When Franklin Leonard took to Twitter on Tuesday night to decry a recent film casting, Ben Stiller shot back in a spirited conversation about whether people got Hollywood gigs on the basis of their abilities or if nepotism played a role.
The Black List founder commented on a casting story Deadline broke about Hopper Penn, son of Academy Award-winning actor Sean Penn, signing on to star in a short film from Destry Spielberg and Owen King, also children of Hollywood royalty (director Steven Spielberg and author Stephen King, respectively).
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Leonard posted bluntly, “Hollywood’s a meritocracy, right?” Accompanying the text was a photo split of the successful Hollywood artists’ progeny.
Though Leonard walked back a bit by admitting, “In fairness, this is apparently a short film,” Ben Stiller, son of the late comedic actors Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, shot back, “Too easy @franklinleonard. People, working, creating. Everyone has their path. Wish them all the best.”
Leonard expressed his feelings had no negative bearings, but wanted to highlight a persisting problem in Hollywood.
A recent UCLA report showed that though there are vast improvements in diversity in front of the camera, the same story does not exist on the other side of the lens. UCLA Dean of Social Sciences Darnell Hunt said, “There has not been the same level of progress behind the camera. Most notably in the executive suite, there has been very little change since we began compiling data five years ago. That’s very telling, particularly in light of our current racial reckoning.”
“I do, without fail, but I also think it’s important that we acknowledge those paths,” Leonard said.
Stiller responded, “Yes. Just speaking from experience, and I don’t know any of them, I would bet they all have faced challenges. Different than those with no access to the industry. Show biz as we all know is pretty rough, and ultimately is a meritocracy.”
Franklin soundly refuted any claim that one’s entrance into Hollywood’s highest levels are based on one’s abilities. Leonard asked if that was the case, “how do you explain the utter lack of diversity behind the camera? Lack of merit?”
Though Stiller conceded diversity is still a large problem, the Tropic Thunder star asserted, “Untalented people don’t really last if they get a break because of who they are or know or are related to.”
Stiller’s comment led Leonard to double-down on his take and re-explain the stats. “Fundamentally disagree, and again numbers don’t lie,” Leonard said. “Based only on the exclusion of other folks, statistically speaking, roughly 1/3 of the industry has their job not because of merit, but because of other factors (who they know, colonial legacy, sexism, whatever).”
Leonard cheekily added, “We both know plenty of unqualified people who manage to stay employed for reasons other than their talent, though both of us have enough decorum not to name names.”
In a separate reply thread, Leonard expressed his continued belief that successful players in Hollywood are blind to their born circumstances. Leonard wrote, “Hollywood folks tend to believe that it’s a pure meritocracy and their success is an indication of their merit alone.”
Stiller did not take the off-hand remark kindly and fired back, “Wow. Really? I totally owe a huge debt to my folks and in no way have said I didn’t. Why make broad generalizations? You argument about diversity is very sound and I agreed with it.”
After a few exchanges, Leonard wanted to lay the argument at rest and have them agree to the central tenet of the discussion: Hollywood’s lack of diversity behind the camera is related to how familial relationships in the industry dictate job opportunity.
Stiller’s last comment seemed to express some concession to Leonard’s main point that Hollywood remains a club of insiders.
Destry responded to both Stiller and Leonard, in a now-deleted tweet, “I am just a young aspiring female filmmaker who admires the art of cinema. People can argue nepotism, but I know deep down that I worked hard to get where I am and it wasn’t easy. Beyond proud of this film and proud of the team it took to make it.”
She later clarified on her page, “I acknowledge that i was born with privilege! I own that through and through! I make it my mission to bring new talent into the industry & give opportunities to artists of all backgrounds. No one should be left out because of the connections they dont have.”
Stiller and Leonard’s debate eventually made it over to The View on Thursday where co-hosts each gave their own take on the situation. Stiller’s remarks did not go over well online, where users expressed discontent for Stiller’s opinions.
Concluding the entire discussion, Leonard tweeted a final thread where he posed the same question that started this inquiry and his well wishes for any creative endeavors.
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