Alex Creswick (BA 2007 in Communication with a Focus on Critical Film Theory)
Freelance Sensitivity Reader in Los Angeles, CA
Tell us about your current job role and employer. What are you currently working on?
I’m a Sensitivity Reader/Diversity Editor for film and television. It’s a relatively new job that’s still figuring itself out so a lot of what I’m currently doing is educational—just letting creatives and executives know we exist, that this resource is out there. Broadly, what I do is assess projects for unconscious bias and unintentional problematic content—I work with writers to make sure they’re being intentional about all the themes, subtext, and messages they’re putting out in the world. I often tell people, “I’m here to warn you what the internet will get mad at you for, and how to avoid that.”
There’s a lot of overlapping diversity within this work—you might hire someone with a specific background to give authenticity notes, similar to why you’d consult with a doctor about medical authenticity but on a cultural level.
I do generalized Sensitivity Reading (which one could argue is also “Expert Reading,” given my background in story development and criticism/theory), wherein I evaluate stories both on a personal level (i.e., what happens solely within the scope of a text, the “trees”) and a systemic level (i.e., how your work fits into the broader context of our society, the “forest”). It can be hard for writers to step back from their story and try to consider it within the “bigger picture,” and Diversity Editors can help with that. Sometimes it’s my job to let a client know I’m not the best person to help them, either in whole or in part, and at my own discretion will link them with someone who can.
Right now, I’m primarily working as a Sensitivity Reader whilst working on my own writing and producing projects. And I’m opening the Museum of Petty Justice in February.
What key personal and/or career experiences led you to where you are today?
When I was graduating from Wake, I wanted to take a couple years off to not be in school, and figure out what kind of career path to take. My mother advocated for going directly into grad school, so we made a deal: I’d apply to film schools, and if I got in, I’d get a MFA and if not, she’d let me figure myself out for two years. I graduated from the Producer’s Program at UCLA two years later, and I’ve been in Los Angeles ever since.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job? How do you navigate that challenge?
Talking to people about their own internalized, unconscious biases is always challenging. It’s hard and it sucks, because we’re forced us to examine our behaviors and thought patterns, and inevitably realize we’ve downloaded and perpetuated some really harmful stuff.
Each person (and project) is different, so my approach and delivery is tailored towards what’s most effective. One thing that’s consistent: I go in to each job with the attitude that every interaction, every choice we make, every conversation we’ll have, is an opportunity to be better, learn and educate, and ultimately be more intentional and clear in our communication—whether that’s everyday communication, or the kind of communicating we do through art.
My goal is for my clients to walk away understanding why certain storylines or characters are problematic / harmful, because I don’t want to just tell them “this is bad, here’s the fix.” I’m not the one writing the new draft, I’m giving notes through a very specific lens. I want artists’ creative output to be informed, because that empowers them to be precise and specific in the stories they’re telling, which makes for more dynamic, interesting, and fun art. If someone understands the why, then not only can they more effectively implement changes, they’re less likely to repeat the same mistake.
Also, it ultimately results in a far less traumatic and stressful movie-going experience for minority groups, and more viewer eyeballs/box office dollars.
What advice would you give to Wake Forest graduates about developing their personal life habits after college (finances, health, values, work/life balance)?
Prioritize yourself. We live in a world that wants to turn us into commodities, and in turn treat others like commodities. Every single person has inherent, intrinsic value just for existing. I’m always thankful for the people who choose to spend any amount of their limited time with me.
Make sure you’re taking care of the creative part of yourself, both in what you consume and what you create—creative output is informed by creative input. Cast your net wide and be diverse in your consumption. You might want to “turn your brain off,” but keep in mind the people making things do have an agenda and point of view. And don’t stop creating–do an art at least once a week, y’all.
We know that relationships are important for any kind of development. How do you build and maintain your network?
I will talk to just about anyone—that’s the Southerner in me—and because of my internet-fueled tendency to go down very deep research rabbit holes, I find engaging people fairly easy. People will always surprise you. I like to ask weird, unexpected questions; life is weird, y’all, and something uniquely bizarre has happened to all of us at some point. Sometimes it’s just a matter of framing your story differently—drawing out the absurdity or emphasizing the randomness—which I’m good at and is one of the most effective tools in my arsenal. I always try to interject some humor and personality in e-mails, helps make an impression and stand out a bit.
Los Angeles can be hard and isolating. It’s really easy to fall out of touch with people. Especially if they live on the West side. I use social media as a way to keep in touch. I try to e-mail people directly when there’s something to celebrate or acknowledge. I’m in several industry networking groups, and I try to help where I can. I think this is one area that I’m still largely figuring out, so if anyone has suggestions I’m happy to hear them.
Tell us about your mentoring relationships. What impact have these relationships had on your career and life?
I’ve had a variety of mentors over my years. I think this industry, more than many others, relies of recommendations and mentorships more than others. Having people advocating for you is currency that’s very hard to buy. My mentors have helped me get jobs, helped me network, and offered me some of their credibility while I worked on building my own. A couple of my mentors have become my colleagues, which is a really interesting experience.
But I’m always really cognizant and respectful of people’s time, and I try to pay people for their expertise when I can, even if it’s only a little bit. People really appreciate that, and it’s a good statement of intention.
What advice would you give to current Wake Forest students and/or young alumni who are interested in working in your industry?
I could probably write a book about this subject! But the entertainment industry is tough. It is unforgiving. It is not a meritocracy. It likely actively dislikes you. Be prepared for that, and be honest with yourself. Be prepared to work and struggle for longer than you’d like.
But if you have a passion for it, if you really work at building your network and finding your tribe and people, it’s an incredibly rewarding experience. Also, be flexible—take opportunities as they come, even if they don’t quite look like what you wanted or expected.
What’s next for your career? What future goals or plans are you pursuing?
I’d love to see this kind of Expert Reading catch on in a major way in the industry. I think every big production company and studio should follow in Monkeypaw Production’s [Jordan Peele’s company, which produced GET OUT and US] example and hire a “Cultural Executive” who does exactly what I’m doing (and more), but is integrated into the company’s structure/hierarchy.
Also, it’s lucrative! Diversity demonstrably translates into money—all the numbers and research backs this up. A Cultural Exec or an Expert Reader will always be cheaper than losing the interest of potential viewers.
(Monkeypaw’s exec, Kamil Oshundara, is an engaging artist in her own right—recommend checking out her work.)
Personally, I’m working on securing financing for a couple of projects I love, and developing a couple as a writer.
Story published in February 2020.