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Entertainment Special: A conversation with producer Kathleen Kennedy

In this issue, we launch the first in a series of Q&A sessions with leading figures in the feature film and television industry. Over the next several months, their unique perspectives will give readers an "insider's" look at the world of Hollywood.

We begin with Kathleen Kennedy, one of the most successful movie producers in the history of Hollywood. Just a partial list of her producing credits includes some of Hollywood's biggest box office hits as well as respected cinematic achievements. With such films as Signs, AI: Artificial Intelligence, the Jurassic Park and Back to the Future series, Twister, The Bridges of Madison County, Schindler's List, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Empire of the Sun, An American Tail, and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, among numerous others, Kennedy has established herself as one of the giants in the motion picture industry.

Her exalted status as a producer and her role as president of the Producers Guild of America have allowed her to take a leadership role in promoting diversity within her industry. Under her guidance last year, the PGA mounted A Celebration of Diversity, a spectacular event devoted to recognizing the contributions of the many minorities which have helped shape Hollywood's legacy from its infancy to the present.

Created to celebrate and promote broader diversity in film, television and new media productions, A Celebration of Diversity is just one way in which the Producers Guild of America hopes to create awareness and stimulate discussion of significant social issues.

ICT: Explain what The Producers Guild Celebration of Diversity event is about and how it came to be?

KENNEDY: The Celebration of Diversity emerged out of an earlier Producers Guild event, the Oscar Micheaux Awards, which recognized producers who embodied the legacy of the pioneering African-American filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux. In revisiting the Oscar Micheaux Awards, the PGA decided to broaden the outreach of the event, honoring producers and productions that embrace the ideals of cultural diversity.

ICT: What prompted you to champion the diversity issue during your presidency of the Producers Guild of America?

KENNEDY: Though our society has become more diverse and pluralistic over the past 10 or 20 years, that diversity remains under-represented in the motion pictures and television programming our industry creates. It's profoundly and personally important to me that as producers, we work to create and promote entertainment that is reflective of the diversity of our audience.

ICT: What positive results have you noted as a result of the first Celebration of Diversity?

KENNEDY: The first Celebration of Diversity generated a great deal of attention from within the entertainment industry and within the trade press, in addition to granting a PGA scholarship to a minority producing student with financial need. It would be disingenuous for me to claim credit for the growing number of well-received film and television projects featuring diverse casts and points of view (for instance, Sony's "Antwone Fisher" and ABC's "George Lopez," to name just a couple), this is an issue that is gaining traction in the entertainment industry. I firmly believe that the Celebration of Diversity has reinforced that message and encouraged studios and networks to take chances on programs that appeal to a diverse audience.

ICT: Why is the Producers Guild an appropriate organization to take a leadership role in the area of diversity in Hollywood?

KENNEDY: Producers have always taken a leadership role in our industry. Film and television production starts with the producer; it's the producer's initial vision that sets the wheels in motion, so to speak. It's only natural that the Producers Guild should step to the forefront to try to effect positive change in the industry.

ICT: How does diversity make the motion picture and television industry a more viable and stronger marketplace, economically and artistically?

KENNEDY: Diversity is strength; this is true in virtually every arena of human understanding, from ecology to economics. Our striving for diversity in our productions is a natural outgrowth of the first rule of mass entertainment: reach as many people as possible. If there are segments of our society who look at films and television programs and can't recognize themselves or their stories that represents a failure on the part of our industry. Promoting different points of view not only creates a broader audience, but a more tolerant society. Now more than ever, it's essential to recognize and respect our differences even as we celebrate our commonalities.

ICT: What can individual producers do to champion diversity?

KENNEDY: Producers can do any number of things. They can fight to get challenging material produced and distributed. They can hire a diverse producing team. They can mentor younger producers, individuals who otherwise might not receive that kind of guidance, due to the cultural biases that, sadly, we all know exist in our society. But these ideas are just a few off the top of my head.

ICT: Can you point to any upcoming productions, in particular, which you think reflect a positive movement towards diversity in Hollywood?

KENNEDY: One trend that I find heartening is the growing number of "buddy pictures," such as the upcoming "Bulletproof Monk" and the recently released "Shanghai Knights." These films aren't likely to contend for Oscars, but they depict ways in which individuals of diverse backgrounds can find common ground while respecting their differences. Best of all, these movies don't sermonize; diversity is simply understood to be a fact of life, and the basis of a healthy partnership.

ICT: Are there plans for another Celebration of Diversity event?

KENNEDY: Yes, the second annual Celebration of Diversity is scheduled for Oct. 1, 2003.