The Chicago Media Standards are a win for everyone

By ridding
film sets of
and harassment,
we’ll all have
more great content
to choose from

As soon as the Chicago Media Standards were unveiled at Stage 18 last Thursday night, they began making an impact that will eventually bring joy to everyone who loves movies.

The Chicago Media Standards is a code of conduct designed to prevent discrimination and harassment in the film business. Initiated by a group of motivated leaders in 2017, it was envisioned as “an unequivocal rejection of the culture of sexism, misogyny, and discrimination that has long dominated this business” that would help the community “create the industry that we want to work in.”

Last week, the plan became a reality.

Getting everyone on the same pageThe Chicago Media Standards Kick Off at Stage 18

Co-Founder of Stage 18 and indie producer Angie Gaffney read through the Chicago Media Standards document at the start of a June 27 Kick Off event to introduce them to the industry.

“From my personal experience, it became really challenging for me to feel like I knew what to do when situations came up,” she told the audience beforehand. “I wanted to make sure I was protecting my employees.”

The text of the seven-page document is contained “in a template to be customized by each group that adopts them.” It defines and lists several types of discrimination, goes on to provide an explanation of harassment, describes basic reporting procedures, and then declares a prohibition on retaliation.

All the usual suspects are there. Types of discrimination include “sex, pregnancy, gender identity, race, religion … and any other characteristic protected by federal, state or local laws.”

Harassment, which is “a form of illegal discrimination,” includes “joke-telling, name-calling, stereotyping, unwelcome touching … lewd, obscene or suggestive remarks … spreading rumors about a person’s personal sex life … ” and anything else that “creates hostile or offensive work environments.”

Comprehensive, indeed. A team of professionals spent two years creating the Standards. But what next?

“These standards are by no means the end of the conversation, they can and should evolve to address the needs of each individual production,” Gaffney concluded. “As filmmakers ourselves, we know that many of us weren’t trained in basic reporting procedures and HR like every other industry. That has to change. This is just the tip of the iceberg. We look forward to providing even more resources in the future. Potentially an anonymous hotline or partnerships with lawyers and non-profits who can serve producers and crew alike.”

In the meantime, she said that participating businesses and organizations should “take it upon themselves to enforce (the Standards)” by “designating two compliance officers who will promptly respond to and investigate reported violations.”

Talking it through
Indie producer Chaka Reeves, JLL Senior Director Aaron R. Schems, and Laner Muchin employment attorney Heather Becker joined Gaffney for a panel discussion after the reading. They underscored the value of the Standards with real-world experiences.

Becker — who referred to herself as “the attorney in the room” — noted that, “sometimes, people don’t always know that … what they’re saying offends someone or is inappropriate.”

Reeves knew exactly what she was talking about.

“My family is from Kentucky, so I grew up calling people dear and darling and things like that,” she said. “You know, even as a woman, I’ve had other women say, ‘I don’t like that.’ There’s something that, in their understanding of the term, was diminishing. To me, it meant endearment, but it didn’t matter what it mean to me.”

The panelists frequently referred to the power of communication, specifically the listening part, as a tool for avoiding discrimination and harassment.

Reeves recalled an incident when an individual was “causing problems from set to set to set and they don’t know it because no one said anything to them.” A “real conversation” revealed that the person “was just repeating stuff that was said to them” on other jobs.

“How people experience things can only come from them,” added Schems. “It’s important for me that the people I work with are heard. It’s not my job to judge their interpretation of their feelings. Right? It’s my job to make sure that there’s an appropriate forum and avenue to be heard, and then support them through the process.”

The need for understanding goes beyond words. Gaffney described safety meetings to inform cast and crew whenever fake guns or fake blood.

“when I worked at The Onion, there was always weird animals,” she said, “so we’d have a safety meeting to say, ‘Oh there’s a ferret on set, guys.’”

But that’s only the beginning. When managers start learning about where other people are coming from, they can understand more about themselves. This is an important step towards true diversity.

Sharing access
“We all have implicit biases. We all think of certain stereotypes,” said Becker. “We’re human. You need to look within yourself and say, ‘what are my biases?,’ and then try setting them aside. Part of the problem historically with hiring is people like to hire people like themselves, and that just creates an environment where everybody’s the same, where people are discriminating and not even knowing they’re discriminating.”

When that realization takes hold, according to Reeves, hiring authorities can elevate from the practice of “diversity by numbers” and begin to address an even greater form of fairness.

“It’s … who knows about this opportunity? Are we broadening the access to this opportunity equitably?” she asked. “Not everyone, for historical reasons, has access to the same things.”

Schem pointed out that the benefit works both ways.

“People who are very skilled and very good, given a choice between a positive support place and the alternative, they’re always going to choose a positive support place,” he said. “It can actually be a competitive differentiator: of course I want to work with people who espouse the same ethics and moral values that I would like to be associated with.”

Achieving the greatest potential
The panel discussion grew into an open conversation that engaged many of the independent producers, online platform developers, camera operators, industry interns, technical reps, and former government office holders who attended the Kick Off.

Enthusiastically sharing and questioning their own experiences with discrimination and harassment, they represented another benefit that comes with a safe environment: it helps employees achieve their greatest potential.

The quality of Chicago-made content is award-winning proof of the power of diversity. It includes Brown Girls, The Chi, Good Kisser, Rendezvous in Chicago, Signature Move, the T, Two in the Bush, and the stream of hits that keep coming out of networks and studios like OTV and Full Spectrum Features.

These shows not only come from or address groups that have suffered mistreatment and exclusion, but they are also exciting to watch.

By enabling more voices, more stories, and more points of view, the Chicago Media Standards are a win for everybody.

Joining the conversation
A point was made clear often during the event: the current Chicago Media Standards are by no means the “end-all, be-all … they should and can be changed.” Communication is one of the best ways to make that happen.

An ongoing dialogue is essential not only for addressing discrimination and harassment within organizations, but also for implementing, building, and perfecting them as a community. To provide feedback, offer support, or just join the conversation, click here.

Send your production updates to Reel Chicago Editor Dan Patton,