Disney’s eclectic storytelling brand is making waves

When Oscar-winning actor Mahershala Ali and his producing partners made the rounds last year pitching an adaptation of Jean Hanff Korelitz’ best-selling novel The Plot, it sparked a bidding war.

The lively thriller about a failed author who gets involved with you “Act of Literary Theft” changed his life forever, is set for success. Besides serving as an executive producer, Ali also stars 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 reached out made an offer,” said Layne Eskridge, President of POV Entertainment, who brought the project to six networks and streamers along with Ali as part of their production deal with Endeavor Content.

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

Operating much like a mini studio and network, Onyx is a content arm for Disney that develops, produces and acquires projects exclusively for Hulu and other Disney platforms.

Onyx, whose president Tara Duncan has a proven track record at Netflix and elsewhere for bringing high-quality, entertaining stories to screens, demonstrated vision and competitiveness, Eskridge said.

But the fledgling brand in addition brought something else to the table: during the pitch meetings, Duncan and nearly all the executive team members involved were a person of color. In addition, they all had the power to give the green light to the project.

“We knew we couldn’t get that anywhere else,” Eskridge said. “This is unique to Onyx. It is very special and that is what we wanted.”

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

After the 2020 killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matters protests that sparked a global reckoning on race and society, Hollywood has been under intense pressure to address its lack of diversity in film and executive floors. Although these events occurred after the initial discussions surrounding Onyx, they accelerated and influenced its development.

Onyx’s first official title, 2021’s Summer of Soul, won the Oscar for documentary last year. At Sundance this month, filmmaker Questlove announced a second collaboration with Onyx, a documentary about Sly and the Family Stone.

A man holds an award and speaks into a microphone while three other men hold awards behind him.

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, center, accepts the documentary award for “Summer of Soul” at the 94th Academy Awards.

(Myung Chun/Los Angeles Times)

The six-part documentary The 1619 Project, an adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’ seminal work in The New York Times Magazine re-evaluating America’s history and narrative around slavery and the contributions of Black Americans, has been released premiered on Thursday Hallo. Onyx is a creative partner overseeing the series produced for Hulu by Lionsgate, Harpo Films and The New York Times.

“The goal is to create widely accessible entertainment content for Disney from a culture-specific perspective,” said Duncan, who is also president of Disney’s young adult cable network Freeform.

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

“We want to entertain a wide audience,” Duncan said, adding that she wanted “creators.” [to] feel like this is a place where they can come and not only do their best work, but work that will provoke and inspire and drive them.

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

Coogler’s Proximity Media was one of the first companies to partner with Onyx to develop Disney-spanning non-Marvel titles.

“I could really see that [Duncan] was someone to bet on,” said Coogler, the director and writer of Black Panther and Creed. “She was just very perceptive and had a clear vision of how to build a company that could tell great stories and bring things to market that people would love.”

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

At Sundance this month, Coogler announced two projects as part of Proximity’s overall deal with Onyx. One is the docu-series Anthem, which follows composer Kris Bowers (Bridgerton and King Richard) and Grammy-winner DJ Dahi across the country as he creates 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, comedy UnPrisoned follows how the messy relationship between a single mother, a therapist and her teenage son is turned upside down when their father moves in with them after being released from prison to be featured on Hulu. It stars Washington, who is also an executive producer. It’s the second Onyx project for Washington and her Simpson Street production company, following last year’s well-received legal drama Reasonable Doubt, which also aired on Hulu.

Washington, who has long had a home in the Disney family, said partnering with Onyx is a great opportunity to “advance our own plan.”

“At Simpson Street, we think a lot about deconstructing each other’s ideas and challenging longstanding notions of who is allowed to be a protagonist and making sure we include all different types of people and all different types of stories in the.” Taking center stage – not necessarily always stories created and driven by characters of color, but often that,” she said.

A woman in a low-cut checked jacket is standing in front of a red wall.

Kerry Washington at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

(Jay L Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

The idea for Onyx came about in 2019 when Dana Walden, Chair of Disney General Entertainment Content, began speaking to then (and now) Chief Executive Bob Iger. It wasn’t long before “Black Panther” broke box office records; To date, the film has grossed $1.4 billion worldwide and is fueling a blockbuster sequel.

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

Walden said Iger highlighted the success of Undefeated (later renamed Andscape), a multimedia brand founded under ESPN that focuses on storytelling at the intersection of race, sports and culture from the perspective of journalists of color. (Kevin Merida, editor-in-chief of The Times, was previously editor-in-chief of The Undefeated.)

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

By the time Walden hired Duncan to helm Onyx in 2021, Duncan had already cemented her reputation at Disney as someone of great instinct, experience building programs and numerous relationships with filmmakers. A year earlier, Duncan had been named President of Freeform.

Based out of Disney’s Burbank headquarters, Onyx has its own budget and about 30 employees. Disney did not want to disclose numbers.

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

“I’ve always been very interested in film and television,” she says. “I was one of those kids who wrote my own screenplays in elementary school.”

After high school, she got a paid internship at ABC from the Emma L. Bowen Foundation during the day. She then completed an internship that later became her first job at Section Eight, the production company owned by George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, after graduating from Loyola Marymount University.

By 2007, Duncan had joined AMC as an executive writer in script development, at a time when the cable network was producing hits like “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” and “The Walking Dead.” “The network has been trying to reinvent itself and it’s been a really transformative experience for me,” she said.

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

After a year and a half of touring, Duncan returned to Hollywood and landed an overall deal with Hulu, which quickly caught the eye of Disney.

At Freeform and Hulu, Duncan said she used her “list and filter from the perspective of attracting more color creators and more stories from people of color,” sparking commercial and critical hits like Freeform’s “Cruel Summer.”

Onyx was a natural extension of this work. Duncan said her first task is to build talent relationships in what she calls “the first pillar of success” to “strengthen our pipeline.”

However, Duncan is quick to point out that while Onyx focuses on diverse filmmaking and storytelling, it is not a diversity and inclusion initiative. Rather, Onyx is a home for a kaleidoscope of stories and storytellers that draws on the use of color artists. “We are positioned and committed to attracting subscribers and driving the business in the same way as our peers,” said Duncan.

Prentice Penny, writer, director, producer and former showrunner of the HBO series “Insecure,” said he was immediately drawn to Onyx.

“At some other points, you might feel like you need 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 on screen. What really struck me was that [Onyx] would be run by people who look like me and understand things like me.”

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/business/story/2023-01-27/onyx-collective-disney-1619-summer-of-soul-diversity-hollywood-mahershala-ali-the-plot Disney’s eclectic storytelling brand is making waves

Sarah Ridley

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