The Standout Who Won’t Sit By
Bringing diverse voices to the industry is a mission for CAA’s Christy Haubegger. Sure, it’s socially responsible, but it’s also just good business.
Joe Scarnici/Getty Images
When it comes to inclusion, lots of industry folks talk a good game. Christy Haubegger is all about action.
As head of multi-cultural business development at CAA (a job created for her), she has free rein to address the ways and whys of exclusion — and to counter them. Her list of successes is impressive. Since she joined CAA in 2005, the agency's diverse client list has grown 1,400 percent, from 23 to more than 500 (not including sports figures).
She's just getting warmed up.
"My life's work, I think, is to try to change who gets to tell stories, and what stories get told," she says. "It's not going to take people outside with pickets and signs to make the industry change. It's going to be the people inside who decide to do things a little differently."
Sitting in a conference room at CAA in Los Angeles, Haubegger considers when she first felt the passion to fight for equality. It starts with her own origin story as a Latina born and raised in Texas.
"I got adopted when I was really young," she says. "I wasn't raised in foster care, so I was very aware of how fortunate I was. And I thought, 'I've been so lucky — I have to do something to impact my community and my world.'"
After graduating early from the University of Texas, she decided law would be the best way to fulfill that mission.
But while attending Stanford Law School, she found a passion for business classes rather than the law. "And I'm not even really sure I was a capitalist," she jokes. "I had taken a class in corporate governance and social responsibility — and I was totally there for the social responsibility part — but I was like, 'I love corporate governance.' It's a weird thing to love. I was completely hooked."
For a class project, she wrote a business plan for a women's magazine aimed at Latinas. "The 1990 census had come out recently. Friends of mine who were black had read their moms' copies of Essence magazine their whole lives. I was like, Duh, of course we should have a magazine; I can't believe that hasn't happened yet."
After graduation, she turned that business plan into a reality. Looking back, Haubegger is grateful she had no idea how hard it would be. But with help from Essence co-founder Ed Lewis, she launched Latina magazine in 1995, putting a rising talent named Jennifer Lopez on the cover. "We thought she might be the next big thing," Haubegger recalls.
After running the magazine in New York for eight years, she felt a desire to move back to the West Coast, and to another calling.
"The reason I started the magazine wasn't just because I loved print — although I do. It's because I wanted to tell our stories. I was yearning to do that in film and television, potentially."
She became a consultant on a small film, Chasing Papi, which led to working on a huge studio picture, Spanglish, with James L. Brooks and his producing partner, Julie Ansell.
"I was this Latina expert they'd heard about," she says, adding that working on the film was "like getting a PhD in filmmaking." But she also learned that the pace of filmmaking didn't suit her. "It's hard to work on one thing for two years. In the magazine business, you have a new product every month."
Like a Goldilocks sworn to social justice, Haubegger found that CAA was just the right fit. she was looking to join an agency to learn more about the business, and they offered to create a role for her.
"I remember getting here and saying to one of the partners, 'So you want me to execute your Latin market strategy, right?' And they were like, 'Oh, yeah, that'd be great!' They hired me without knowing exactly what I would do. The great thing about CAA is they're very good about saying, 'Let's go get the great athlete — they can learn this sport.' It was a huge leap of faith on their part."
And it paid off. Industry pros she'd developed relationships with during her Latina days — including Lopez, Eva Longoria, America Ferrera and Salma Hayek — followed her to CAA to start projects and production companies.
"But one of the things I realized about eight years ago was that I could only do so much," she says. "I can only service so many people. I wanted to figure out, how do we scale this?"
The marketplace was growing exponentially, and she foresaw an insufficient supply of diverse talent for available jobs. So, she began creating strategies to increase diversity at the agency. "In episodic-television directing, people weren't hiring that many women or people of color, but you could see it starting to change."
Networks were starting to recognize the need for inclusion in their writers' rooms. Haubegger knew that if CAA represented more of those writers, "they're going to work a lot — and that became the case."
The agent lineup needed to change, too, "because people sign people for whom they have an affinity or connection or personal passion. There's a really close correlation between the composition of the roster and the composition of the agents."
That still wasn't enough.
"I started realizing, we have a lot of women and people of color that we represent in television who are staff writers, story editors. How are we going to get more of them up the ladder faster? I need more showrunners.
