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Daniel Dae Kim (“Lost”), Colman Domingo (“Euphoria”) and Tracy Oliver (creator of “Harlem”) joined forces at the Variety x Audible Cocktails & Conversations panel at Sundance and put Hollywood gatekeepers on blast when it comes to inclusive storytelling. The trio were joined by “Sorry to Bother You” director Boots Riley and Audible’s EVP and Head of U.S. Content Rachel Ghiazza for a panel celebrating how new forms of storytelling in media give way to inclusivity.

“There are a lot of gatekeepers that we know in this industry that will tell you very clearly if you pitch something, ‘We have something sort of like that already in the works,’” Domingo said. “And then they tell you what it is and you’re like, ‘No, you don’t!’ They’re just Black or they’re just queer or just women, but they’re not really supporting diversity in storytelling. They’re actually the antithesis of it. And that’s a huge problem. We’re fighting that every single day with every single pitch to say that there’s diversity in our lives and we see it.”

The panelists all had similar experiences in Hollywood where industry executives were interested in inclusive storytelling but only one kind. As Domingo put it, “For awhile there was a mandate, [Hollywood] wants more Black shows. So we out there pitching Black shows. And then they’re like, ‘No, not those kind of Black shows. We want more of what we believe Black people are.’ Do you not just want a simple Black family doing shit that maybe white people do, that’s nothing about trauma and Black people’s bodies being hurt and stuff like that? Do you want something else? Because I’m presenting it to you.”

Kim had a similar experience in Hollywood, especially after the blockbuster success of “Crazy Rich Asians.” The Warner Bros. romantic comedy was the first major Hollywood studio release to feature an entirely Asian and Asian-American cast in decades, and it defied box office projections with $174 million at the domestic box office.

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“One of the collateral damage effects of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ was that everyone wanted to do more Asian projects as long as they were just ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’” Kim said. “If you had a project that spoke to something other than people being super rich and super wealthy and super happy, then they weren’t interested. Not only did we have difficulty trying to find other portrayals of Asian Americans, but it also had the additional burden of having to represent all Asians. [Inclusive storytelling] can’t just be a category or a checkbox and say, ‘We have our Asian project, we have our Black project, and so we’re good. We’re being diverse.’”

Oliver, whose Hollywood breakout came as the screenwriter of “Girls Trip,” remembered coming to Hollywood and being told by gatekeepers that her interest in telling Black stories wouldn’t make her a living. Or as Oliver summarized, “It wasn’t until I got to Hollywood that Hollywood told me I didn’t matter.”

“I had a producer tell me at the time, ‘You’re an amazing writer. You’re a rare Black writer that can write white people really well. So why don’t you just do that so you can make a living? Stop writing all your Black shit, put that away, do that on your spare time for free if you want to put on a play or something,’” Oliver said. “It was a gut punch to me. In that moment, I was like, ‘Huh, to make a living, I have to silence who I am.’”

Oliver continued to write Black stories on the side, and she said she’s often motivated to create out of frustration over not seeing her own stories represented on screen.

“[Storytelling] always starts with what is bugging me,” Oliver said. “And what I mean by that is if I’m frustrated watching something, it’s usually because I’m not seeing myself or I’m not relating to it. And that means for me, ‘Okay bitch, you create that.’ That’s where I’ve always been. So you can complain about it and go online and tweet horrible things at the creator who had the right to tell the story… or you can go and do it yourself. For me, creativity is necessity for me.”

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Kim recently announced a first look deal with Audible. Ghiazza championed the format and said audio storytelling, “allows you to tap into the human imagination on both the creative side and also on the consumer side.”

“For a consumer, you create the world, you create the vision, and when you’re listening, you’re concentrating on those words and you’re building all of that around you,” Ghiazza added. “And then when you’re creating, it’s a limitless space. You’re not bound by length, time, format, production, schedule and it gives you an opportunity to dream big and create that thing that’s been in your mind that you can now put out and spike people’s imagination.”

The Variety x Audible Cocktails & Conversations event was also home to a second panel, a fireside chat between Variety executive editor Brent Lang and Plan B co-founder Jeremy Kleiner. The latter, along with his fellow Plan B creators Brad Pitt and Dede Gardner, just signed an exclusive, multiproject development deal with Audible to create a slate of original projects. Plan B’s inaugural project for Audible is “A Summer Love Thing” from cinematographer Bradford Young.

Kleiner said that while Plan B’s audio future will include original projects, it will also feature projects that compliment the production company’s film and television output. Plan B has been behind such Oscar-winning dramas as “12 Years a Slave” and “Moonlight,” and they’re back in the awards conversation this year with “Women Talking.”

“One example, and it’s actually on Audible now, is one of our films is ‘Women Talking’ and [distributor] Orion came up with a really innovative format with Audible to put on a one night only kind of ‘Women Talking’ theatrical experience that involved some playwrights and Heidi Schreck,” Kleiner said. “It feels like that’s an example of something that’s complimentary to what we did in the film, but not in a way that feels like it’s just pure marketing. It was marketing for the film of course, but it had its own integrity and it gives us ideas about, like, ‘Okay, we can do this again with other films that we’ve released, but we can also maybe do original things that might then go in a different sequence.’”

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Kleiner said he already believes Young’s Audible original “A Summer Love Thing” could make for “a great film.” The story follows a woman who leaves her successful singing career to return to her Southern hometown and pursue her first love, a blue-collar worker, for the second time. Plan B and Audible describe the project as “moody, lyrical and ethereal, as is all of Bradford’s work,” using “Southern soundscapes to evoke a place, space and time.”

Watch both panels from the latest Variety x Audible Cocktails & Conversations event in the video above.


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