Warner Bros. Discovery Access boasts several programs designed to mentor and develop diverse talent within entertainment. After the recent merger between Warner Media and Discovery, the team and its mission remain, “creating inclusive pathways into the industry”. ABILITY’s George Kaplan spoke to a passionate Grace Moss, VP of Equity + Inclusion Programs at WBD Access, about these programs and her investment in seeing participants succeed.
George Kaplan: We spoke to one of the participants in the Warner Media Talent Spotlight Program, and they had a lot of amazing things to say.
Grace Moss: That’s so nice to hear, thank you!
Kaplan: What was the motivation for the program?
Moss: We’re ultimately the talent development arm of the Equity Inclusion Division for what is now Warner Bros. Discovery. Our team is dedicated to finding emerging talent. We’re on the ground at festivals, in conferences. We are facilitating our own programs and bringing in talent that way. Our goal is to identify this talent from historically excluded groups and put them on the radar of our executives. Whether it be for staffing or for career opportunities, our job is to find that talent and also make sure that they are well prepared for the opportunities that we hope to place them in. That goes hand in hand with the variety of workshops that we have within many of our programs. It’s not just finding the talent but giving them the tools so that they can succeed once they find that opportunity. So that they can not just survive but really thrive, whether it be in the writers’ room, on set, on stage to perform. That really is the goal for the Access team.
Kaplan: How was the recent Talent Spotlight Program?
Moss: I have to say, I may be biased because I drove the whole thing, but it was one of the most meaningful and powerful initiatives that I’ve worked on in my career. And I’ve been doing DE&I [Diversity Equity & Inclusion] pipeline programs for over a decade here at [Warner Bro’s Discovery], including my time at NBC. I think it was a unique opportunity for me, personally, to get to work with talent that’s outside of the writer and directors and behind-the-camera folks. This was specifically for actors. I had done a little bit of that at the scene showcase, but I really got a chance to get connected with the participants. I think the most fulfilling thing for me was to witness that community grow in that week that we had together, really bond and embrace each other’s work and celebrate each other, support each other.
On day two, when we did our table reads, everybody read the scene. And we all were able to share initial impressions. I broke down in tears because I was so moved at the collection of talent that we had brought, both by their skills and also to see the way that they supported each other and were cheering each other on. That was just day one or two. And then, of course, at the end of the whole week in LA, everybody was emotionally connected and we built a family through this workshop. I think most importantly, we’re going to get these folks as many opportunities as we can within the Warner Bros. Discovery portfolio. We’re in the process of building that distribution list of folks within the company who we can start to share the showcase with. That’s ever-growing. I just can’t wait to see it.
Kaplan: That’s exciting! So, you have the showcase to show and deliver to people?
Moss: Yes. I know many of the showcases for the industry are in person or historically have been. This one was done in a way where we recorded everything on set first. It’s now in post, and we’ll distribute that final showcase link.
Kaplan: Why are talent pipeline programs so important?
Moss: Oh, gosh, for so many reasons! Oftentimes historically and institutionally, it has been very difficult for folks from these marginalized communities to get their foot in the door. So, to have a team to act as advocates internally and be able to dedicate themselves to finding that talent, and again making sure that they are equipped with all the tools they need to succeed, I think that’s why it’s really important. I think before departments like ours were born, programming teams oftentimes have so much on their plate. It’s really cool to have a team specifically focused on finding the talent and presenting them to the network and the studios for those opportunities. And with that focus, we’re able to really curate the experience, to make sure that it’s also a holistic experience. It’s not just, “Here’s a workshop on auditions.” It’s, “Let’s talk about how you should navigate the industry as, let’s say, a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) talent. Let’s talk about how we can make sure that you are presenting yourselves in interviews or on your résumé in a way that will get you seen and get you through those doors.” We take a comprehensive approach to making sure that they have all the tools that they need.
Kaplan: For the Talent Spotlight Program, did you whittle 7,000 applicants down to 20?
