Christy Haubegger: Inclusion in Hollywood

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Christy Haubegger, Chief Inclusion Officer at WarnerMedia. Photo Courtesy of WarnerMedia

This week on The Treatment, Elvis sits down with Christy Haubegger, Chief Inclusion Officer at WarnerMedia. Haubegger founded Latina magazine and also led CAA’s push to increase the agency’s representation of women and people of color. Haubegger tells The Treatment she was initially hesitant to take on the position at WarnerMedia because she thought its approach to diversity and inclusion had been misguided in the past. She says one of the few bright spots of the pandemic has been to widen opportunities for people to get into the entertainment industry beyond those who live on the westside of Los Angeles. And she says she is actually optimistic about the future of Hollywood.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition.  I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest is Christy Haubegger, who founded Latina magazine, and at CAA, she helped to spearhead the agency's initiative to bring in more people of color and expand the agency's inclusiveness. She's now the Executive Vice President, Communications and Chief Inclusion officer at Warner Media. You've been somebody who's been pretty outspoken about saying what needs to happen, and what should happen and actually implementing these things. So what was your response when you got the first contact from Warner Media saying, can you come over and help us?

Christy Haubegger: I've been working a really long time. I've had a number of different jobs. I was a magazine publisher; I worked as a motion picture producer; I worked at a talent agency. And now I'm an executive in a media company. I feel like I've had a lot of different jobs, but I've had one mission and one purpose, and it's really to change who gets to tell stories in this world. If you said to me, 25 years ago, you’d still be having the same conversation 25 years from now, I'd say no, no, everyone will totally get it by then. But I loved my time in the magazine business, and I loved working as a motion picture producer. My metabolism wasn't really set up to work on one thing for many years, perhaps, and so when I joined the talent agency, it occurred to me that if you actually wanted to change things, you needed to infiltrate the institutions.

I used to joke that I was kind of like a sleeper cell inside the big Hollywood institution, but if you actually want to make change, you need people on the outside, agitating, and you need people on the inside, engaging. When I had the chance to go to WarnerMedia, it was a really interesting moment, because they were at this inflection point. And you don't get that many bites of the apple to try and reset a culture, and it felt like an inflection point. I thought, if I could have a fraction of the impact on a company 10 times the size of CAA, then I should try and do that.

KCRW: It's funny to hear you describe yourself as an institutionalist because that, to my ear, usually involves a conservative way of looking at the world. And you're somebody who I always have thought of as being impatient with institutional behavior because I've heard you criticize it so often. 

Haubegger: When I say institutionalist, I mean that I believe in institutions; I believe in their tremendous capacity for change, and I also believe that they can be incredibly powerful leavers of societal shift. You think about a company like WarnerMedia with 30,000 executives, or even its parent company, with 250,000 employees: I mean, that's a good sized town. And if you can change the culture in the organization there, then it actually has a profound impact. I want to measure my life in impact. If you want to win once, set a goal. If you want to win and change things forever, create a system, and I want to change the system. And I think that's what I mean by an institutionalist in the sense that I believe in institutions and their capacity for transformation and their capacity for impact. 

KCRW: If we look at the amount of dollars spent by the LatinX and African American and Asian American communities, these industries seem less than eager to respond to these dollars.

Haubegger: It’s remarkable. Latino Americans: we comprise 18% of the population, 23%, historically, of the box office. Obviously, this last year has been sort of an odd one. But I think that there are a lot of things about our industry that are peculiar. So everybody wants transformation, and nobody wants to change. So I understand that, because I'd love to lose weight, but I don't want to change what I'm eating and drinking, right? And so I think there's this thing where Hollywood was populated by good, progressive, thoughtful, kind people for the most part, and yet, change is very, very hard, and inertia does exert a profound effect here. And no, there's not enough giddy-up around here at all for me.

There is an urgency I feel personally, because I look at the census data. And I think about this all the time. Our grandkids are going to ask us, what was it like, back when you were a minority? What was that like? And I think we're going to be embarrassed if we don't rethink the way that we do a lot of our business. We look at the lack of portrayals or the dimensionalized portrayals of all kinds of folks who have been historically excluded from a lot of our storytelling. We know talent is evenly distributed in this world, but the opportunities haven't been, so the best part of my job is really just redistributing opportunities, knowing that's going to actually drive our business forward and drive innovation in our storytelling. And so I'm personally excited about that. I'm, by nature, an optimist. So I feel like these may be our greatest days.

