Breaking the Dam, with Sameer Gardezi

How the award-winning writer plans to flood Hollywood with new voices

Welcome to Free Radicals — a collaboration between EverySherrell Dorsey, founder of The Plug, and writer and editor Annaliese Griffin. Each edition features a conversation between Sherrell and someone who embodies leadership, focusing on equity, expansive thinking, and progress. 

Sameer Gardezi likes to tell stories. His writing has graced major networks like the CW, Fox, Comedy Central, and NBC; he’s worked for Universal and Disney and 20th Century; he’s won a Writers Guild Award for his work as a staff writer on the Emmy-winning show Modern Family. But his most beloved project is his biggest yet—rewriting Hollywood altogether. 

Gardezi is the founder and CEO of Break the Room, a screenwriting incubator that funds and staffs writers’ rooms to support the work of people underrepresented in Hollywood. Break the Room intentionally upends standard writers’ room hierarchies, transforming the way stories get told, how films and television get made. 

“Talent is everywhere, it's just that Hollywood does a poor job of being able to create access and opportunities to arenas that exist outside their purview,” he told Free Radicals. As a Muslim-American who has been working in Hollywood for close to two decades, Gardezi is clear-eyed about what the concept of diversity, as practiced by agencies and studios, can actually accomplish—their efforts are largely undertaken to make executives look good, and have little affect on achieving true equity in the industry.

Take Sister Act. “Whoopi Goldberg was the star of one of the highest grossing comedy films of all time,” Gardezi says about the 1992 blockbuster. But nearly three decades later, Hollywood still acts as if projects that center BIPOC, women, and queer folks are financially risky. Viewers, he says, are hungry for a more expansive set of narratives, and writers and performers are ready to create them. It’s Hollywood that hasn’t built the infrastructure to support these stories, largely by maintaining a very white, very male, very heteronormative layer of executive power.

Sherrell Dorsey spoke with Gardezi about Hollywood’s parallels with the tech industry, the differences between opportunity and equity, and why getting a seat in a writers’ room is just the beginning of the story. 

What’s the show that you've worked on that has been the most meaningful and the most aligned with where you would like to see the industry going? That made you say, Man, I wish we could just do more of THIS.

Hands down, East of La Brea, which is also how Break the Room got started. Back in 2016 or 2015, I had the idea for a show centered on two Muslim-American women, one Black, one Bangladeshi. The entire hook and pitch was that these are the sides of L.A. you don't see, that no one really talks about—Salvadoran, Black, Bangladeshi LA. I knew that it wouldn’t be made by Hollywood.

I also knew that as someone who is cis, het, and also has class privilege—I don't come from a working class background—that I wouldn't be able to tell this story. I knew that I could bring the structure and the technique, a way to tell a story. What I knew that I didn't have was the foundational truth, that raw voice thinking outside the box, and also the limitless ability to tell stories. So I partnered with MuslimArc and Pop Culture Collab, and got investment funds to open up my own writers’ room. 

We found our writers all on Twitter through an open submission process. I was looking for not just teleplay writers or screenwriters, I was looking for any type of writer. We interviewed journalists, poets, novelists. 

We only had five days to write, and I truly believe the way we set up the room allowed us to be successful. We had four writers, largely women of color, and they were all writers that didn't have any professional television experience. So we broke all the rules, and in breaking all the rules, something really magical came out of it. Shortly after that, it got bought by Paul Feig’s company, and they agreed to deficit finance the entire shoot, [to fully fund the production of the short-form series], and we went into production. 

The intentionality of how we designed the room, focusing predominantly on women of color, we were able to see that in production as well. Sam Bailey was hired as the director, and she hired folks that she had worked with, from hair and makeup, to the wardrobe department, to the production designer. So now we saw production predominantly being a space of Black and brown and queer women. It was effortless, how it happened. It was all Black and brown folks, but no one was talking about how it was all Black and brown folks. Looking at that process it was like, Wow, it can be done. And I never want to do it a different way again. 

What normally happens in the industry is that people who are in power, who are generally white-cis-het men, they're the ones who come up with the idea that “diversity is big, so you have to inject diversity.” They're being pressured by executives to “add diversity.” But they’re in a very myopic cultural bubble, a white world. So then they go out to the agents and the agents have a shortlist—there's the regular list of writers and then there's a “diverse list” of writers. There's segregation in how writers are pitched. When someone wants a “diverse writer,” you pick from that list.

