focus on raising awareness of the problem by bringing people together for conversations focused on delivering real results.

What advice would you give to young people of color who aspire to be in the film industry?

There are many untold stories that only people of color can tell. If you’re passionate about filmmaking, pursue it. Leading by example will help make the film industry as diverse as our nation.  I’m a firm believer in authentic storytelling.  For anyone truly looking to make a mark in the industry, I suggest that you start with stories that reflect on who you are and your own experiences.  The critically acclaimed film, “Moonlight” is a great example of this. 

Where would you like to see the film industry in 10 years with respect to diversity?

The film industry is committed to sparking a dialogue on inclusion and focusing more on our young talent — from the writers, to the cast, to the crew — so that our movies better reflect the make-up of our country.

Tell us about your involvement as ambassador for men’s grooming line, Scotch Porter.

Calvin Quallis, the founder of Scotch Porter, left a great desk job to pursue his passion and is building some very high-quality grooming products for guys on a budget. His story is why I support this brand. As a young man of color, he sets an example for other creatives and entrepreneurs who are looking to break into a new industry. By following his passion, he’s built a great product and a great brand. Young filmmakers should take note!  

I’m also someone that likes to switch up my look from time to time.  While I’ve maintained a full beard for a number of years, I tend to keep it short for a more corporate look.  Recently, I decided to add some length and since the Scotch Porter products are the absolute best in helping to change a look, a good friend made the connection for me with the brand and the rest is history.  

What is your definition of The Quintessential Gentleman?

The Quintessential Gentleman is one who is always looking ahead, and who can not just start a tough conversation but listen to what others have to say. 

Written by Naila Smith.


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