Being Green

By Carolyn Gray Anderson

 

 
Alysia Reiner, Viola Davis, Liza Weil and Katie Findlay in the episode “Let’s Get to Scooping.” (ABC/Mitchell Haaseth)

Weird and wonderful things happened to Erika Green Swafford (’99) as a result of connections she made while at UCLA Anderson. Still close with a core group from her “section E” classmates, she remembers, “They didn’t look at me crazy when I started talking about entertainment.”

In February, Green was awarded the prestigious NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series for an episode of ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder,” which itself won the award for Outstanding Drama Series. Created by “Grey’s Anatomy” writer/producer Peter Nowalk and produced by Shonda Rhimes’ ShondaLand production company, it debuted in Sept. 2014 to broad critical acclaim. It stars Viola Davis as a criminal defense attorney and Philadelphia law professor whose students-cum-interns become entangled in a murder plot.

Green took a somewhat circuitous route to the creative side of entertainment, but her decision to pursue a business degree was calculated to further that ambition. After studying at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and working in hospitality in Washington, D.C., she landed in the entertainment capital of the world with a clear notion that an MBA would help launch her career in the industry.

Anderson was where 
"I first decided to test my mettle…I think that experience opened me up as a human being.”

Green had been writing for years in classes and independent projects that included comedy improv. Rather than pursue a dual degree by straddling business school and film school, she sought a program nimble enough that she could adapt it to her own interdisciplinary purposes.

“Anderson was where I first decided to test my mettle,” says Green. “I went to Anderson because I wanted to challenge myself; though, I was scared of what the outcome would be. I thought I might bail out. While there, I met some really amazing people who were also challenging themselves in different ways. I think that experience opened me up as a human being.”

She interned at Sony and later worked at CBS in the daytime programming department. But, her first full-time job in entertainment came when friend and former classmate, Laura Spence Miller (’99), met someone poised to join Oxygen’s comedy division. He agreed to grant Green an informational interview — with her in a suit and armed with a very businesslike CV amid the Oxygen startup culture of jeans and sneakers.

Her credentials seemed beside the immediate point, she says: Her future boss was looking for a script coordinator. “Can do” was essentially her answer — though Green had no inkling what the job entailed and doubted her ability to bluff her way into it.

Down to her “last couple hundred bucks,” Green was visiting some Anderson classmates in New York when she got a call notifying her that she landed the job. She quickly found out her new job backed up virtually every studio department to ensure both progress and continuity. It also gave her great exposure to the creative side of the industry, exactly where she wanted to be.

She says she “worked her way around” the operation, eventually assisting with acquisitions. Despite her goal for Anderson to help her break into entertainment, Green never imagined the creative and business sides would come together in such an applicable way. But, she found, “I was giving my opinion on creative content in a business context.” From creating spreadsheets to negotiating new deals, Green kicked her b-school training into high gear. She used her knowledge of finance and contracts, refining negotiation techniques on the job. And, she learned from content creators what an effective pitch sounded like.

Green credits many years of hard work — including six seasons with CBS’s “The Mentalist,” where she moved from staff writer to story editor up to producer — with her success on “How to Get Away with Murder.” “No one is an overnight success,” she says.

Green says she loves “writing for a really strong, wonderfully flawed woman of color, who also happens to be played by an Oscar-nominated actor.” (Davis won the 2014 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series for her role.) “I appreciate that we are creating whole characters,” says Green, pointing to a storyline developing a relationship between two gay men.

Erika Green Swafford Shines at NAACP Image Awards

This diversity is especially important in an arena where women and people of color are severely underrepresented — despite the seeming availability of talent in every facet of the business. Green has experienced the biases that persist in the industry. But, she says, “It’s never overt. That would make it too easy. It’s always done with a smile and coded language. I remember taking a meeting with someone and having to sit there while they informed me about my own life and how they ‘knew’ my experience as a black woman and surmised that I wasn’t ‘black black’ because of my upbringing.”

Growing up, Green was a fan of Norman Lear sitcoms bold enough to address hot-button issues on TV and, later, “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World,” in which black people were “finally starting to tell their own stories.” She also reveres pioneering shows like “Julia” — which goes comparatively unheralded as a cultural influence on the industry. “Miss Diahann Carroll was it,” she says. “For us she spoke volumes. A nurse, a mother, grace and beauty and the star of the show? That was mind blowing.” Yet it took 40 years until “Scandal” put another black woman on TV in a leading role.

Green sees progress with shows like “Orange Is the New Black,” “The Mindy Project” and “Empire.” “On the creative side,” she says, “it’s been an erratic gate of opportunity that looks like it may finally stay open. I hope the financial success these shows enjoy spurs even more opportunity for people of color and women.”

Green is humbled by her NAACP win. “Like most writers, I lead with self-deprecation,” she says. Yet she has conceived original series that are in the greenlighting process and aspires to direct. She says that if she could somehow combine her love of cooking (“I still want to be a chef in my heart of hearts”) with live theater it would be “creative Nirvana.”

Anderson teaches students to Think in the Next, and Green personifies that competency. “I wouldn’t be where I am now without my Anderson degree. It taught me that I am limitless. I embraced things I didn’t even know that I could do. So now I think, ‘What else do I believe I’m unable to do, or that I haven’t even thought about doing, that I will totally crush?’” X

Diversity in Entertainment

The 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report, published annually by UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, asks how we “flip the script” for a more inclusive entertainment industry. “For the 2012-13 season,” reads the report, “minorities created 16.7 of the broadcast scripted shows that won at least one major Emmy, up from none in 2011-12.”

But the entire statistic is constituted by the advent of one show: Scandal.

“It is difficult to say if recent breakout hit shows that are diverse will be honored in upcoming years at the Emmys,” says Ana-Christina Ramón, assistant director and associate researcher at the Bunche Center, who co-authors the report with Bunche Director Darnell Hunt. “A more diverse membership [in the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences] may be the key to changing that outcome in the future.”

At the same time, there’s no question that diversity sells. “In terms of TV ratings and box office success,” says Ramon, “the data continue to show that…regardless of race, TV audiences want to see programming with casts that are relatively diverse.” Yet the industry seems to stick to business as usual, with majority white male executives and creatives.

The report found that minorities write 10 percent or fewer episodes on nearly two-thirds of broadcast scripted shows. Women do better as writers in TV than in film, scripting more than 30 percent of episodes for half of broadcast scripted shows.

Veteran TV executive and Anderson alumna Rose Catherine Pinkney (’88), VP of development and original programming for TV Land, has stewarded many a project that tells stories of a diverse American culture. When she was head of programming at TV One, Pinkney told the New York Times, “Anyone can do a show with Black people, but we want to be honest and authentic… Whatever show we make, however we choose to tell the story, our viewers know it’s someone who cares about their lives and their culture.”

Following the Directors Guild of America’s commitment to increasing gender and ethnicity diversity, major networks have created departments dedicated to diversity initiatives and leadership positions to manage them — including Anderson alumna Jennifer Abbondanza (’06), VP of corporate diversity initiatives at NBCUniversal since 2011.

Ramón says, “We believe it is not only a moral and social imperative, it is a business imperative as well for the studios and networks. They are currently leaving money on the table by continuing the same old practices.”