Think about how systematized that is. It feels like you're filing an insurance policy, right? It's like you don’t want to get in trouble. “Let's go through the institution that created this mess in the first place; let's try to find our writers through it.” It's not sustainable. It's going to fall apart, sooner than later, especially with the advent of global television.

It's fascinating to hear about the separate list, because I think, subconsciously, most folks of color know that list exists. The other component of that is an awareness that there’s only going to be one diversity slot, and that creates kind of this internal competition, because we know that there's never enough room, just based on the fact that so few are represented. Sometimes it seems like the only Black woman Hollywood has heard of is Tiffany Haddish, no shade to her, but do you know what I mean?

It's the exceptionalism argument. I feel like no one really wants diversity, they want exceptionalism—folks who are the exception to the rule, which is why they were allowed to rise. 

Guaranteed, there are 100 other Tiffany Haddishes out there. If they were given the opportunity and same level of pipeline building infrastructure, they would be able to be just as successful—without diminishing Tiffany's success at all. That's the illusion of the scarcity model that is perpetuated in the industry. There's more than enough space for everyone to be able to tell their own unique stories, regardless of their background, their identity. I don't think that Hollywood is sophisticated enough to truly understand that. 

Underrepresented folks are getting into positions of power. Now you're seeing rooms that have multiple voices of color, you're seeing all Black rooms, because people realize that there are multiple dimensions within our own backgrounds and our own communities that need to be nourished. 

Speaking of pipelines, how did you get started as a writer?

I did what I thought you were supposed to—go to film school, and intern. But there was no pipeline setup from learning the craft to actually participating in the craft. So once I graduated, like many film and screenwriting students, I had no idea what my next step would be. 

I had a friend who got me a job on an agent's desk. At the time I had no idea what an agency was, that it represents writers and actors. So I took it because it got me one step closer to something I really liked. And gosh, I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy—such a frenetic environment of toxicity. And I thought that that was pretty much going to be my life. I was like, Okay, this is this is it, I guess, I struck out in the writing world. So this is going to be it. 

Then I saw an opportunity to apply to a writing fellowship at Nickelodeon. I always talk about this because I feel like when we talk about diversity programs, there's a big difference between wanting diversity versus wanting equity. And this was wanting diversity. 

We were seen as interns, we were not seen as writers. And six months into my program, they ran out of things for me to do. So I got this big accomplishment, but there was nothing to be had. I just went into my office space week after week, frustrated, staring at a blank screen, like, Okay, what happened? What am I gonna do? Then—lightbulb moment—I realized I have office space, I'm getting paid on a year’s contract, why not make the best of it? And that's what led me to start writing and producing my own shorts. That ended up being my calling card. And in the irony of all Hollywood irony stories, my boss at the agency ended up becoming my agent. And that's how I got my first job.

You’ve now been in Hollywood for 15  years. Can you tell us more about the environment and how it’s changed? There seems to be attention paid now to more diverse storytelling, especially if you look at platforms like Netflix and Amazon and what they're paying to produce. 

Yeah, diversity is cool now. I think that's the headline. 

In general, how American capitalism works, you create this environment of diversity, where there's tons of entry-level programs. I call it “for-cause” programs—diversity slots for writers on shows is one example of this. If you're liberal, if you're anywhere close to the left, you will invest in these programs, because why not? Why wouldn't you do that? 

However, you start to see a plateau after these entry-level programs. And once you get into the mid-tier up to decision-maker, you see fewer and fewer underrepresented voices. It's not like diversity programs emerged in the last three years—they've been going on for 20, 25+ years. So that tells me there is definitely some sort of incentive to allow a lower-level class of writers to come in, but when it actually comes to sustainability, pipeline building, and actually truly creating infrastructure equity, that's yet to be seen. 

There's lots of talented and skilled, experienced writers of color that exist in the industry, but a lot of them are stuck at this ceiling you are not allowed to get past. The true idea of equity is for someone who is a decision-maker to actually step aside and say, You know what, I've done this for too long. I need to pass the torch. And until that happens, we're just gonna see the same recycling of what the system is.

As someone who writes primarily about the tech world, there’s a parallel I see in VC programs that focus on funding more people of color and women. You have to go through all of these cycles of mentors and mentorship, when you could just give people jobs that allow them to ascend. What would Hollywood look like with greater equity—true equity, not just the for-cause programs, as you put it.

