This is a little bit of a different article than what we usually post. Far beyond our speculative pieces or reviews, this article has emerged from an experience I’ve had. Or, rather, my experience running an outlet as a POC who was born Muslim, with a Muslim name. If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen that I – not so subtly, might I add – made a few tweets about Disney’s handling of UK writers of colour as far as the screening, press conference and invitations went for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. The back and forth I exchanged with Disney about this, which has resulted in them apologising and allowing us to do a giveaway of some merch provided by them, highlighted an issue that I’ve felt affected me from the moment I started this adventure: discrimination. Specifically, racism and Islamophobia.
What causes institutional discrimination?
We hear it all the time, that the critics are white men, and Brie Larson said that all she wants is more seats at the table. While that’s great, and something Disney has definitely done (you can tell that by the way the company gives out screener access), those seats and opportunities are going to more people but not necessarily different people.
One of the ways that I experienced this was when I emailed Disney to cover Ms Marvel. The publicist and Disney’s external PR agency both seemed extremely keen to get me, a Muslim writer based in the UK, to cover Marvel’s first Disney+ series about a Muslim, which was also written by a Muslim from the UK. It seemed absolutely perfect, I couldn’t think of a better title for me to cover. Then, we fast forward about a month and a half, a peer of mine reached out to me excited to have some interviews lined up for Ms Marvel. I hadn’t heard anything back since that initial “keen” email, so I dropped my rep a line and asked if talent opportunities were being organised. She informed me interviews were only being organised right now for “long-lead press”. Bear in mind, I’ve only been doing this for a year so I had no idea what on earth “long-lead press” was. I know now. It’s the industry term for print or broadcast media, e.g. Empire, Variety and, apparently, Zavvi.
Aside from the fact that my peer is freelance and, in their work, hasn’t written for any long-lead press, that term in particular had confirmed to me what I already knew: not all press is created equally, nor are they treated as such.
If you look at the heads of those three companies I mentioned earlier, whilst Variety’s editor-in-chief is a woman, she is still a white woman. This isn’t to undermine her accomplishments, it’s more illustrative than anything else. Historically, white people have had the opportunities to venture into journalism and writing because, historically, those are careers that require:
- Money, which is needed to…
- Live in a big city, which then leads to…
- Networking opportunities, thus creating…
- Industry contacts.
If you started doing this in the 70s or 80s, where print media was the only option, of course your outlet would be considered long-lead press. The people of colour that are currently in those high positions, none of them started the outlets themselves. Mary Margaret, from Entertainment Weekly, has just left her position as the very first female EIC for the company. The company, of course, was founded by a white man named David Morris.
If you bear that in mind, the recipe for success in this industry has historically been whiteness, which then leads to the money, the location, the networking, the industry contacts. You keep at that for a little while and you can build your audience. When you build an audience, people are more likely to trust you. A 2020 review of 22 studies from the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that “bandwagon heuristics” was a factor influential in determining someone’s credibility, i.e. if more people believe in something, or – in this instance – have a following, external people are more likely to believe them.
How does institutional discrimination affect people?
In many ways, if you’re white and part of a majority here, it doesn’t. On the face of it, it may not seem like it affects me. We’ve got decent site traffic, we’re part of a network of non-mainstream outlets, we’ve got a good following on socials if you bear in mind our different writers. But, before all of that, getting to this position was tough. The constant ignoring by PR reps, the lack of communication when new releases would be available to review. As an EIC, all I can do is apologise to my writers because they (generally*) feel the effects of studios’ implicit bias against me, a brown Muslim named Muhammed.
What I think people have to remember is that circumstances like this don’t arise out of nowhere. My name, my skin colour and my religion are all because of where I was born, South Africa. When I moved to the UK, it was because my parents got a job on the Isle of Man. It was the first and only opportunity to move out so my sister and I could have a decent shot in life, and I’m forever grateful for it. They never considered moving closer to London as they grew more accustomed to the quiet life, so I never lived in a city where screenings were held. I couldn’t develop a love for the theatrical experience from a young age because the cinemas on the Isle of Man were, and continue to be, horrendous! Once I moved away for university, it was a different story, but that’s studying – not three years of cinemas, though in my case it would have been five, but I digress.
The point I’m trying to make here is that these opportunities that my white peers have, they’ve emerged because they grew up in an environment that enabled them the freedom to do such things, whether it’s hopping on a tube or hopping on a train, they could get to these screenings with ease. As they attended more of those, they met other white people who would be networking contacts because, again, it’s mainly white people at these screenings. They’re able to meet the PR reps for a quick coffee because they’re only a 20 minute train or tube journey away, or they can attend a screening on short notice because they’ve got the money to be able to do that. So, while it may seem like Disney, or Netflix, or Warner aren’t being discriminatory in how they treat press because everyone gets the same chance, it’s not that simple. In my experience, not even that’s true anyway.
Josh, my co-founder, was asked by Disney back in August if he wanted to interview some Pixar talent. He was approached by Disney, but I’ve always made it clear that I am available for interview. I don’t hold it against Josh at all, the thing that affected me about it was that they skipped over me and went straight to him. There was also a point where he was receiving automatic screeners for Disney titles. If you don’t know, most services require you to request screeners on a per-title-basis rather than receive them automatically. While it’s great that he had that access, it was frustrating me because the only difference between Josh and myself was skin colour and name. Josh hasn’t written for any other outlets, he hadn’t been to any screenings. It just came out of nowhere.
