Every single year—like a grotesque rite of passage—an annual report detailing the lack of diversity, inclusion and income in Hollywood is circulated, and for a brief moment of time, all tongues are wagging and heads are swiveling around in disgust. Murmurs of “something must be done” swell in a cascade, and then another year rolls around, with another report, and the ritual begins anew.
But 25 years ago, the team at Film Independent said enough and actually did something about it, creating Film Independent’s Project Involve, a brave move, especially in 1993.
Twenty-five years in Hollywood, where the “normal tenure of an industry exec rivals the lifecycle of a mayfly” in its brevity, is an accomplishment not to be ignored.
Project Involve—Film Independent’s signature diversity mentorship program—has remained in place, steadfast in its mission to support and enable the visions of independent artists and visual storytellers hailing from every facet of our multi-cultural community.
Here is an excerpt from a conversation with Angel Williams (Project Involve Fellow, Directing Track and current manager of Artist Development at Film Independent); director and producer Mel Jones (Project Involve Producing Track 2012) and Kady Kamakate (Project Involve Producing Track, 2017).
AmNews: Looking back when you first stepped into Project Involve, and now, what did you expect?
Williams: Project Involve is Film Independent’s signature program dedicated to fostering the careers of talented filmmakers from communities traditionally underrepresented in the film industry. Project Involve runs annually for nine months and selects filmmakers from diverse backgrounds and filmmaking tracks. During the program, participants create short films, receive one-on-one film industry mentors, access to production-based master workshops taught by top film professionals, career development training, industry networking opportunities and more. My good friend and frequent collaborator Mel Jones had gone through Project Involve—it was how I became aware of the program. Going in, I already had an outline of sorts of how to maximize the opportunity. I knew that I needed to be thoughtful and intentional about my mentor, and that the value of the program could extend long after the program ended, building relationships with talented artists that I could create a body of work with.
Jones: Speaking from my experience, mentorship is paramount. After all, Hollywood is an apprenticeship business. And no matter how many degrees you have, there is nothing like seeing someone in action, and then modeling your approach from what you’ve learned. I am the producer I am today because of my Project Involve mentorship with Stephanie Allain, who is now my producing partner. And as a developing storyteller, it meant giving me access to the world in ways I would not have been able to experience.
Kamakate: I participated in previous shoots before as an AD and PM, so I was familiar with the production side of things but not the curriculum. My expectations were for those to be fairly formal and routine, and I was really surprised to see how candid the guests are and how intimate the setting is. It really feels as if you’re having a personal conversation, and they really are open to the industry and their filmmaking journey.
AmNews: Looking back, what is the value of mentorship? What is mentorship for a developing storyteller?
Williams: Mentorship is everything. I don’t know a single artist who’s found success without mentorship and that’s key to sustaining a career. In a lot of ways, mentors are like a parent-child relationship—you inspire and nurture one another and gain a lot of wisdom in the process of growing alongside one another. Project Involve is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and over the years we’ve had the participation of some amazing mentors, including Effie T. Brown (“Dear White People,” “Real Women Have Curves”), Spike Jonze (“Adaptation,” “Being John Malkovich”), Kasi Lemmons (“Talk to Me,” “Eve’s Bayou”), Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight,” “Memento”), John Singleton (“Four Brothers,” “Boyz n the Hood”), Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland,” “American Gun”), Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”), Bradford Young (“Arrival,” “Solo”), Chayse Irvin (“Lemonade”), Rachel Morrison (“Black Panther,” “Fruitvale Station”) and Reed Morano (“The Handmaid’s Tale”).
Kamakate: I think mentorship comes in different ways. I haven’t had a mentor most of my career, but I don’t think that’s hindered me in any way. What’s been important to me is peer-mentorship, those in your circle that brings you up. It’s as simple as bringing you on projects, to bumping you up in title/responsibility and generally taking a risk on you. That’s been instrumental in my growth, and something I always make a point to do on my own projects. I find it important for us to take chances with our own friends/peers. After all, if we don’t make opportunities for our own community we’re part of the problem.
AmNews: Why are diverse stories
Williams: Representation and diversity on screen are so important because we must see ourselves. Cinema is such a powerful tool and when not used responsibly it can have a negative impact on our cultures.
Jones: Diverse stories are important because they allow for us to connect to one another in ways we wouldn’t otherwise connect. I also believe stories have the ability to heal and to challenge people’s ways of thinking and belief systems, so we should do that in as many ways as possible with as many voices as possible.
Kamakate: If we want to live in an inclusive and progressive world, we must demand to hear stories from those that are underserved and underrepresented in our society. It’s imperative.
AmNews: As storytellers in this program, how much of the business side do you learn?
Williams: After I completed Project Involve in 2014 on the directing track they asked me to come behind the curtain and run the program alongside Francisco Velasquez. Project Involve focusing a lot on the business of filmmaking because in my opinion—so many emerging filmmakers aren’t even remotely prepared for that part of it. You get to hear from studio executives, agents, managers, attorneys—but the most valuable conversations come from the filmmakers sharing their personal stories about the business. That’s why mentorship is vital—a good mentor will school you on all the lessons they learned so that hopefully your experience can be different.
Jones: As producers of Project Involve you are tasked with producing a short. So that you can sharpen your ability to put a crew and a film together. But apart from that, Project Involve has master classes with industry professionals that span from composing to producing.
Kamakate: Project Involve does a great job of bringing in guests with a breath of experience and strong careers, which is really where you get to hear some gems. Also as a producer, by nature, we are more involved in the business side of things, but not necessarily the other tracks. So with Project Involve all the tracks (DP, director, editor) get to see the process from scratch and are really intimately involved in a way that doesn’t happen in the “real world.” Everyone strategizes on fundraising or helps out on set in capacities that are new to them. It’s a serious team effort and you walk away with a greater understanding of the process.