There's cultural equity and there's economic equity. So two different things that we have to look at.

In talking about cultural equity, it means that we break the hierarchy of how writers’ rooms are run. That's a difficult subject, and I don't have the answers by any means. But I do know that in some of the programming I've done with Break the Room, what I've seen truly be uplifted in a beautiful way is when the showrunner takes a step back and actually allows the voices in the room to flourish. I myself never had that experience—lots of other writers have. So I'm specifically talking about my own perspective and lens. 

I feel like my upbringing as a writer came from being silenced, being nervous, never having the confidence to express myself. And when I did express myself, being in such a cultural disconnect that I didn't want to share my ideas, because I didn't feel safe to share my perspective or lens. Those are some of the cultural conditions that exist. 

What’s crucial now is building the sense that in a writers’ room or in any creative environment, there is a marketplace of ideas that are equally weighted, and it's not done according to a hierarchy. 

The big counter-argument is, “Well, you have to maintain vision, there has to be a singular voice.” I don't disagree with that at all. Of course there needs to be a sense of singularity in what you're trying to say. But it's not so hard to be a little messy to get to the endpoint. When you're a little messy, I think that when you clean up, it looks much nicer. So it's a weird paradigm. But I truly believe it works. 

In terms of economic equity, this is a larger conversation. As streamers have gained prominence in the past ten years, writers are getting more opportunities, especially writers of color—but we're getting paid less. I'm shocked to see how little writers of color are getting paid. Some of these writers have their own shows. I look at my experience ten or fifteen years ago, and I'm like, Oh, my God, you're not getting paid what people back in the 90s did. In terms of profit participation, having some ownership of your show—that has gone out entirely. 

That's a big, big, big conversation. This is one of those instances where it's not just about writers of color. Writers in general have been given the short end of the stick.

When I look at the smattering of programs that Netflix has just released, or Hulu, it seems like someone has to be listening, someone is either doing polls or consumer surveys, or generally just taking note of the data. Is that actually being translated into Hollywood? How is Hollywood listening?

We are now in this data-driven world, and one difficulty is that we are bound by algorithms. I could be watching a South Asian show because I actually like crime thrillers, but the algorithm then is gonna take me down this lovely lovely lane of Bollywood movies, because the assumption is, You watch this, you're probably going to watch everything with people that look like you. Whereas I like it because I like crime thrillers. I'm excited that there's a South Asian lead, but I'm not into only South Asian content. And I think that that's really problematic. It's kind of an unnatural way to watch content, especially when we're talking about race and identity. People are watching, and putting us in pods. If you compare this to the discoverability of content in the 90s, not so long ago, where you knew how people were getting their information, things are very different.

There is an implicit bias in how the data has been analyzed. I think the data is being built in an awesome way, because you're actually cataloging it, but I think it's not being analyzed properly, because we're analyzing it by computers. You have to analyze it through the nuance of how we see the world and that is missing entirely. So I think that in itself has really created a difficult barrier for new voices. Again, these are new voices, regardless of identity, and that I think is becoming more difficult to carve out in this new frontier.

You've written and produced shows that very much depart from the Hollywood status quo—Modern Family, East of La Brea, Aliens in America. How did you decide what kind of work you wanted to be doing?

My career has always been very eclectic. But it's also been, I need a job. So I think that I fell into these different spaces, mainly because I was considered a “diverse writer.” All studios have diversity slots that they pay for, for staff writers. And I will say things have gotten a lot better, but rewinding between twelve and fifteen years ago, all rooms were predominantly white, cis, het, and the only POC voices you would get would be through these diversity slots. 

So a lot of my opportunities in the beginning were me being that diversity candidate, and the showrunner responding to my writing. So I wouldn't really think about what I worked on as a choice, per se, especially early on in my career. Only in the last five years have I started to curate my career a little bit more toward what I want to do, which came from both having more experience and just doing it for so long, building up that confidence and starting to build a brand around my voice.

And Break the Room seems like the apex of that reorientation. What are some of the other things that you hope to accomplish with Break the Room? 

If all of my wishes and desires are fulfilled, in ten years I want Break the Room to provide an alternative option for curating content and design IP, and to create a groundswell of talented writers who are thinking in this alternative way about how to build their content. 