KCRW: I think about some conversations we've had, when you told me you got to talk to people that you work with, clients and say, listen, this is what you have to do. This is who you have to be. So much of this is about trying to make their interests enlightened self-interest.

Haubegger: I'm not a big fan of the word diversity. I even think it's being used incorrectly all the time. If you thought about a group of 100 Black women, people would call that a diverse crowd around here. And I'm like, No, no, that's a homogenous crowd. That's actually the opposite of what diversity means. But there's a lot of what I would call random acts of diversity in our business, where somebody does kind of a good thing. And I think historically, a lot of the work and the effort around what we now call equity and inclusion has been housed in this philanthropic or charitable bucket. 

If you ask ten CEOs of major corporations or heads of studios, is diversity, equity inclusion, a strategic priority for you, 100% of people would say, yes. But if you go back and you say, well, what is your plan? Or what is your strategy to do that? People say, we're going to try and do a little better. Well, imagine if I ran distribution in Europe, and my boss said, what are you going to do next year? We're going to try and do a little bit better. I'd get fired, right? That's only a goal in a non-business environment. And so I think that applying the same kind of rigor, the same kind of analytics and data, the same kind of investment and energy has to go towards this if you think this is a priority, but that also means taking it out of the philanthropic bucket. I want to make this industry so much more inclusive, because that's how I'm going to win. 

KCRW: So many of these businesses want to be graded on intention, rather than execution. I can't tell you how many calls I got last year: can you be on this panel or be on this board? No, I'm sick of talking about these things. Because not only is talk cheap, as my grandmother used to say, talk is free. Either you put two Black people in these rooms, where the decisions can be made, or two people of color, or two nonbinary people, or nothing's going to change.

Haubegger: When I came over, I didn't have any HR background, and I was recruited by John Stankey. He's now the CEO of AT&T, but he had been the CEO of Warner Media, and they recruited me for this role. And I said: pass. I don't really know anything about HR. I don't really know that much about philanthropy. This had been where these efforts have lived, but they encouraged me to sit down and meet with John Stankey. 

If you've ever heard his rather dry perspective and sense of humor, I sit down, and he says, You know, I understand you don't want this job. And I was like, No, because I think you're thinking about this wrong. You're thinking about this as charitable or philanthropic, and you're not thinking about this as an audience opportunity. I said, let's assume you've underdelivered these audiences by like two points a year, let's look at the cumulative value of that over a five-year period. Just in one category alone, it's a billion dollars to your bottom line. If you don't reach everybody, shame on you. 

One of the funny things to me is that Hollywood somehow thought it was going to be a global competitor, when we largely drew from a very narrow talent pool on the westside of LA. That is just not going to be a human capital strategy.

KCRW: Something that you and I have talked about a number of times is that schism between progressive minded people who think one way about the way the world should be and another way about the way art should be. If you think about the level of invention that's come from all the marginalized communities that then seep into the mainstream and change it while these other artistic communities really act as de facto underground economies.

Haubegger: You have to recognize that technology has accelerated the emergence of so many voices. The fact that you can tell a story on your phone, the fact that your stand-up could end up on YouTube, even though you're in a garage in Wisconsin. 

One of the few bright things that emerged this last semester is we had interns in Detroit. There were all these invisible gates around our business: that you had to be able to move to Los Angeles, you had to somehow make a living wage. The idea of getting an intern from a school in Detroit was a really, really tough proposition because there were plenty of talented people locally. But we don't have that perspective in the room much less the perspective from Islamabad or the perspective from all of these other places that we need to to hear from because we're now competing on a global stage.

I think one of the hardest things is that if you have benefitted from a system that was exclusionary, and you rose through it, and we tell ourselves that we've had this meritocracy, I think one of the hardest things is that if you actually start seeing this talent, whether it was in Jakarta, or it was in the Southside of Chicago, or whether it was in even East LA, which is a million miles from our business in some ways. We tell ourselves that there's this meritocracy. I got this job because I'm the best. Well, if you never had to really compete with the world, you may not be the best. You may have been the luckiest; you may have been the closest, but you may not be the best. One of the things that we struggle with as an industry is that if I have to consider that I might not have been the best, that I might have actually been privileged in some way, then that's gonna shake my worldview. But like I said, talent is evenly distributed across this planet, but the opportunities haven't been.

