How Gabriel Gornell Is Helping To Make The Entertainment Industry More Diverse and Representative
An Interview With Edward Sylvan
If an executive like myself makes an effort to foster a diverse workplace, then the junior executives will perceive it as the norm, and follow suit when the decisions are their own. Leading by example is far more impactful than simply checking the “diversity box” within your HR Powerpoint.
As a part of my series about leaders helping to make the entertainment industry more diverse and representative, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Gabriel Gornell, an award-winning branding, production and distribution executive for the music and entertainment industries. He specializes in strategic initiatives for artists and filmed entertainment properties that reach audiences via multi-tiered, holistic distribution systems. One of his current projects is the ‘Back To Amy’ exhibit, live stream, and benefit commemorating Amy Winehouse on the tenth year since her passing.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Escapism, really. Growing up, we had a big Panasonic VCR in the basement and a local video store that I could walk to. This was before Blockbuster. Films were my escape, and my love went from escaping into them to trying to make them.
And I had this Ferris Bueller moment. I cut school to see Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which was about him cutting school. And his day was obviously way better than mine, and it was clear the only way to have that kind of day, was to literally create it. And my friends and I started making home movies immediately.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
About ten years ago I was approached by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences regarding the Daytime Emmys to help revitalize their Daytime Emmys brand. The only catch was that the awards event was in 30 days and they had no production company, no budget for the TV show, and no television network to air it.
As an independent producer, I had 30 days to pull the whole thing off. Aside from raising money and distributing the show, and actually producing the show itself… it also included navigating all the TV networks who had shows and talent nominated. My contract was signed on about May 29th and the show was to air live on June 28th. And needless to say, I pulled it off. And if I failed, my first Emmy show would have been the first year it wasn’t aired in 39 years. With my reputation in the balance, I pulled the whole thing off in a month. Scary and exciting. And a pretty crazy month.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Being from New York, advertising shoots were always a part of our production lives. And early days as an independent producer, I shot an entire commercial for denim… aka BLUE jeans… on a BLUE screen. Meaning you couldn’t see the jeans.
Funny now. And funny for everyone watching me try to sell the client on how cool it was to not see the jeans. The lesson I learned was simple but huge. Whenever producing something you’ve never done before, even if you think you’ve got it, simply include someone on your team who’s done it before. Always.
Ok thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our discussion. Can you describe how you are helping to make popular culture more representative of the US population?
I love that question because having purpose is essential. Coming off the past four years in the US, with so much division and hate, I’m definitely committed to helping make ongoing positive change, at least within my scope of influence. And for me, the most natural place is not only more representative of the US population but representative of my own immediate family too. Under my roof are two guys and two girls. Myself and my wife, and our daughter and son. On this scale, 2 guys and 2 girls, it’s easy to accept why our voices and influence must be equal. But the US population as a whole isn’t equal.
While I genuinely support many causes, the purpose that I experience and immediately touch on in my own day-to-day is opposing gender inequality. I owe this to my wife and daughter.
On this front, I’ve learned a lot from them. And I’ve witnessed my wife experience it for the past 20 years in business. On one end of the spectrum, there are the very real issues broadly labeled #MeToo and on the other end of the spectrum, there’s the very measurable, front and center and HR-aware disparities like pay inequality.
So how am I helping? Well, nothing I’m doing is enough. But I am committed to gender-equal staffing and gender-equal pay whenever and wherever I have say. And certainly on my own productions.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by the work you are doing?
Hopefully, the answer to this is my son. Recognizing gender inequality starts at home and of course, in school long before our kids are joining the workforce. Hopefully, he sees me acting a certain way, never making the stereotypical jokes or remarks that US culture seems to love. Hopefully, he sees me loving and encouraging my daughter without a gender filter. And hopefully, my daughter sees me expecting, even demanding that of him so that she, in turn, demands it of the boys and men in her life. I think our whole family has learned a lot of this from their mother, my wife. Having a purpose is something she leads us in. And she’s definitely been my inspiration in taking our beliefs from within our home to the workplace.
As an insider, this might be obvious to you, but I think it’s instructive to articulate this for the public who might not have the same inside knowledge. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why it’s really important to have diversity represented in Entertainment and its potential effects on our culture?
First, entertainment is like a see-saw that goes back and forth between leading the public’s interests and reflecting the public’s interests. And the lines get blurred in the sense that even when we’re just reflecting on existing public interests within one group, we might be leading a different group’s interests with those same reflections. So for this reason, it’s most responsible to reflect the good, so that we’re in turn leading with good. Here’s an example. When a cable news network only reflects the bad in society, they’re ultimately leading others by saying “it’s okay to act this way” because that’s what they choose to reflect in their news. The same is true for all parts of entertainment. So reflect what’s good in people. And that means ‘reflect diversity and inclusion in what you do.