I would love to be able to pay writers in the same way that Hollywood A-level talent gets paid. I am proud to say that we do meet digital media pay standards for all the content that we produce, and we deficit finance if it's not something that we lock in with networks. I hope that there's some sort of modeling effect where people realize that it's not losing money, it's actually a great investment that you will get back. 

Hollywood is always going to be a wonderful place for content to be created, and it's not going anywhere. I'm not being lofty and trying to create a new paradigm. 

Rather, I want to create an alternative paradigm for content creators to be able to play in this space, to be able to take higher risks, and to be able to tell the stories that are often overlooked. There is so much in the global landscape, and that’s what I want writers to be privy to—access and opportunities. That's what's going to create this groundswell movement where we, as writers, are keenly responsible, creating the content and not just working for hire. That's my grand vision, trying to establish that and uplifting writers in any way that I can.

I'm sure the parallels to the tech industry are evident. The reason why people don't put the money forth for content created by non-white-cis people is that these executives look at it as a cause. It's like, Oh, you're Black or brown. Oh, this is cute. Like, that's fantastic that you're doing this. I don't think that anything's gonna come of it, I'm not gonna treat it as an actual business deal. And I think people have to start looking at financing as the ladder to be able to actually create true change and build wealth and generational wealth.

What were some of the challenges deciding to step out on your own with Break the Room? Did other people in Hollywood see it as a cute pet project? 

Yeah. And it's not a past tense. What Hollywood loves to do is that even with all your experience, you’ve got to start at the first step all over again and climb up the stairs. 

Even having worked on an Emmy Award-winning show, you’re still the new kid on the block?

It’s always seen as being a new kid on the block. But there are advantages to that as well. You're able to reinvent yourself very quickly and slingshot and pass all those steps. That's what connects me to this world—as heinous as it can be, there is a level of opportunity and rebuilding that doesn't exist in other arenas.

I think that if people don't get it, they don't get it. And that's not your tribe to build with, you have to find people that get it. Thankfully there are enough of those people out there that I've been able to continue to build Break the Room.

What are your thoughts on pipeline and infrastructure building?

Since we started back in 2017 we've done 16 or 17 rooms and worked with close to 100 writers. Our writers have gone on to write for Disney, Amazon, HBO, so we're seeing that natural pipeline happen already. 

But that was going to happen. I don't measure that as success. I chose talented people, why wouldn't they continue to be talented? It's very odd for me when I see diversity programs talk about later success for writers—they’re talented, you just gave them a job, they're going to continue to be talented and amazing. 

What I'm hoping to really think about and build with this idea of a pipeline is a relentless upstream. I'm not completely naive. I know not all writers will make it—it's a very competitive industry. But if we had dozens and dozens of rooms, if we had 100 going in versus 10, you're naturally going to see more and more people be able to be a part of the industry. There is this dam that needs to be broken. And I think that there needs to be a flooding, an injection of underrepresented voices into Hollywood.

Why does this matter to you? It seems like you could probably just have a great career without worrying about what opportunity looks like for other writers.

I'll start with a selfish answer. I don't think I'm the best writer in the world, and I only have so much time. So, as someone who is a B+ writer, as someone who only has so much time, it behooves me to build with other writers and create an infrastructure, because I'm not going to write all the ideas in the world. I want other people to participate in that. That's the selfish aspect of it—if we're truly building something, it requires me to think about things as an executive producer, versus as a writer, and I need other people. 

The selfless reason is that we're not around for a very long time. I've had money, I've not had money. I've realized the things that bring me joy, the things that don't bring me joy. It’s something where I feel like I can comfortably say, Hey, I can build that. I haven't patented writers’ rooms—it’s something anyone can do. One great thing is that after Break the Room some writers go off and they do their own writers’ rooms, and they’re creative, and they build things. So that element of collaboration, infectious collaboration, is something that I'm thankful to be a part of, and know that it can sustain itself.

To me, this industry is very simple, and most industries are very simple. All I'm looking for is to be able to tell cool stories with my friends. And if I can kind of continue to do that, and allow others to do that with their own friends, I think that that in itself will lead to some modicum of good change. 

This was a conversation between Sherrell Dorsey and Sameer Gardezi, edited for length and clarity by Annaliese Griffin and Rachel Jepsen. Reply to this email if there's someone you'd like to see us interview in the future.

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