KCRW: I'm not sure who said it, Balzac or Lil' Wayne, but you know, greed is the purest of motives. And if that's true, what you're saying is that this business has been systematically leaving money on the table for generations. 

Haubegger: The truth is, as human beings, I think we often choose comfort over success or over improvement. I'd rather be comfortable. I'd rather hire the person who reminds me of myself or the person who's got the same background I do or who is maybe not going to challenge me. There's a lot of conventional wisdom in our business that is a lot more convention than wisdom. 

Our company made "Crazy Rich Asians” a couple of years ago, and the thing that was so shocking for people is that they knew that the Asian American audience would show up, and it did. But the truth is, most people who went to see that movie on a successful opening weekend were not Asian American. They're people who like rom-coms, right? Well, if you like rom-coms a lot, you haven't seen a lot of innovation in the genre in many years. By the way, most of the audience for "Black Panther" was not Black. My other favorite: a slight majority of the people who went to see "Wonder Woman" its opening weekend were men.  

What we do in our business matters. I think you can talk about economic justice and access to jobs and capital, but if you integrate our business more fully, it actually changes the kinds of storytelling we do, and the storytelling we do matters. You know, we decide in this town what a hero looks like, and what a villain looks like. There are 7 billion people on the planet; most of them will never come to the United States, but boy, they see our movies and our television.

KCRW: The things that make an impact on the outer circles of a popular culture, and then are looted by the people who are in buildings, like the ones that you are trying to shake up. That's a lesson that has proven itself to be the case, time and time again, be it tagging or graffiti. All these are things that have been flavored by cultures outside of the mainstream. Does it scare you sometimes that these things are going to be cyclical? 

Haubegger: Do you remember when Ricky Martin was on the Grammys, and everyone's like, oh my God, and I was like, everything's gonna be different. In my head, I was like, that's it. We're done. We've made it. 

When I was in grad school, I wrote a business plan for Latina. Part of it was because the 1990 census had come out and there was a cover of Time magazine and it had Edward James on it. But the headline was like, this is going to be the decade of the Hispanic, which apparently got rescheduled twice, at least, but I think, like all progress, it's not a straight line. It's a jagged line. And I think that every time you see it pushed forward, you feel it being clawed back because it is threatening or scary to those who had been in control of culture, yet it is also how we drive art and how we drive innovation and how we drive culture forward. But to your concern about excluded communities being co-opted, I think there's a lot of people who are struggling to get their rent paid who are like: co-opt me, man. I'd love to sell out. 

KCRW: I remember when Tito Puente died, and when Muhammed Ali died. You were talking about Ricky Martin, but there's no Ricky Martin without Tito Puente, and, to some extent, probably without Muhammad Ali, who said you can be your ethnicity for the world, not try to be two different people, and not have to code switch in the entertainment world. Tito Puente, whose rhythm, whose count changed everything from classical music to disco in this country. When those people passed and you turned on the TV, you saw that people reporting on it and talking about how they changed the flavor of the stew were still white people.

Haubegger: I got to meet Tito Puente, and for me, it was like, there's a giant still roaming the earth. When I grew up in the ‘70s in Texas, there were three Latinos on television. There was "Chico and the Man" that ran from like, '76 to '78. Periodically Charo would show up on "The Love Boat," and guest star. And then like once a year, the NBC affiliate in Houston would air "Westside Story," which is a movie from 1963. 

When you walk through the room, and you notice anyone who looks like you on the television, when there's so few, you're like [gasps] because that person represents the possibility in all of us, and so I think it is incredibly difficult for other people to imagine the outsized impact that that person has on us. But also, you may know Tito Puente's work because it was subsumed and incorporated and synthesized into someone else's work that you heard in disco later on, right? You don't know that he changed the rhythm and the pulse of what we listened to, but what a rich thing if I can tell you that story.



Rebecca Mooney