Features

Moving the Film World Forward

Photographs by Da’Shaunae Marisa

You could build a solid “Intro to Film” course based solely on the movies Alana Mayo ’06 watched and admired before she graduated from the College. Apocalypse Now, which she saw on LaserDisc when she was 10. 2001: A Space Odyssey, which she eventually studied for an entire semester under film professor Richard Peña. The complete works of Alfred Hitchcock, consumed in a single eyeball-glazing summer, when she decided to rent every one from her local video store. (For the record: That’s 53 movies, or roughly one movie every two days, though she acknowledges she might have stopped a little shy of the finish line.)


Most of all, there was Spike Lee, a director whose films Mayo loved so much, she confesses, that her personal email address contained the word “Spiky.” It was Malcolm X, Lee’s 1992 biographical drama about the legendary activist, that first opened Mayo’s mind to the full range of what a film could do. “I remember watching Spike Lee on Inside the Actors Studio, and him talking about how he went to all of these Black celebrities to get money that he needed to finish this film,” she says. “Hearing the story got me thinking, ‘Wow, this is a powerful political medium, and it’s bigger than just the entertainment piece of it.’”

If this were a superhero movie — a genre Mayo, admittedly, doesn’t have much tolerance for — this moment might be cast as her origin story. Speaking today, with one year as president of the MGM division Orion Pictures under her belt, Mayo is making exactly the kind of movies she might have devoured as an eager young cinephile: intelligent, forward- thinking, diverse and unapologetically political. If her vision succeeds, Orion could emerge as both a template and a beacon for a Hollywood that is only just beginning to reckon with its deep-seated inequities. Mayo — who is Black, and identifies as a queer woman — recognizes the responsibility, the privilege and the opportunity she has to reach filmgoers who have, historically, been either marginalized or ignored entirely. “We’re going to invite audiences to see themselves on screen,” she says.


Mayo grew up obsessed with stories. As a child in the Chicago suburbs, she’d sometimes end up reading in the shower because she couldn’t put a book down. She came to Columbia confident that storytelling, in some capacity, was her calling. While studying both film and English, she landed an internship with up-and-coming director Lee Daniels, and was soon plucked out of the pool to become his personal assistant. It was a quick education in the never-ending hustle required of any talented filmmaker with something to say, as Daniels courted investors to help finish his debut film, Shadowboxer, while simultaneously preparing for his next project, Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire. (The latter went on to earn six Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture.)

Mayo and actor Michael B. Jordan in February 2020; the two teamed up to help create a more equitable Hollywood at Jordan’s production company, Outlier Society.

ANDREW TOTH / GETTY IMAGES

After Mayo graduated, Daniels recommended her for a personal assistant gig for rocker Lenny Kravitz. She might have taken it, if not for a five-minute phone call with a family friend at the storied Hollywood agency CAA, who helped Mayo figure out the career track she actually wanted to be on. She told him she wanted to work in production and development; in very short order, he mapped out the trajectory of someone who wants to do that professionally. “And then he said, ‘But you’ve got to come to L.A.’”


For Mayo, who loved New York and had long fantasized about remaining after graduation, this was extremely unwelcome news. Undaunted, she sat down and made a concrete, five-year plan to conquer Hollywood so she could bring a thriving career as an executive back to New York. Speaking now — 15 years later and in the heart of Los Angeles — she smiles at the memory. “I was naive and foolhardy.”

If Mayo’s ambitions were a bit starry-eyed, she was also uniquely well positioned to recognize and adapt to a seismic change in Hollywood. “I could sense that there were these massive shifts happening in the movie business from the moment I landed here,” she says. “The studios were all shifting very quickly from making any kind of original films to these huge, branded, IP-driven blockbusters. Exclusively. That was clearly the bread and butter.”

These were not the kind of movies that appealed to Mayo. But it was an opportunity to rethink what a career in Hollywood might look like, and carve out the middle ground that might still exist for anyone who was canny enough to pursue it. She was eventually hired to work under producers Andrew Lazar and Miri Yoon, who were creating their own intriguing niche. “It was not the sexiest deal, at the time, at Warner Bros.,” she says. “We weren’t making Harry Potter or Batman. But we were making movies. And I quickly realized: You want to make movies that people see. Some of them can be for a smaller audience, but it’s a good thing if you make something that’s accessible to a lot of people.”

If Mayo’s vision succeeds, Orion Pictures could emerge as a template and a beacon for a Hollywood that is only just beginning to reckon with its deep-seated inequities.

The job was an education in the sheer range of possibilities at any major Hollywood studio. Within the same year, Mayo worked on Get Smart, an $80 million action-comedy based on the beloved ’60s TV series, and I Love You Phillip Morris, a $13 million dramedy about two prison inmates who fall in love. The experience helped her pin down the kind of movie she would — in a perfect world — get to make. “To be crass about it, I love movies that are made at a price point where you can have originality and experimentation. Which is usually $30 million and under,” she says.

That philosophy was put into practice in her subsequent job at Paramount Pictures, where Mayo developed, among other projects, the horror script A Quiet Place. The movie drew some notice when The Office’s John Krasinski signed on to direct, with his wife, Emily Blunt, in the lead; but as one of the many, many scripts kicking around Hollywood pretty much all the time, there was nothing about A Quiet Place that screamed “blockbuster.” It wasn’t based on a well-known intellectual property, like the previous year’s horror hit, an adaptation of Stephen King’s It. The scope was relatively modest, with a $22 million budget to match. But Mayo, while not exactly a horror junkie, saw something unique in it. “What I loved was that it was an opportunity to do a silent film today. For the right director, to tell a story through sound design and performance ... It is thematically, and technically, exactly the kind of movie I love,” she says.

