Veterans in Hollywood -- Time for a Gut-Check

Veteran's Day is a good time to ask how it can be that so many TV shows and movies find inspiration in the sacrifice of our servicemen and women -- and yet find so little opportunity to hire Veterans to tell these stories?

Between The Last Ship and three shows in the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) franchise- plus movies like American Sniper and Captain Phillips -- most Americans could be forgiven for assuming that any professional writers, producers and directors who happen to also be Veterans would be in the highest possible demand in the entertainment industry. Surprisingly, this is not the case. Currently, close to zero of the more than 80 leadership jobs -- producers, writers, directors or executives -- on the NCIS franchise or The Last Ship are filled by Veterans. If this doesn't completely floor you, let me put this into context.

(Full-disclosure: I've written on staff for both NCIS and The Last Ship.)

Imagine if there were currently three shows about Howard University -- and no African-Americans on the creative staff. Probably wouldn't fly, right?

Now imagine a show about the Suffrage Movement, but with no women on the staff? Yep, that would be a travesty.

And yet that is the precise situation right now for Veterans in Hollywood.

So why is this that Veterans are not represented? Are Veterans hated by Hollywood types? Are Veterans incapable of operating at the level required? Nope and nope. The truth is much more banal -- it has to do with where Veterans spent their 20s -- or where they didn't spend their 20s. Most successful Hollywood careers begin with low-level jobs in the mailroom or on-set during the freewheeling post-college years. Friendships and networks are forged that power these civilians through the rest of their careers. Unfortunately for former servicemen and women, these are the years when they were most likely deployed overseas.

The Department of Defense shares some blame for the lack of Veteran writers, director and producers. To understand why this is, you must compare how things work on the writing staffs of The Good Wife with the staff of The Last Ship. The executive producer Michelle King told NPR earlier this year that she has three writers on staff who happen to be ex-lawyers because it's crucial to have that voice of authenticity in the room and the show. Meanwhile, while The Last Ship has hired a few Veteran writers in the past, there's no need to for consistent participation because the Defense Department, at taxpayer expense, provides up to twelve active-duty personnel to the show to be story, tech, set and logistics liaisons. Adding insult to injury, the Department of Defense provides hundreds of millions of dollars of production value to the studio productions every year -- without even bothering to ask the studios if they plan to hire any Veterans! Trust me, this wouldn't happen in the aerospace industry.

The good news is that this dynamic can easily be improved. Right now, there is a large, organized pool of Veteran talent available to work -- many of whom are professional members of the Writers Guild, the Director's Guild and the Producer's guild. And the Industry knows how to hire Veterans. Lifetime's Army Wives is a classic example of a show that did it right -- executive producer Jeff Melvoin had as many as four Veterans at a time writing for the show during the seven seasons it ran.

There's also a strong tradition of Veterans succeeding in show business -- from Merian Cooper who wrote and produced King Kong to Clint Eastwood who directed American Sniper, and although he is no longer working, Donald Bellisario, creator of NCIS and JAG. Because of these pioneers and others, there is genuine good will for Veterans in the Entertainment Industry.

So, what can be done?

During the past 18 months, a cross-section of Veterans, plus Industry and civic leaders, convened the Veterans in Entertainment Working Group (VIEWg) to better understand the problems Veterans must confront in Entertainment. We discovered that Veteran diversity in Hollywood can be solved with a few smart, cost-free policy tweaks in California and a few minor changes to rules governing Pentagon/Hollywood interactions. My hope is that the leaders in these areas will tune into this issue and adjust the way they operate so that more talented Veterans participate in the art, craft and business of entertainment. Here is what you can do:

If you run the Pentagon:
  • Require production companies that seek to use our taxpayers' ships, planes, tanks and bases to hire a certain percentage of Veterans in the writing, producing, and directing while filling crew-member and actor positions with Veterans wherever possible.

  • Adopt strict rules preventing the Department of Defense from any participation in the Industry that displaces private sector professionals. The must put an immediate end to the free active duty technical and story advisors available to shows like The Last Ship.
  • Meet with VIEWg to work through common sense business practices that allow the DoD to meet objectives while respecting the prerogative of Veterans working in the Industry.
  • If you're in government -- California and Los Angeles:
    • Adopt Veteran Hiring Incentives as part of the330 million dollar annual subsidy to the Film and Television Industry. A preliminary concept for this has already been endorsed by the City of Los Angeles Film Commission and the Mayor's Office.
  • Convene a round-table in conjunction with VIEWg to gather representatives from the studios, guilds, unions to address the problem of Veteran employment.
  • If you run the Studios:
    • Insist that Veterans be on staff above and below the creative line -- both in the Writer's Room and on set. This is not a "below-the-line problem" solved by hiring Vets as truck-drivers (but that's a good idea too). More Vets on your shows will make your show more authentic and thus better. Some shows, such as The Last Ship, do hire many Veterans at the on-set "craftsman" levels, but why so light on Veteran directors, writers or producers?
    If you're the audience:
    • Write to the studios and networks, asking them to be transparent about how many Veterans they are hiring on the shows that you love -- especially the ones that have veteran or military characters or settings.

    The percentage of Veterans working in Hollywood has never been lower, yet there are scores of eager veterans with a lot to share who are kept out. Hollywood's shrinking population of veterans include filmmakers like Oliver Stone (Platoon) and Clint Eastwood (American Sniper). Who will replace them when they're gone?