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Hollywood wants to increase diversity with open source

The Academy Software Foundation believes that open source could open doors into the entertainment industry for underrepresented communities. Is it that easy?

A person sitting in front of two computer monitors, animating

Attracting the right talent can still be a challenge, and the Academy Software Foundation believes it can help with those efforts.

Photo: Kunal Bhosle/Flickr

Hollywood has for some time grappled with issues of diversity, inclusion and representation. Now, some of the people who make visual effects for Hollywood's biggest blockbusters believe they have found a way to help: By embracing open source, they want to open up doors for traditionally underrepresented communities.

These efforts are being spearheaded by the Academy Software Foundation, a 2-year-old industry group that has been championing the use of open source in Hollywood. Founded in partnership with the Linux Foundation, the Academy Software Foundation counts studios such as Sony Pictures, Walt Disney Studios, Dreamworks and Netflix as well as tech heavyweights including Amazon, Google Cloud, Apple, AMD and Unity among its members.

Much of the foundation's work has been to take stewardship of existing open-source production technology projects, some of which have been used for movies like "How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World," "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" and "Solo: A Star Wars Story." More recently, though, the ASF also began to become involved in the industry's diversity and inclusion efforts. "It's a big issue, and it is even more so an issue in visual effects communities," said Linux Foundation Marketing Director Emily Olin during an ASF event last week. In other words: Hollywood already lacks diversity; add a white-male-dominated field like tech to the mix, and the problem becomes very obvious.

Sony Pictures Imageworks software engineering architect Larry Gritz lamented during the event that a lack of diversity was holding Hollywood back. "It's a creative industry, and it's one that is consumed by everyone," Gritz said. "We're missing some of the talent that we need to do the best things."

Many companies across tech and entertainment have in recent months committed to improving their hiring practices in the wake of calls for racial justice that have followed the killing of George Floyd by police. However, attracting the right talent can still be a challenge, and the ASF believes it can help with those efforts. "We do sit in a very unique position to be able to do that," said Industrial Light & Magic head Rob Bredow, who sits on the foundation's governing board.

The foundation's main argument for using open source as a way to increase diversity is an interesting one, and could easily be applied to other industries as well. In many cases, hiring still very much relies on an applicant's biography, higher education credentials and the ability to ace a job interview — all things that can play against members of underrepresented communities. "We like to hire people that are like ourselves," said DNEG's talent acquisition manager, Victoria Long, describing a widespread industry challenge.

Contributing to open-source projects on the other hand can be another route in, a way to prove one's chops that doesn't rely on traditional hiring benchmarks. "Open source is a really awesome opportunity to get your foot in the door," said Carol Payne, an imaging specialist at Netflix. Plus, open-source projects are by nature distributed, allowing developers to contribute from anywhere.

The ASF recently launched a diversity and inclusion working group to advance these goals. However, members of the working group seemed aware that open source alone is not a magic bullet. Reaching underrepresented groups required companies and groups like the ASF to step outside of the traditional conference circuit, said Industrial Light & Magic software engineer Bridgette Powell. "Be in places where you wouldn't normally think to be," she said. "Try to find a conference that you wouldn't normally attend."

The idea of using open source to increase diversity and inclusion in technology isn't entirely new. Another example is Outreachy, an initiative supported by Mozilla, IBM, Microsoft and others that promotes paid remote internships for open source projects to members of underserved communities.

It's an approach that seems to be working, judging by some measures: When Outreachy surveyed its accepted interns two years ago about their experiences before the program, 60% stated that they had never contributed to an open-source project before. But later, both individuals who were accepted to the program and those who simply went through the application process said that they felt inspired to continue to contribute to open-source projects, as well as pursue computer science education.

However, many of these projects are small in scale, especially when compared to the magnitude of the problem. Much like tech in general, the open-source community itself has been struggling with diversity, with 95% of respondents identifying as male in a 2017 survey of the community.

Ultimately, companies and foundations like the ASF also had to role model diversity and inclusion within their own ranks, including their leadership, argued Gritz. "We have to get our own house in order, too," he said.

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