The second reason is more straightforward. For a topic to be a part of regular conversation, people simply need to be exposed to it. So if diversity isn’t in a person’s day-to-day exposure, why would it be top of mind? Media and entertainment bear the cultural responsibility of starting conversations.
And third is true of all businesses. Not just entertainment. If an executive like myself makes an effort to foster a diverse workplace, then the junior executives will perceive it as the norm, and follow suit when the decisions are their own. Leading by example is far more impactful than simply checking the “diversity box” within your HR Powerpoint.
Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do to help address the root of the diversity issues in the entertainment business?
Make diverse hiring decisions. Get diversity into the C-Suites. And importantly, while asking how does this TV show lives on socials or how does this TV show lives in PR, we must now always ask what is the “for-good” component of this show. And for me, that’s often a message of inclusion and diversity.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is a combination of vision, strategy, and ‘up and down’ management. The ‘vision’ is about setting meaningful objectives. The ‘strategy’ is developing the overall plan designed to accomplish those objectives. And ‘up and down’ management is the ability to work with both the bosses above you and the staff supporting you, which ideally enables the collective team to deliver on every tactic required along the way. Obviously, not all bosses are leaders.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Rolodex over Resume. Time and again, the ability to directly call a decision-maker or influencer is far more impactful to the greenlight than what your resume says. There’s truth in “it’s who you know” in entertainment, so networking from college to entry-level to on-set, really does matter.
- Perception is Reality. If you work on big shows or at a big network than the perception is that you have big experience. Showrunners on smaller productions often have to do more with less, and can often produce circles around big network execs. But it often doesn’t matter. So at the very least, get some recognizable titles on your IMDB.
- Look the part. Today more than ever when the whole world is Zooming from their kitchen, present yourself like the kick-ass professional that you are. Your wardrobe, your hair, even your Zoom background matters.
- Reply to relevant business emails the same day. Even if your response is simply to acknowledge receipt. Respond same day!
- Always know a good bail bondsman.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Two words: Be Nice. At my age, I’ve just lost all tolerance for assholes. Plus it’s true, you collect more bees with honey than you do with vinegar. Also true, many independent production companies mark everything up an extra 10% for what’s called the “asshole factor” so if you’re an asshole, you’re gonna pay for it somewhere!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This quote is less lofty philosophy and more straight-up business advice. A mentor once said to me “if we can shake hands on it, we can write it down” which still is some of the best business life lessons that I’ve ever gotten. Any client or friend or long-term colleague who resists a contract likely has a reason for resisting. And their issues should not be your issues. Write it down and know where you stand.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
George Clooney. Though I may prefer happy hour over breakfast. Why? Because ‘a’ I don’t know him, and ‘b’ I think he’s got like the perfect balance of solid creative and meaningful purpose. Bono, too. Same exact reason. And I do love a Guinness. Okay, happy hour with George Clooney and Bono. That’s my final answer slash request. Tag them.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Instagram is @GabrielGornell hashtag happy hour with George Clooney and Bono
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!
You’re welcome. And thank you!
About The Interviewer: Growing up in Canada, Edward Sylvan was an unlikely candidate to make a mark on the high-powered film industry based in Hollywood. But as CEO of Sycamore Entertainment Group Inc, (SEGI) Sylvan is among a select group of less than ten Black executives who have founded, own and control a publicly traded company. Now, deeply involved in the movie business, he is providing opportunities for people of color.
In 2020, he was appointed president of the Monaco International Film Festival, and was encouraged to take the festival in a new digital direction.
Raised in Toronto, he attended York University where he studied Economics and Political Science, then went to work in finance on Bay Street, (the city’s equivalent of Wall Street). After years of handling equities trading, film tax credits, options trading and mergers and acquisitions for the film, mining and technology industries, in 2008 he decided to reorient his career fully towards the entertainment business.
With the aim of helping Los Angeles filmmakers of color who were struggling to understand how to raise capital, Sylvan wanted to provide them with ways to finance their creative endeavors.
At Sycamore Entertainment he specializes in print and advertising financing, marketing, acquisition and worldwide distribution of quality feature-length motion pictures, and is concerned with acquiring, producing and promoting films about equality, diversity and other thought provoking subject matter which will also include nonviolent storytelling.