Storm Reid burst into tears on stage. She is not the first to do so today. Dive into a roundtable with the filmmaker Ava DuVernay and powerful talented lawyer Nina Shaw, the Euphoria star is asked about the social progress that is being reversed in the country. Reid shares a personal story of going to college at the University of Southern California near South Central Los Angeles and knowing friends with limited options who had to travel to nearby Planned Parenthood to their own health and safety. “It’s devastating,” she sniffles, of what was then — last Thursday — an impending Supreme Court ruling. (Roe vs. Wade would be overthrown the next day.) She then focuses on the issue with remarkable poise: “We all have a purpose in this world. Just because something doesn’t directly affect you, the thought of it directly affecting someone else should be enough to make you want to do something about it.
This is Amplify, the annual conference hosted by Creative Arts Agency, where influencers from Hollywood, politics, finance and more come together for a day of impactful conversations, confessions and reality checks. A big departure from other bigwig gatherings: none of the featured speakers are white. The goal of the day’s sessions is “to explore the role business plays in advancing culture and justice for communities of color,” according to the official language of the 2022 event.
Reid’s panel marks the centerpiece of the afternoon session, the culmination of a typically hot (hot) day at the Ojai Valley Inn. Its deeply moving emotion continues a running theme from what has come before, as highly influential public figures have expressed unusual vulnerability. He came in fiery calls to action on everything from the challenges facing American education and the lack of black executives in Hollywood to the persistent and flagrant unequal representation of marginalized groups on screen. Lauren Ridloff poignantly described her experiences as a deaf actress in Hollywood, while Crystal Echo Hawk made a rich presentation on the state of representation of Native Americans in the media.
As Endemol Shine’s says Cris Abrego, one of the most senior Latino executives in Hollywood, it’s about “going from being the only one in the room to being the bedroom.”
The program flows between hard data – say 92% of movie theater C-suite executives are white, as McKinsey & Company partner revealed Sheldon Lyn— and personal stories. In the heights star Anthony Ramos follows a discussion of the crisis in young people’s mental health with a catchy, funny and heartbreaking talk about his unlikely path to film stardom, especially the drama teacher who inspired and pushed him to become an actor. It’s his tale of the darkest times, however, that resonates the most and where he begins to cry: his father’s drug addiction struggles, his financial limitations, his teenage depression. “I thought about killing myself,” he said candidly at one point. Pure, unfiltered honesty is invigorating even in this unusually open context; during breaks in the garden outside, he is constantly approached.
The venue feels communal, without the usual formalities for Hollywood talent. The wardrobe for many is jeans and a t-shirt. Signs are long, schedules are updated. Celebrities like Reid, Ramos, Daniel Dae Kim, Yara Shahidi, and many more remain glued to their seats inside the inn’s farmhouse, leaning forward, listening. It’s hard not to get carried away. Is this how real change happens? Will the galvanizing energy within survive Uber Black’s trips to Los Angeles? Who will continue the fight?
Hollywood has embraced a very select few — mostly straight, white, and male — for a very long time. The change has been slow, insufficient, but evident. A long-standing institution in the city, CAA has moved with the times, while navigating controversy alongside the rest of the industry. (At the start of #TimesUp, for example, Rose McGowan blasted CAA as a “pimping company” for Harvey Weinstein.)
The agency has operated a strong philanthropic arm, the CAA Foundation, for decades. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, its then co-executive director Nathalie Tran teams up with a colleague Ruben Garcia, whose customers understand Laurence Fishburne and Kendrick Samson (as well as Anthony Ramos), and others within the agency to respond to a growing sense of crisis — a “social experiment,” says Garcia. The result was Amplify, now celebrating its fifth year.
The day before the 2022 conference, I met Garcia, Tran, and five other CAA agents actively involved with Amplify, under the pergola of Inn’s Orchard Lawn. The group is racially diverse and committed to at least some level of candor, with a mission to shake up business from the ground up and from within. “The idea [for Amplify] was: what if we got all these incredibly influential people who represented different parts of the industry, different parts of society, and put them together in one room? said Garcia.
It doesn’t take long for our conversation to get personal. “Christy Haubegger opened this [first] conference, and I vividly remember her saying, ‘For the 150 people here, please raise your hands if you’re usually the only one in the room,’ and all hands went up,” says Kevin Lin, a high-profile theater agent was tapped to co-lead CAA’s diversity campaign with Garcia in late 2020. “There was something so powerful about it…. We all have this shared experience.
The conference built on this vibe over the next few years, emphasizing networking between executives and creatives, artists and activists. They have seen results. Shonda Rhimes sitting next to Jose Antonio Vargas at an Amplify dinner — the organizers pride themselves on the meticulously planned table arrangements — and from that, Garcia says they collaborated on a Grey’s Anatomy episode, with Vargas consulting on the story of an undocumented doctor. (In turn, his organization, Define American, analyzed the audience’s response to the episode.) Amplify also helped strengthen a connection between Kerry Washington and Executive Director of the ACLU Anthony Romero, with Washington co-producing the ACLU doc The fight, which premiered at Sundance in 2020.
Amplify is coming out of virtual-only events, a familiar consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. The three years since his last in-person event have included nationwide protests against the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, growing anti-Asian hatred and tough transphobic legislation. But as the next day’s sessions will repeatedly remind us, the promising actions taken by Hollywood in response to some of this collective outrage have slowed or died down – a priority for those dedicated to not letting pressing issues be dealt with. as topical issues. “We’re not in a world anymore where you can just compartmentalize issues,” Tran says.
“The power, when it comes to ownership and equity in the industry, may lie with straight white males,” Lin adds. “But the power in cultural creation belongs to our communities.”
The notion of power comes up often. Both in Hollywood in general and at CAA itself, Brandon Lawrence, a TV literary agent with clients such as Natasha Rothwell and Justin Simian, has seen CAA’s internal transformation begin to influence other major Hollywood companies, and he says he feels supported by CAA leaders like Richard Lovett, Bryan Lourd, Kevin Huvane, Maha Dakhil, and others. “Without Amplify, we’d still be in a silo of straight white men talking to each other about the fake changes that might or might not happen in our business,” he says.