Kid shows promote diversity, adult shows don't
- From the LA Times, 4/1/02:
Casting a Wider Net for Kids
Characters of greater diversity signal Hollywood's attempts to speak to
today's young viewers.
By LORENZA MUNOZ, TIMES STAFF WRITER
When executives at Nickelodeon put out a casting call in the mid-1990s for
a kids' mystery show, "The Mystery Files of Shelby Wink," one young actress
impressed them more than any other tryout--Irene Ng. But there was a
hitch--Ng is Asian American and the show was written for an Anglo girl and
What might have seemed a problem for some companies Nickelodeon approached
from the opposite direction--they saw Ng's ethnicity as a bonus. Because
she was the best actress executives auditioned, they changed the role
around her--the character became Shelby Woo. They rewrote the script and
cast veteran actor Pat Morita ("The Karate Kid") as her grandfather.
"When we found Irene, we said we have to change this and how could we do
this?'" said Paula Kaplan, senior vice president of talent for Nickelodeon.
"What we do differently here is that we are open-minded and try to be
flexible as to who is right for the part.... It's more work, but people get
excited about seeing great acting," she said. "And we want to make sure we
are reflecting what is in a kid's life. The world is a big melting pot now,
and what we do is try to reflect their lives." The way things are usually
done--at least with big studio movies--is the reverse. For example, the
main character in John Ridley's original story for "Three Kings" was
written for a black lead. The studio recast it and made George Clooney the
lead, with Ice Cube as one of the co-stars. But in the world of kids and
young adults in 2002, diversity is not a strange concept, at least in the
major cities. Companies that cater to this market are creating shows and
casting talent that mirrors an increasingly multiethnic America.
"It's not like a very clear-cut decision was made," said Nina Jacobson,
president of Buena Vista Motion Picture Group, which comprises the Walt
Disney, Touchstone and Hollywood film labels. But she said the company
recognized "our movies should reflect the reality of our cultural world."
Buena Vista's just-released "The Rookie" bears out that reality, with young
actors Jay Hernandez, Rick Gonzalez and Angelo Spizzirri co-starring with
Dennis Quaid, a West Texas high school teacher who tries out for a major
league baseball team.
MTV and Nickelodeon have forged a path with movies such as "Clockstoppers"
(which opened Friday), last year's comedy concert film "The Original Kings
of Comedy" and "Save the Last Dance," which included an interracial love
story and made more than $100 million in its U.S. theatrical release. Even
Miramax's specialty division, Dimension Films, found itself in diverse
territory with last year's hit family film, "Spy Kids." Directed by Robert
Rodri guez and starring Antonio Banderas, Carla Gugino, Alexa Vega and
Daryl Sabara, "Spy Kids" made more than $150 million worldwide. It was a
no-brainer to produce a sequel, and "Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams"
comes out Aug. 7. All of the original stars have returned for the sequel.
"Kids don't see diversity," said Bob Weinstein, head of Dimension. "They
just see Carmen and Juni"--the title characters.
Weinstein was always confident Rodriguez would deliver a solid
action-adventure movie. The Austin-based director wanted to make the cast
Latino; at another company, that detail could have easily been "homogenized
to be white, like in the days of 'Home Alone,'" Weinstein said, referring
to the 1990 Macaulay Culkin blockbuster.
One of the reasons some major movies have lacked diversity is the studios'
dependence on the international market for a big chunk of their profits. On
the most expensive movies, risk-averse studios try to hedge their bets with
stars who are reliable export commodities.
Kids' movies are produced in the low- to mid-budget range ($20 million to
$40 million, or less), and with those budgets, it's not difficult to make
money in the domestic market. Most studios do not expect to rake in a lot
of money overseas with these films.
"The movies we are making are modestly budgeted," said Weinstein. "Spy
Kids" made the bulk of its money "in the American marketplace, but we are
building the international marketplace for the second one."
Hollywood is a trendsetter in fashion, style and many other areas, Jacobson
says, and it is the studios' role to embrace diversity.
"These things become self-fulfilling," she continued. "If you make a great
pop movie, then people around the world will want to see it. I don't think
you will get punished for making the right creative choices."
It's not as though the kids' movies are not moneymakers. It's a bottom-line
business, and the smarter companies know their audience.
According to a Nickelodeon December 2000 study and the National Council of
La Raza, children are more ethnically diverse than the rest of the
population. By 2020, nearly half of all American kids will be nonwhite.
Currently, nonwhite kids watch more television per week than white
children. African American children average 26.7 hours a week, Latinos 21.4
hours and white children 19.3. No statistics were available for Asian
At Nickelodeon, the Latino-themed series "Taina" and "The Brothers Garcia"
have seen dramatic ratings gains. "Taina," which premiered in 2001, saw its
ratings more than double in its second year. Ratings for "The Brothers
Garcia," the top-rated live-action show on Nickelodeon, grew even more
sharply in its second season.
"Good business has always flowed with what is good for kids," said Albie
Hecht, president of film and television for Nickelodeon. "We want to
reflect what is in a kid's world. And what is in their world is an enormous
amount of diversity that they accept."Nickelodeon is diverse not only in
terms of casting, but also in terms of nurturing talent behind the camera.
The company has an internship program for minority writers that pays them a
salary they can live on. They also have an executive mentoring program.
Even their animated shows--such as the "Rugrats" series and, more recently,
"Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius"--include diversity. Jimmy Neutron's best
friend, Sheen, was voiced by the stand-up comedian Jeff Garcia. In the
"Rugrats" series, one of the central families is of mixed ethnicity.
"Rugrats--the Movie" grossed more than $150 million worldwide in 1998, and
the follow-up "Rugrats in Paris" in 2000 grossed $100 million.
But the key to diversity, these executives and others stress, is not
allowing it to become tokenism. Casting calls are open to anyone, they say,
and roles are given to the best actors, regardless of race. The characters'
race and ethnicity are woven into the story.
"It's an added bonus," said Christina Vidal, star of "Taina," a modern-day
"Fame" for "tweens" (a relatively new demographic category, targeting kids
between the ages of 9 and 14).
Ethnicity "is not thrown in everyone's face--it's not like there are
subtitles and rice and beans on every show," said Vidal, who is Puerto
Rican. "It gives everyone a chance to see Latin people in a different
light--like 'they are just like everybody else.' Once in a while we add
some flavor and culture so people can see that, but it is not so far left
field that they can't relate to it."
To find such talent, Nickelodeon and MTV cast wide nets. They go to high
school drama departments, art schools with diverse populations and
so-called boutique casting shops that focus on minority talent. Hiring new
talent often involves risk, but Hecht says that so far, the gambles have
One such gamble was 28-year-old Paula Garces, the co-star of Nickelodeon's
"Clockstoppers," an action-fantasy film released by Paramount. Garces, who
was born in New York's Spanish Harlem, was raised in Colombia, her mother's
Her role in the film was not originally written for a Latina, but her
audition, in an open call, caught casting executives' eye.
"There is nothing stereotypical about me at all," said Garces, whose
character, Francesca de la Cruz, is Venezuelan. "For the first time I
didn't have to play a character with the stupid accent or anything
[negative] against Latinos. It was just wonderful.