One year ago, Hillman Graduate Productions (“The Chi”, “Queen & Slim”, “The Forty Year Old Version”, “Twenties”), which was founded by Lena Waithe and her partner Rishi Rajani with a mission to amplify diversity, signed a mega – contract with Warner Bros. Television Group, part of a two-year global agreement 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 2022, Discovery completed its $43 billion acquisition of Warner Media from AT&T, and in the wake of the deal, David Zaslav, president and CEO of the new Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD), has come under fire for cutting the 40-year-old Warner Bros. Television Workshop, often a channel for various talents to enter the business. WBD quickly backed out of the 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 Office with a view that WBD has been “savagely supportive” of Hillman Grad’s goals. “Nothing really affected us in terms of the cuts and the things that happened,” Rajani said. “Great content endures regardless of buyers, circumstances, number of businesses coming together and under one roof. For me, that’s the mantra.
Rajani added that bringing out new voices in Hollywood needs to be done “in a way that is really commercially and financially viable.” I don’t want diversity programs to be the charity cases of the studios. I don’t think that helps anyone, really. We also want to do things that make commercial sense, and that people see, watch, consume and get excited about – and become the next hit series or show.
Read on as Rajani discusses his company’s commitment to diversity, what they’re in the market for, and where he envisions the company going.
How did you form a partnership with Lena Waithe?
I met Lena probably five and a half years ago. I was working at a company called Studio 8 at the time, and I was a younger executive and she came to present… I was really a huge fan of her writing and had read a [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 business, are you interested?” And I was like, oh my God, because I was such a fan of his work.
But I also liked the idea of building something from scratch, that was really exciting for me. We ended up meeting at [a coffee shop] at Silver Lake, and I came up with all these folders of director lists and writers lists, and I actually came up with a stack of books that I thought she should choose. I [had] this blueprint of business ideas and kind of spread it out on the coffee table. I think she liked my spirit and my energy, and she called me that night and hired me. It was early 2018 and I officially started in the company in May or June of the same year.
Did you and Lena share a commitment to diversity from day one?
Totally. One of the things I loved so much about that very first meeting with Lena [is] she said, “I always knew I was going to win an Emmy. I didn’t know I was going to win an Emmy so 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 win this prize every day by bringing people through the door with me.
And that, for me, was an incredibly resonant moment, because what I had hoped and aspired to do so much was to work with filmmakers who frankly looked like me and were of my generation and had something to say, which came from truly disenfranchised backgrounds across race and sexuality and geographic location and financial status and disability.
You say you both thought Hollywood approached diversity in an inauthentic way.
Yeah. It was like there was this “renaissance of diversity”, but still in an incredibly narrow and monolithic interpretation, saying that there is only one way to be black, there is there’s only one way to be brown, right? I mean, if I get one more arranged marriage script, I’m gonna scream. And I think Lena [who identifies as queer] felt the same, that every queer story she received was a “coming out” story.
OK, for all those wannabes out there with pitches, what is Hillman Grad looking for?
I’m always incredibly optimistic that every time I open a new script I’m going to love it. But for me, it must make me feel something. For us, it has a reason to exist… Can you show us a POV that we have never seen before? Can we humanize an individual beyond his otherness?
What do you see as the next step?
I want us to talk about things on a larger scale and on a canvas. I want us to make great genre films featuring black and brown protagonists. I want to make big leaps in TV and film and all of our mediums. I grew up with “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”. I think there are times when a lot of “diversity-focused” production companies can be relegated to lower budgets. This is the next step, for us to get the budgets that our filmmakers deserve, to build something on a larger scale.
You started with Hillman Grad at 26, and now you’re 30. What advice would you have given to your slightly younger self?
I think in this town you can feel really small and feel like you’re walking into rooms where people know a lot more than you do. I tell all of our mentees to look out for each other, to network with each other. Build each other, read each other’s scripts. I think I’m so lucky to have such a great community in this city, and people I trust and have found and worked with in so many different ways. It helps you feel less small.
This interview has been edited for style and length.