The Importance of A Diversity Category
April 22, 2020
Ben Johnson had doubts anyone would ever hear his voice. As a person of color from South Africa, Hollywood and his dreams of being a screenwriter always seemed thousands of miles away in a land far, far away. But his talent and passion were reaffirmed thanks to the Big Break Screenwriting Contest.
The 49-year-old entered his script, Canaan, in 2019 about an overprotective single mother whose only son is abducted by human traffickers during the 2010 Soccer World Cup in South Africa. He entered the Diversity category—and won.
“It was the most surreal experience ever,” says Johnson. “When I won the category, it was incredibly affirming to me as a third world writer.”
People of color and their stories are notoriously underrepresented in Hollywood. Just this year, UCLA released its latest Hollywood diversity report, which showed that despite gains made in the industry, minorities and women still lagged in representation. It’s why some industry stakeholders are making a conscious effort to be inclusive, including Final Draft. Not only is its Diversity category designed to help break down barriers for writers of color, the software itself features a way to measure inclusivity within scripts.
The Big Break competition has also worked behind the scenes to hire diverse readers and judges from across the industry who are able to identify unique scripts with colorful stories.
“We auditioned readers this year because we want our writers to see success, and we want fresh voices with diverse backgrounds,” says Kala Guess, director of the Big Break Screenwriting Contest. “We want our readers and judges to reflect the voices that are missing from the industry.”
Voices like Ben Johnson’s. Johnson learned he won his category in January 2020.
“The prizes that accompanied the win have been mind-boggling,” Johnson says. As they started to roll in, I began to realize why the contest is called the Big Break. All these fantastic prizes provide opportunities for you to market and leverage yourself into the next level of your career.”
Since the contest, the accolades and accomplishments for Johnson haven’t stopped—a reason he’s beyond thankful. But the message he’s interested in spreading is the importance of a Diversity category in a script competition.
“I find a lot of people talk about change and promoting diversity in the industry, but Final Draft and the Big Break Contest have not simply paid lip service to industry diversity,” Johnson explains. “Through the implementation of the diversity category, they’ve broken down part of the wall, and built-in a door, for people like me.”
Before Big Break, Johnson had limited access to Hollywood. Since the competition, he’s signed with Mark Finley and Daniel Brandt of Plain Text Lit Management, begun career coaching sessions, and started a screenwriting fellowship at New York Film Academy, where he is developing two television pilots and a feature.
“The win has given me a lot of exposure in South Africa. I participated in interviews on both radio and TV. I feel like people in my local industry have a newfound respect for me, and a lot of them now see me as a bit of a trailblazer, opening new doors for South African writers,” Johnson says.
“That is no small thing. How are we going to balance out the industry? How are we going to bring change? By giving people of diverse backgrounds more opportunities. The Big Break Diversity category provides such an opportunity.”
It’s just one of the ways Big Break works to equalize diverse writers’ chances to get noticed in the industry. It’s an effort that is no small feat, yet important for people like Johnson, who credits his newfound success to winning the Diversity category of the competition.
Written by: Allison NorlianAllison Norlian is a three-time, Emmy-nominated journalist who has worked as a television reporter and anchor in markets around the country. She has covered a variety of stories from the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia to President Trump’s travel ban in the fourth circuit court of appeals. Allison has also won AP awards for her work and a Catalyst For Change award from the Arc of Virginia for her reporting on the disabled community. Allison just moved to Los Angeles with her screen writer husband and two cats and is excited for all LA has to offer!