Alana Mayo is the President of Orion Pictures, where she was hired to relaunch the MGM label to focus on underrepresented voices. She was previously Head of Production for Michael B. Jordan's production company, Outlier Society, where she oversaw the production of movies and TV shows including Just Mercy, Without Remorse, Fahrenheit 451, David Makes Man and Raising Dion. Other roles include VP of Production at Paramount Studios, where she worked on movies such as A Quiet Place, Annihilation, The Big Short, Fences, Selma, and 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, and Vice President and Head of Original Development at Vimeo where she helped to create original television content for the platform. Here, she discusses how to navigate telling diverse stories in the film and television industry and why being an outsider can be a superpower.
The entertainment industry is notoriously cutthroat. How have you navigated your career within it?
When I was in college I worked for Lee Daniels, and he was so supportive of me. He empowered me in many different ways, including paying me which was very uncommon for college students. Plus, his company was run by two black women so working with two badass producers let me know it was possible to make it in this industry.
I was very confident for my first, maybe five years in LA. I was defiant, loved a challenge and was sure I would disrupt the system. Then I went to work for Fox. It was my first job as an executive, and there was a massively steep learning curve. I was one of two executives of color. In the majority of my career, I've only ever been one of one in terms of women, executives of color, and I've never met another woman who's not white and who's queer in any of these environments. So that was really uncomfortable for me.
To what do you attribute to the lack of diversity in hiring in show business?
A lot of the lack of diversity in Hollywood is because people hire based on relationships, resumes and previous experience, which is a stupid way to hire. People should hire based on competency. Instead of saying: "I'm hiring this position and here are the crews I worked with on my last however many movies, so I'm gonna hire them." Or "I'm looking for a Director of Photography, so let me look at who the top 10 people are. I want one of them." We have had 100 years of exclusion of entire groups of people so those top 10 names are always going to be the same. Just the act of saying you have to go through a different process of hiring is a massive transformation because it's not intuitive to most people who do this.
Through the process of moviemaking, we get to tell our own stories and humanize ourselves to people who don't see our humanity. Do you feel a sense of responsibility when you begin a production?
That's so beautifully said. It sounds kind of grandiose to say, but I really believe that the images you see, particularly as a young person, shape your vision of yourself and shape your vision of the world. It works both ways. It works for people who, in their worlds, might not feel safe, might not feel seen, might not feel worthy. It also works on the side of people who have a terrible belief system about people who are not themselves. It is a privilege and a responsibility to be able to both reflect that and shape it. Being able to show black people not just from the lens of trauma, but from the lens of aspiration is a gift.
We have had 100 years of exclusion of entire groups of people so those top 10 names are always going to be the same. Just the act of saying you have to go through a different process of hiring is a massive transformation.
How has mentorship influenced your career?
At one point I was going to join the Peace Corps, I was so over Hollywood. I just thought it was a depraved, terrible community of people who didn't care about art and cinema. Then I got offered a position to work for the President of Production at Paramount, Mark Evans, who became a mentor to me. When I first sat down with him, he wanted to hear about my opinions, my life, and what movies I liked. Everything I said he was responsive to. It was a revelation. He told me I mattered every chance he got, he invited me to meetings, introduced me to people and asked me what I thought.
Additionally, when I worked with director Alex Garland it was the first movie that I personally oversaw as an executive. I thought he was going to give me a prepared speech and I'd ask follow-up questions - I was completely unprepared for a real conversation. I was kind of taken aback. We had this conversation about James Baldwin and my grandparents, and 5-10 minutes into the conversation, he leaned back in his chair and called me an outsider. I agreed. Then he told me that was a good thing and that people in this industry were going to try to make me conform. He told me not only should I not conform, but that it was my superpower. He encouraged me to stay on the outside.
Mentorship is a big deal. I owe my career to it.
He told me not only should I not conform, but that it was my superpower. He encouraged me to stay on the outside.
The old-school approach to getting on the big screen was basically if you made a movie that was considered arthouse or indie in any way, then there were a limited number of theaters it could go in. It got a one or two week run, if it wasn't a huge hit, then it was gone. There was no discovery process, and people need time to discover projects. How do you think the existence of streaming platforms like Netflix has revolutionized that process?
Netflix has revolutionized that process in an amazing way. You're seeing creators that are out of the gate - never created for television - having their own show. For example, Donald Glover made one of the most culturally relevant pieces of content of the decade. I watched another show by a rapper, Little Dicky, who I hadn't known about before. And I wondered, "How did you get a television show?" But it's so so good. Everything's changed.
What's more exciting is that legacy people are getting pushed aside and younger people are just taking the ball and running with it. They have a desire to make personal work that speaks to them, even if it's outside of the mainstream. They are seizing this moment. When we look back on this time, at the kind of content that got made, we'll see that it was a type of renaissance. It's really exciting.
How do you resolve differences of opinion with co-workers?
It's all about communication. I try to get my professional relationships to a place where we can have difficult conversations respectfully. It's not always about finding a consensus. Often, there won't be one, so it's important to remember you're on the same team and have the same goals. Viewed in that regard, disagreements are less about disagreeing and more about challenging. I think, with any relationship, personal or professional, it's all about learning how to communicate in a way where both people feel heard.