As it turned out, A Quiet Place was exactly the kind of movie audiences loved, too. The movie grossed $350 million and spawned a hit sequel earlier this year, with a third movie already in the works. “It really validated my belief that art and commerce don’t have to be mutually exclusive,” Mayo says.

By the time A Quiet Place hit theaters, Mayo had already shuffled jobs and was head of production and development at Outlier Society, a production company founded by Black Panther star Michael B. Jordan. When Jordan first approached Mayo about the job, she admits, she had “unfairly prejudged him” as an actor seeking a vanity deal. But even when their tastes didn’t overlap, she was moved by Jordan’s earnest commitment to leveraging his star power to build a more equitable, diverse Hollywood than the one he had come up in. “What I really wanted, more than anything, was to work someplace where there were shared values,” she says.

Those values were soon turned outward, as well. By 2018, Outlier Society became one of the first Hollywood studios to publicly commit to “providing opportunities for individuals from underrepresented groups at all levels” from the start of a movie’s production, beginning with the legal drama Just Mercy. Mayo had finally found a creative home that matched her priorities, and it’s not hard to imagine a world where she would have stayed for many more years. But then, in 2019, MGM came calling.


Mayo spoke on a panel about women-run productions as part of last year’s ESSENCE House: Hollywood Edition.

AARON J. THORNTON / GETTY IMAGES


Mayo certainly wasn’t looking for a new job when MGM got in touch, but when she heard them out, she found the pitch hard to resist. The idea? A relaunch of Orion Pictures — the MGM division whose run of hits in the ’80s and ’90s included Best Picture winners Platoon, The Silence of the Lambs and Dances with Wolves — with a mandate to focus “exclusively on underrepresented voices,” and Mayo as president.

Even at the best of times, moviemaking is an inexact science, which means that Hollywood studios typically decide whether they’ll greenlight a movie by looking at comparable films from the recent past and determining whether they succeeded or failed at the box office. If a similar movie, with similar stars, was a hit — the thinking goes — our movie is more likely to be a hit, too. There’s a fuzzy but cowardly logic to this calculus. It’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you’ve only made movies centered on cisgender white people, your historical precedents for the new movies you could make will nudge you toward more movies centered on cisgender white people. Hollywood has operated that way from the very beginning, and — despite a number of pioneering non-white filmmakers pushing back against the inequalities baked into the system — the system has proved maddeningly resistant to genuine, lasting change.

This is how a film buff like Mayo can begin an interview by rattling off the classic movies she admires — 2001, Apocalypse Now, that seemingly bottomless pool of Hitchcock thrillers — while advocating for a cinematic future that’s, in many ways, vastly different. Mayo’s belief, which she’s now putting into practice at Orion, is that making Hollywood more diverse isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s smart business at a time in which movies must appeal to an increasingly diverse and global audience.

This argument doesn’t feel like it should require hard evidence to shift the culture at every studio in Los Angeles, but if it does, she says, the massive successes of movies like Black Panther, Get Out and Moonlight (“stories by Black filmmakers that uniquely sit in Black culture”) should have been more than enough.

At times, Mayo confides, she’s been so frustrated by Hollywood’s resistance to genuine diversity that she’s considered quitting the industry altogether. “My job is to facilitate money and resources to artists,” she says. “I have spent my entire career in this industry dismayed by how hard it seems to be to attach that kind of value to content made by Black people. And then you think about women. And queer people. How to get them the money and resources that they often deserve, and don’t get. It has been one of the banes of my existence.”


Orion’s first feature, What If?, is currently in production. It’s being directed by Billy Porter, the star of FX’s Pose, who recently became the first openly gay Black man to win an Emmy Award. Mayo says it’s “a proper coming-of-age movie” in the vein of films by director John Hughes: Kids “learning about themselves and testing boundaries and falling in love.” The difference, in this case, is that the two lead characters happen to be a Persian cis boy and a Black trans girl. It’s a movie that will break ground just by depicting the diversity of the actual world so matter-of-factly.

By the time she’s talking about the type of movies she intends to make at Orion, Mayo is fully on a roll. “Is this something that people love so much that they want to watch it multiple times? That they want to put the poster up on their wall? That it was meaningful to their lives?” she says. The vision and enthusiasm is undeniable. You can only imagine what the film industry might look like if more studio heads approached their slate of movies with the same ethos. Hollywood would, quite literally, always have benefited from the wisdom and perspective of someone like Mayo — but now more than ever, it looks like Hollywood might actually be ready for her.

Which means, the work is just beginning. “It’s going to require consistent, applied pressure, and an unwavering commitment,” she says. “But the way I’ve always looked at it is: Look at all the work that was done prior to me, to create the position I now enjoy. If I move the needle? If we move the needle? It will have been time very well spent.”


Scott Meslow is a senior editor for The Week magazine and a writer and critic for publications including GQ, Vulture and The Atlantic. His first book, From Hollywood With Love: The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of the Romantic Comedy, will be published in February.