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With ‘1619,’ ‘Summer of Soul’ and ‘The Plot,’ Disney’s diverse storytelling brand is making waves

By Stacy Perman, Los Angeles Times
Published: February 6, 2023, 6:04am
3 Photos
From left, Joseph Patel, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent, winners of Best Documentary Feature for "Summer of Soul," pose in the press room during the 94th Academy Awards on March 27, 2022, in Hollywood, California.
From left, Joseph Patel, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent, winners of Best Documentary Feature for "Summer of Soul," pose in the press room during the 94th Academy Awards on March 27, 2022, in Hollywood, California. (David Livingston/Getty Images/TNS) Photo Gallery

LOS ANGELES — When Oscar winner Mahershala Ali and his producing partners made the rounds last year, pitching an adaptation of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s bestselling novel “The Plot,” it sparked a bidding war.

The buzzy thriller about a failed author who engages in an “act of literary theft,” forever changing his life, is primed for success. In addition to executive producing, Ali is starring in the series; . two years earlier, another Korelitz novel was adapted into the acclaimed HBO series “The Undoing.”

“The response was overwhelming. Every single place we pitched made an offer,” said Layne Eskridge, president of POV Entertainment, who along with Ali brought the project to six networks and streamers under her producing deal with Endeavor Content.

In the end, Onyx Collective — a relatively new brand focusing on creators of color and underrepresented voices — won out, ordering an eight-episode limited series to stream on Hulu.

Operating much like a mini studio and network, Onyx is a content arm for Disney, developing, producing and acquiring projects exclusively for Hulu and other Disney platforms.

Onyx, whose president, Tara Duncan, had a track record at Netflix and elsewhere for bringing quality, entertaining stories to the screen, demonstrated vision and competitiveness, Eskridge said.

But the fledgling brand also brought something else to the table: During the pitch meetings, Duncan and nearly every member of the executive team involved was a person of color. Moreover, they all had the power to greenlight the project.

“We knew we weren’t going to get that anywhere else,” Eskridge said. “That is unique to Onyx. It’s super special, and we wanted that.”

At a time when Hollywood continues to make public pronouncements about inclusion even as such efforts remain faltering, Onyx has assembled a roster of talent in less than two years that includes Ryan Coogler and Natasha Rothwell in overall deals and has generated an impressive slate of projects with Oprah Winfrey, Kerry Washington and musician-filmmaker Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson.

After the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the Black Lives Matters protests that sparked a global reckoning over race and society, Hollywood faced heavy pressure to address its lack of diversity in film and executive suites. Although those events occurred after the initial discussions surrounding Onyx, they did accelerate and inform its development.

Onyx’s first official title, 2021’s “Summer of Soul,” won the Oscar for documentary feature last year. At Sundance this year, the filmmaker behind it, Questlove, announced a second collaboration with Onyx, a documentary on Sly & the Family Stone.

The six-part docuseries “The 1619 Project,” an adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’ seminal work in the New York Times Magazine that reassessed America’s history and narrative surrounding slavery and the contributions of Black Americans, premiered last week on Hulu. Onyx is a creative partner, overseeing the series produced by Lionsgate, Harpo Films and the New York Times for Hulu.

“The goal is to create entertainment first, broadly accessible content for Disney from a culturally specific point of view,” said Duncan, who is also president of Disney’s young adult cable network Freeform.

Future rollouts include the feature movie “Bruiser,” a drama about fathers, families and toxic masculinity that debuted at the 2022 Toronto Film Festival; “Gigante,” a docuseries about the eclectic, long-running Spanish language show “Sabado Gigante”; and a pair of comedies: “The Other Black Girl,” starring Rashida Jones as one of two Black employees at a book publisher, and “Deli Boys,” about a pair of Pakistani American brothers who take over their father’s convenience store empire and discover his secret life of crime.

“We’re looking to entertain a broad audience,” Duncan said, adding that she wants “creators [to] feel like this is a place where they can come and do not only their best work, but work that’s going to be provocative for them and will inspire and push them.

“And I don’t think the conversation around where we have to be is limited to the conversation around identity. There are other elements and aspects of our experience that have yet to be fully tapped from a creative point of view.”

Coogler’s Proximity Media was one of the first companies to partner with Onyx in an overall deal to create non-Marvel titles across Disney.

“I really could see that [Duncan] was someone that was worth betting on,” said Coogler, the director and writer of “Black Panther” and “Creed.” “She was just really sharp and had a clear vision on how to build a company that tells great stories and can offer things in the marketplace that people would be excited about.”

