The Nexus Of Hollywood, Disability And Commerce

Jennifer E. Engen

Last week the film CODA was bestowed two awards at the 2022 Screen Actors Guild Awards. One was for best film ensemble, and the second was presented to Troy Kotsur for his riveting performance given by a male actor in a supporting role. Not only did he make history as the first deaf person to win an individual SAG Award, but he also epitomized another moment in the underlying trendlines that are taking shape in Hollywood and across the entertainment industry. The acknowledgment to see disability in all its diversity from Deaf Culture to those on the autism spectrum are being fully realized through both fictional narratives and docuseries alike. While nurturing authentic representation and a level of artistic freedom is essential, it is important to recognize that this maturation process has another element that needs to be cultivated. Envisioning the role of the disability narrative as pivotal to the growing tapestry of an ever-increasing entertainment landscape.

With the explosion of new streaming channels and innovative technologies allowing people to consume entertainment in various ways, there is now a multitude of diverse voices ready to rise to the surface. Given this chance, viewers can experience a broader array of content that offers an opening to worlds they may have never seen or known that champion the very principles of diversity and inclusion. For the larger disability narrative this new surge has created even more opportunities for actors from Lauren Ridloff in Marvel’s The Eternals and The Walking Dead to RJ Mitte in Triumph and Breaking Bad to create fully realized three-dimensional characters that highlight that their disability is only a part of who they are rather than defining there whole selves. The experience for audiences to engage with those with a multitude of disabilities in several ways provides a greater understanding that despite our differences, there are so many points of connection.

Various docuseries showing different facets of the disability experience began airing such as Netflix’s dating show Love on The Spectrum that followed the ups and downs of navigating through dating and basic social interaction with young adults on the autism spectrum to Born for Business, a series on NBCUniversal’s streaming service Peacock highlighting young entrepreneurs with disabilities and the daily struggles of being a small business owner. These shows revealed the fact that the entertainment industry is slowly warming up to the idea of the value in this type of programming but recognizing that there is an audience out their hungry for this content.

Hollywood and the entertainment industry are waking up to the fact that there are wonderful artists with disabilities. But they are also beginning to understand that this is also checking the box of show business, with the emphasis on business. While representation is one thing, studios and other entertainment powerbrokers must familiarize themselves with the total value proposition of the disability experience. They must grasp the potential audience and economic viability that awaits. The emergence of the Disability Economy can justify increasing artistic opportunities for filmmakers, actors, and other creatives across the entertainment industry to tell more stories around the disability narrative, and highlight that this is no longer a niche experiment.

In future Mindset Matters columns, we will pick up on this theme of how the disability narrative can find a balance between art and commerce and where artists and entertainment executives can find a consensus and see the need to continue hiring actors, writers, directors, and other artists with disabilities as well as telling their stories and appreciate that this as an investment that will pay dividends along the way.

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