"You can't complain about not having more women or people of color who are showrunners, because you didn't have that many as staff writers 14 years ago. We have to touch every rung of the ladder."
To achieve that, the agency instituted its annual writers' boot camp, a one-day intensive seminar of skill-building workshops and panels for some 100 writers from underrepresented groups. Guest speaker Glen Mazzara (The Shield , The Walking Dead) addressed the industry newbies on how not to get fired, "Because that's your only job," Haubegger points out.
"If you're a first-time staffer, and you've never worked in a writers' room, how do you navigate the politics? How much talking is too much, how much is not enough? How do you deal with being the only one in the room?"
CAA also holds "speed-dating" networking events with producers and executives. "If you're a story editor, I can't get you five network-exec meetings," she notes, "but you can meet five of them in a speed-dating exercise."
Another initiative, Amplify, brings people of color in the industry together with leaders from other sectors for a weekend of community building. "We had Kerry Washington interview Anthony Romero, who runs the ACLU," Haubegger says, adding, "The truth is, we don't have a Latino man running an organization that size in our industry." Yet.
Amplify: Next Gen supports rising leaders of color in the industry, from managers to network executives.
"We have great speakers and panelists. Last year we had [film] producer Mimi Valdes in conversation with chef–producer Roy Choi. Really fun pairings. We do a day of programming on developing your own brand. We want everyone to have the benefit of access, so a lot of the folks who come to Amplify speak at Amplify: Next Gen."
Many of these clients are now halfway up the ladder. To help them climb higher, the agency launched a mentoring program last fall. Thirty-six showrunners agreed to help mid-level writers in a six-month, one-on-one commitment. "We have a curriculum, so every week they talk about a different topic."
At the first mixer, everybody met their assigned partner and the other participants. "We wanted everybody to know each other, because if you're the only one in the room, you want to have that community."
The moral imperative isn't the only force propelling these projects. Using analytics, Haubegger shows that having diverse voices tell diverse stories improves everyone's bottom line.
"I have a great data-science team," she enthuses, "and we built this huge database of films that have been released since 2014. We were able to look at them by budget, by cast composition, by audience composition, by box-office domestic and global — every way you could slice it.
"We showed that [out of] over 600 films, movies that had three or more non-white characters in the first 10 people on the call sheet financially outperformed movies that were overwhelmingly white. Not just domestically. Globally. And at the $100 million level — the high end of our business, which really drives the engine — the difference is more than $100 million in box office on average globally."
So the age-old myths that women can't open films, or Asian audiences don't want to see black stars, can finally be put to rest.
"One of the things I was really excited about was being able to show this to studios," she says, noting that they shouldn't be surprised by the numbers.
"The majority of viewers of Fresh Off the Boat are not Asian. The majority of viewers of black-ish are not black. The fact that our voices can reach all kinds of ears for just that reason — that it's a new take on the family half-hour that we haven't seen yet — is a really big part of driving interest."
As a founding member of Time's Up, Haubegger sees a great deal of overlap between increased inclusion and decreased abuse.
"We said we wanted to level the playing field and get rid of the disparities in power that result in harassment," she says. "If you set out to do that, you need to change everything. You need to change the kinds of stories we tell, you need to change who we attract to the industry, you need to change the culture, you need to change the laws."
Her Time's Up working group focuses on using data to overcome bias, and, she says, "It can be done. The data exists. From my experience doing this with other kinds of diversity, being able to apply this to women is really exciting."
And everyone can be a part of changing the status quo.
"We all have influence and impact," Haubegger says. "What we do is a team sport. We hosted luncheons for casting directors so they could see the data and use it.
"We're trying to support people making inclusive decisions and backing it up with data, as opposed to saying, 'This is the right thing to do.' When you say, 'This is the right thing to do,' it's not sustainable. If you say, 'It's profitable,' it's sustainable."
Casting directors are key to making even the smallest roles more reflective of the real world. "Women are fully half of the United States, and we're not even half of the crowd scenes yet," Haubegger points out. "Women gather as much as anyone else. How many people are participating in that who don't notice or think about it?"
As dedicated as she is to telling diverse stories, and as inventive as her various programs are, Haubegger doesn't think of herself as a creative person. "I got one good idea, which was a magazine," she says. "I don't think I'm going to get another one." Then again, her every act tells a story of inclusion.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 1, 2019