‘I Don’t Want Diversity Programs to Be Charity Cases,’ Says Hillman Grad CEO

One year ago, Hillman Grad Productions (“The Chi,” “Queen & Slim,” “The Forty Year Old Version,” “Twenties”), which was founded by Lena Waithe and partner Rishi Rajani with a mission to amplify diversity, signed a mega-contract with Warner Bros. Television Group, coming from an overall two-year deal with Amazon Studios. The company’s first project, announced at the time of the deal, would be a drama series based on the 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams.”

In April of 2022, Discovery closed its $43-billion acquisition of AT&T’s Warner Media, and in the deal’s wake David Zaslav, president and CEO of the newly named Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD), came under fire for slashing the 40-year-old Warner Bros. Television Workshop, often a conduit for diverse talent to enter the business. WBD quickly backed off that plan after industry and public backlash, but the company’s commitment to diversity remains in question as Zaslav seeks to find more than $3 billion in savings in 2023.

Despite industry concerns, Rajani, 30, told TheWrap for this week’s Office With a View that WBD has been “wildly supportive” of Hillman Grad’s goals. “Nothing has really affected us as far as the cuts and those things that have come along,” Rajani said. “Great content endures, regardless of who the buyers are, what the circumstances are, how many companies are coming together and under one umbrella. To me, that’s the mantra.”

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Rajani added that breaking new voices into Hollywood must be done “in a way that’s actually commercially and financially viable. I don’t want diversity programs to be the charity cases of studios. I don’t think that helps anybody, really. We want to do things that make business sense as well, and that people see and watch and consume and get excited about — and become the next series or hit show.”

Read on as Rajani discusses his company’s dedication to diversity, what they’re in the market for and where he sees the company going next.

How did you form a partnership with Lena Waithe?
I met Lena probably five and a half years ago. I was working at the time at a company called Studio 8, and I was a younger executive and she came in to pitch… I was a really big fan of her writing and had read an [original] version of “The Chi”… And a few months later I ended up getting a call from Lena’s manager and he said, “Listen, Lena is looking for someone to run her company, are you interested?” And I was like, oh my God, because I was such a fan of her work.

But I also liked the idea of building something from the ground up, that was really exciting for me. We ended up meeting at [a coffee shop] in Silver Lake, and I came in with all these file folders of directors lists, and writers lists, and I actually came in with a stack of books that I thought she should option. I [had] this master plan of business ideas and kind of spread it out on the coffee table. I think she liked my spirit and energy, and she called me that night and hired me. This was in early 2018 and I officially started at the company in May or June of that year.

Master of None Season 3 Lena Waithe
Master of None/Netflix

Did you and Lena share a commitment to diversity from Day 1?
Totally. One of the things that I loved so much in that very first meeting with Lena [is] she said to me: “I always knew I was going to win an Emmy. I didn’t know I was going to win an Emmy this early in my career [in 2018 Waithe became the first Black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Writer for a Comedy series for her work on Netflix’s “Master of None”]. So she’s like, I want to win, but I want to earn that award every day by bringing people through the door with me.

And that, to me, was an incredibly resonant moment, because what I had been so hoping to do and aspiring to do was work with filmmakers that quite frankly looked like me and were from my generation and had something to say, that came from truly disenfranchised backgrounds across race and sexuality and geographical location and financial status and disability.

You say you both thought Hollywood was approaching diversity in an inauthentic way.
Yeah. It felt like there was this “diversity Renaissance,” but still in an incredibly narrow, monolithic interpretation, saying there’s only one way to be Black, there’s only one way to be brown, right? I mean, if I get one more arranged marriage script, I’m going to scream. And I think Lena [who identifies as queer] was feeling the same way, that every queer story she got was a “coming out” story.

OK, for all those wanna-bes out there with pitches, what is Hillman Grad looking for?

I am always incredibly optimistic that whenever I open a new script, I’m going to love it. But for me, it’s gotta make me feel something. For us, it has a to have a reason for existing… Can you show us a POV that we’ve never seen before? Can you humanize an individual beyond their otherness?

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What do you see as the next step?
I want us to talk about things on a bigger scope and scale and canvas. I want us to be making big genre movies that happen to feature Black and brown protagonists. I want to make big swings in TV and film and across all our mediums. I grew up on “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” I think there are times when a lot of “diversity driven” production companies can be relegated to lower budgets. That’s the next step, for us to get the budgets that our filmmakers deserve, build thing on a larger scale.

You started with Hillman Grad at age 26, and now you are 30. What advice would you have given your slightly-younger self?
I think in this town you can feel really small, and feel like you are walking into rooms where people know a lot more than you. I tell all of our mentees to look to one another, network with one another. Build one another up, read each other’s scripts. I think I’m so blessed to have such a good community in this town, and people that I’ve trusted and come up with and work with in a lot of different ways. It helps you feel less small.

This interview has been edited for style and length.

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