Coogler found a natural alliance of values and mission between his production company and Onyx in making event-driven films and television shows “that bring audiences into closer proximity with stories or types of characters that are present in society but often overlooked.”

At Sundance this year, Coogler announced a pair of projects as part of Proximity’s overall deal with Onyx. One is the docuseries “Anthem,” which follows composer Kris Bowers (“Bridgerton” and “King Richard”) and Grammy-winning music producer DJ Dahi cross the country creating music inspired by the national anthem.

The second is the scripted drama series “Sheba,” an exploration of the life of Africa’s first queen and her rise to power.

In March, the comedy “UnPrisoned,” about how the messy relationship among a single mom, a therapist and her teen son is upended when her dad moves in with them after his release from prison, will begin streaming on Hulu. It stars Washington, who is also executive producer. It is the second Onyx project for Washington and her production company, Simpson Street, after last year’s well-received legal drama “Reasonable Doubt,” which also ran on Hulu.

Washington, who has long had a home inside the Disney family, said partnering with Onyx was a great opportunity “to move our own slate forward.”

“We think a lot at Simpson Street about deconstructing the idea of the other and challenging the longstanding ideas about who gets to be a protagonist and making sure that we’re centering all different kinds of people and all different kinds of stories — not necessarily always stories that are created and driven by characters of color, but often that,” she said.

The idea for Onyx began in 2019 when Dana Walden, chairman of Disney General Entertainment Content, began talking with then- (and now current) Chief Executive Bob Iger. It was not long after “Black Panther” broke box office records; to date, the film has earned $1.4 billion worldwide, spurring a blockbuster sequel.

“I was relatively new to Disney, and Bob mentioned that he had been giving a lot of thought to creating an environment on Hulu that would be a destination for subscribers of color,” she said.

Walden said that Iger pointed to the success of the Undefeated (later renamed Andscape), a multimedia brand formed under ESPN that focuses on storytelling at the nexus of race, sports and culture from the point of view of journalists of color. (Los Angeles Times Executive Editor Kevin Merida was previously editor-in-chief of the Undefeated.)

“He wanted to try to do that with creators of color for Hulu,” Walden added.

When Walden tapped Duncan to run Onyx in 2021, Duncan had already cemented her reputation at Disney as someone with great instincts, experience in building programming and numerous relationships with filmmakers. A year earlier, Duncan had been named president of Freeform.

Onyx, which is based at Disney headquarters in Burbank, has its own budget and a staff of about 30. Disney would not disclose figures.

Duncan grew up in the Inland Empire, about two hours east of Los Angeles.

“I was always very interested in film and television,” she said. “I was one of those kids that was writing my own scripts in elementary school.”

After high school, she got a paid internship at ABC daytime through the Emma L. Bowen Foundation. She followed that up with an internship that later became her first job at Section Eight, George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh’s production company, after graduating from Loyola Marymount University.

By 2007, Duncan had moved on to AMC as an executive in scripted development, at a time when the cable network was launching such hits as “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead.” “The network was trying to redefine itself, and that was a really formative experience for me,” she said.

In 2014, Duncan landed at Netflix as one of the streamer’s first creative executives. Four years later, she left, taking a personal sabbatical, she said.

After a year and a half of traveling, Duncan returned to Hollywood and landed an overall deal with Hulu, quickly gaining notice at Disney.

At Freeform and Hulu, Duncan says she used her “slate and filter from the perspective of wanting to bring in more creators of color and more stories from people of color,” generating such commercial and critical hits as Freeform’s “Cruel Summer.”

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Onyx was a natural extension of that work. Duncan said her first order of business was to build talent relationships in what she calls “the first pillar of success” to “fortify our pipeline.”

Duncan, however, is quick to point out that although Onyx’s focus is on diverse filmmakers and storytelling, it is not a diversity and inclusion initiative. Rather, Onyx is a home for a kaleidoscope of stories and storytellers that taps into leveraging artists of color. “We are positioned and driven to drive subscribers and drive the business in the same way as our colleagues,” said Duncan.

Prentice Penny, a writer, director, producer and a former showrunner on HBO’s “Insecure,” said he was immediately drawn to Onyx.

“At some other places, you might feel like you have to explain why this story is relevant,” he said. “Or you have to go through a lot of stuff to convince people that our art is valid and that we want to see true realizations of ourselves onscreen. What really affected me was that [Onyx] was going to be run by people who look like me and who understood things like me.”