Moss: Yes! And I will give credit to our casting directors. We worked with ABL Casting. They got through the bulk of it. They had multiple rounds to narrow down—I think our team, when we got our eyes on it, it was down to 80. So, we saw 80 and then narrowed it down to 20, but I do want to give credit to ABL to narrow down that 6,900. It was a really, really tough job that took months, and we’re so happy with not just the talent themselves, but the wide assortment of talent.
One unique thing about this particular program is that we amplified our effort for communities from the disabled actors, Native American and Indigenous, Middle Eastern, and North African, and trans talent as well. And I know oftentimes showcases tend to just be Black, Asian, Latino—which is totally fine, and we also did that as well. —But we wanted to make sure that we specifically targeted those four other communities because they often get even less access than those other groups. I think that’s another reason why our initiative was really important.
Kaplan: There’s intersectionality now among those groups, too, which makes it even more of a reason.
Moss: Absolutely! And that’s something that we’re always thinking of, even in our other programs. We are working with the Black Theater Coalition as an example. We wanted to make sure, “Let’s find some Black talent, but also let’s check with talent who may have disabilities who are also Black.” We’re very much conscious of that for all our programs, and it just happened to really align here. We got so much intersectionality in this program, which is nice.
Kaplan: What stands out to you in an application when you’re going through so many applications all the time, not just for the Talent Spotlight Program, but for your other programs under Access?
Moss: Generally speaking, first and foremost, it will always be the technical skill, whether it’s a TV script or a performance. That’s what they need to have to even move on to the next stage and to really succeed. That’s first and foremost. Second to that, in many if not all of our programs, we do have an interview phase, or at the very least an essay portion where we talk about why they want to be doing this program or what type of diverse perspective they’re bringing into that particular craft, again, writing and directing. We look at them as a whole. We look at their personal story, and also see how they are in a room. You could have somebody with a wonderful script, a great essay question as far as why they are deserving of this opportunity, but we also want to make sure that they can handle themselves if we do put them forth for a staffing opportunity; that they’re comfortable, that they’re likable, that they can pivot and handle themselves in the room really well because, ultimately, our goal is to get them to our shows for various opportunities. And we just want them to shine in the room as well. Those are a couple of things that stand out for us.
Kaplan: You talk about following up with these participants and making sure they succeed. In what ways does WarnerMedia Access do that?
Moss: Even though, let’s say using our Access writers’ program, that program officially wrapped in March. Now, even though we’re not meeting with them weekly like we had been for the past seven months, we’re creating a look book that we are then going to circulate to all our programming teams across the portfolio. Same thing for Talent Spotlight. We have a look book with bios, IMDB, making sure that all the executives have easy access to the talent and that they have their information readily available, whether it’s a link to their script, a link to the showcase. We make the time and make it really easy for them to check out the talent. So, getting that out.
And then also, making sure that we maintain the relationships. The writers’ program, using that as an example, I’m continuing to meet up with them for lunches, checking in on what they’re working on, waiting to hear what shows they might be interested in staffing on in the next few months. Once they’re in the program, that’s the beginning of our relationship. After that it will just continue on for the years to come.
Kaplan: Fantastic! Since you’ve been involved in diversity, equity and inclusion have you seen the industry evolve over time?
Moss: Sure! When I started—I think my first formal role in DE&I was around 2012 — At the time, we were still making a business case. We were doing presentations on the buying power of this community. I think we have thankfully evolved to where that’s not even a question anymore. Everyone understands that this is important for the business. Now it’s just a matter of converting that understanding into actual opportunities. That’s why, again to your previous question about the importance of these pipeline programs, we’re there to make that conversion. We have the interest of the company. They’re open to meeting new talent now, and we’re here to say, “Here’s great talent that we’ve vetted, that we’ve worked with and interviewed, that we think would be great for this opportunity, this writers’ room. Let’s us help you.” I think now it’s a matter of making those connections. Well, I guess another thing that has changed is that, back in the day, about 10 years ago, there was a little bit of a dearth of writers of color in general, especially at the lower levels, like the staff writer level.
Now, because there are so many amazing programs out there, there is a lot of great talent at the staff writer level, the story editor level. So now, I think the changes that we’re now trying to—We’re now seeing these gaps in the mid- to upper levels. So, I think it’s important to now focus our efforts and examine how we can fix that bottleneck or try to address those shortages of talent in those mid- to upper-level producers, as an example.