At that point, I had stopped covering Disney for some time, I needed a bit of a breather and I had just started my role as a trainee lawyer, but it did affect me to the point where it’s compounded now. Combine that with the ignoring experience from Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and the constant “your interest has been noted” with no follow up from them, it’s a lot.
How can we fix this?
By “we”, I’m not talking about you, unless you reading this right now are from any of the major studios and/or services, or represent any of the major studios and/or services from a PR perspective. I’ve got some ideas that I hope will give these studios an opportunity to learn and to treat diverse press better than they currently do.
1. Reach out to writers of colour
This is something so simple, so effective and, yet, so difficult for people to do. Especially studios. The bottom line is, because of everything I mentioned above, it’s likely that writers of colour aren’t signed on to write for long-lead press, they’d be short-lead. It’s even likelier that they’d have their own outlets. But, if they’re competing against outlets with a larger audience made up of primarily white people, are the studios ensuring that their content goes out to as many readers as possible or to as many individuals as possible? The likelihood is that if someone subscribes to comicbook.com, they also follow The Direct. Or, if someone reads Variety, they’ll also read Deadline. There’s a huge intersection in audience there so, while the numbers of people looking at the coverage may appear to be high, the number of people who read it will most likely be restricted to those with the highest follower count.
When people of colour (or writers for outlets that are run by people of colour) have to reach out for every single opportunity, it gets time-consuming. It’s sort of like applying for a job, you fire off about fifteen applications on Indeed and receive twelve rejections, two interviews and one ignore. Whereas our white peers don’t have that as the primary way they engage with PR and publicists, they’re reached out to. Why? Not exactly because they’re white, but it’s because of the opportunities that being white has granted them. That’s the white privilege aspect to it, and studios can balance it a bit by making a conscious choice to reach out to writers of colour.
2. Reply, even if it’s a rejection*
In this press network, I’ve had no fewer than ten people ask me if I can draft an email for them to request press access to a title. It’s something I do on behalf of the whole team at Streamr because I know how to write emails, I know how to talk with people. Your response to that may be, “Clearly you don’t, if you’re not getting these opportunities,” but those people that asked me for those requests are all white and it worked for them. They were able to get the meetings they wanted, the screeners they wanted, even the interviews they wanted.
I can craft probably the best email in the world and it may not even receive a response. It’ll be a five-day-follow-up and a one-liner saying, “We’ve noted your interest and will follow up when we have more information,” but, and this might surprise you, they never do. I know, I’m shocked too. In the Doctor Strange incident that happened this past month, I was invited for a press conference and I replied with a positive “Yes”. I was then completely ignored by the PR rep that reached out to me, only for me to reach out to Disney this week and resolve it all on Friday. This is just one example that I can currently speak about because it’s been resolved, but email Disney UK or South Africa and they’ll tell you that I’ve got a list of unresolved issues that I hope they’re working through as I’m writing this. It’s the same with Netflix, whose reps in the UK (Organic Publicity) will always say, “We’ve noted your interest for TITLE and will circle back to you once these are available,”. But, guess what, they never do. I’ll only find out because embargo has lifted on the title meaning that reviews are out, which means our coverage is severely limited.
Following up and responding are key parts of proper communication, and maybe the case is that they don’t see Streamr as an outlet worth their time to communicate with properly, but I can’t help feeling that it’s a little more layered than that. I can’t help feeling that the negatives of being a POC-run outlet are what’s causing this because of those institutional barriers that are still causing discrimination. Those opportunities to network, build relationships with our peers and the PR reps, those are what’s causing these firms and studios to not think highly of Streamr. Or, rather, think more highly of other writers and outlets.
* a rejection is fine, but please be earnest in working together for future titles by actually making an effort to reach out initially.
3. Make a conscious effort to be inclusive
A friend of mine attended a screening for West Side Story and was the only person of colour there. That’s an issue. It’s all well and good inviting people of colour to your screenings, but actually getting them there is another thing. Otherwise, it’s performative. It’s the same with screeners (digital versions of titles, primarily for streaming services). It’s fine to give access to the writers of colour who ask, but it’s another thing to actually seek out these writers who (if they’re anything like me) have maintained a professional, polite and courteous relationship with the studios and their reps (for the most part, excluding last week).
I come back to Ms Marvel, where I reached out and explained how important it would be for a Muslim EIC to cover this title in a more meaningful way, and I heard nothing back until I had to follow up because my white peers were being asked by the PR agencies if they wanted interviews. Disney and other studios have the people in their email lists, they’ve got the names and all it would take are a few quick drags and drops of those writers into the “white list”. Or, if that’s too integrated for the reps, send out a personal email.
When it comes down to it, this institutional discrimination thing isn’t an easy topic to talk about. A lot of people like myself have spent the past few years relearning the culture, the heritage and the life they’ve had to fight so hard to suppress in order to make it through school. As we grow older and embrace these aspects of our lives, it shows in how we write, how we engage with people, and how we move forward to build lasting legacies for people like us.
I’m not asking for a seat at the table, I’m asking for an invite to the party.