Kaplan: So that’s what you see as what needs to be done in the future, more of that bottleneck?
Moss: Yes, reevaluating. —The changes or the problems or the issues in the industry are always evolving. Ten years ago, it might have been, “We don’t have a lot of great staff writers of color that we can put out.” Now it’s definitely showrunners, of course. That’s something where we saw that need. We have a showrunner program to have a pipeline of great talent to put forth to lead these shows.
So, I think it depends on what part of the industry. For us, because we have such a broad scope of work, we’re looking into doing some work on the accounting team. We’re able to expand our efforts below-the-line as well. I think it’s ever-changing, but we try to pinpoint what those real needs are at this point and not just do a writers’ program just for the same of doing a writers’ program. How can we curate it to be very specific to that need?
Kaplan: What’s next in the pipeline?
Moss: Gosh! One thing, last year we launched our inaugural Early Career Boot Camp. That was special because it wasn’t for production. This was specifically to build our talent pipeline of folks who want to get into the corporate world, future executives. We are launching the second cycle of that program. What’s exciting for this go-around is that we’ve expanded our partnerships to include even more organizations. For context, last year we partnered with RespectAbility, which is an advocacy group for—well, I’m sure you know—people with disabilities. We also partnered with the Trans Film Center, MPAC (Muslim Public Affairs Council), and IlumiNative, an advocacy group for Native American and Indigenous talent. Again, so successful that we’ve expanded it to include three additional orgs, which is Urban League, Center for Asian American Media, and NALIP, the National Association of Latino Independent Producers. That’s a great example of how we’re evolving, trying to be as inclusive as possible and expand our efforts. So, we’ve got that.
We also have—it hasn’t been assured yet, but we are internally developing some writers’ programs specifically in the comedic space, so more to come on that. And we’re continuing to support—on the unscripted side, we have a great partnership with HBO Max, where last year we were able to place three producers from underrepresented groups onto three series.
Moss: Yeah, yeah! And they were sort of elevated, it wasn’t just a lateral move from associate producer to producer. They were all promotions. We were able to get that going and have that wonderful partnership. We’ve placed two more people on series in 2022, so that’s exciting. And then, I’m not sure what else we can share. We are doing some work in the LATAM space. We’re doing some work with news, journalism programs, basically taking journalists into scripted writing. But I don’t want to speak out of turn because I did at South by Southwest.
Kaplan: Is there anything else you would like to talk about regarding Warner Bros. Discovery?
Moss: As far as the accessibility piece, I wanted to share that we did consult with RespectAbility from the casting phase as far as making sure that our sites were accessible. We also did work with a production accessibility coordinator, both at the location scout, to make sure that we had the right bathrooms and everything was placed properly to installing lights for our actors who are deaf so that they can have alarms accessible, to working with the hotels to make—We had an actor who was a little person and making sure that she had several stools in her room and in our rehearsal spaces. We also had a production accessibility coordinator onsite for the entire week, and we also made sure, given the advice from that group, we also had a quiet room for those who had neurodisabilities who might need a space to get away from all the sensory experience.
That’s something I’m really, really proud of. We wanted to make sure that all of our actors felt safe and seen and had everything they needed to deliver the best performance, and also have a safe and welcoming experience. And then we also made sure that we had four ASL interpreters every single day in LA, two per deaf actors. I hear that that is oftentimes not the case, so I wanted to make sure that we not just met those guidelines, but exceeded them. I’m really proud of that.
Kaplan: Great. I wanted to know if you’re aware of what we’re doing with ABILITY Corps’ abilityEntertainment for disabled actors? ABILITY Magazine is a founding sponsor of abilityE.
Moss: I think when I was at NBC, I remember hearing the pitch. I’m glad to see that it moved forward. That’s amazing.
Kaplan: That must have been pre-launch, it’s up and running now.
Moss: That’s great! Congratulations! That’s much needed, obviously. I’m so glad to see that this is up and running. Whenever you’re ready, I’d love to have a demo maybe for our team, just so we know how to navigate this and make sure to share it with others.