How ‘Two Popes’ producer Dan Lin is improving diversity in Hollywood

January 22, 2020, 11:30 AM UTC
VEN.02.20.Dan Lin
Producer Dan Lin at Rideback in Hollywood, California on January 7, 2020. Photograph by Maggie Shannon for Fortune
Photograph by Maggie Shannon for Fortune

When Dan Lin started as a creative executive at Warner Bros. in the late ’90s, diversity was not a priority at most studios.

Back then, Lin was one of three minorities in the film production group at the junior executive level, developing movies that WB top brass would consider for green-lighting. 

He noticed that any time Jet Li, Ang Lee, or Jackie Chan came in for a meeting, his bosses encouraged Lin to join them.

The young executive, who is fluent in Mandarin and English, grabbed the opportunity to witness the ­decision-making process with studio execs and prominent filmmakers, and he used his language skills to help translate conversations.

Today, Lin is the most prolific and successful Asian-American producer in Hollywood, and diversity is front and center at his production company, Rideback.

Lin’s producing credits include the Lego Movie and It franchises, and his films have grossed more than $5 billion in worldwide box office. Lin recently helmed hits such as Disney’s live-action Aladdin and Oscar-nominated The Two Popes for Netflix. And he’s not slowing down. Current projects include Lethal Weapon 5 and a sequel to Aladdin.

Last year, Lin teamed up with MRC, the studio behind House of Cards and films such as Ted and Baby Driver, to create the Rideback TV Incubator, a paid residency program for mid-career TV writers from underrepresented backgrounds. Participants are paired with volunteer mentors and develop shows to pitch at cable networks and streaming services.

“This is not a charity,” Lin says. “Hollywood is a business.” He adds that the incubator will create eight shows that will be produced by Rideback and receive financial and studio support from MRC.

“We want to prove this is a new way to do business. Diversity is a good driver for profit and brings fresh perspectives to the Golden Age of Television,” he says.

Albert Cheng, COO and cohead of television at Amazon Studios, praised Lin’s approach: “Dan has broken a lot of barriers because he works hard, is focused, and has genuine humility, openness, and a desire to build and lead.”

The desire to succeed while helping others along the way was ingrained in Lin from childhood. The producer, who was born in Taiwan, immigrated to the U.S. with his parents when he was a year old. 

“My way of learning about American culture was through watching movies and TV,” Lin says. “Our family and I came as immigrants, and many people helped us along the way. So when we were blessed with opportunities, we wanted to circle back to bring others along.”

After getting a BS in economics from the Wharton School in 1994, Lin worked as a management consultant before joining Universal Studios. Returning to school, he got his MBA from Harvard and eventually became senior vice president of production for Warner Bros. Pictures.

“Asians are taught to respect authority and to defer to others,” says Lin, 46. “I had to push myself to speak up in meetings and adjust to corporate America, because if I waited to speak, I would never be heard. I watched those who were successful and emulated them.”

In 2007 he left to form his own production company with an exclusive feature deal at Warner Bros. A few years later, the married father of two took his young family to a dude ranch in Montana, where he heard stories about the Old West. He was struck by conversations about how powerful community and commitment to others can be.

“The ethos of Rideback Ranch, the creative campus we’ve built here, comes from that,” Lin explains. “When a cowboy falls off his horse, you ride back to help him up. Studios emphasize quarterly earnings. Here we’re a community for artists. We collaborate and celebrate people’s wins, and we support them when they fail.”

Rideback Ranch, located in L.A.’s Historic Filipinotown, houses Lin’s production company, the Warner Animation Group, David Ayer’s Cedar Park Entertainment, Margot Robbie’s Lucky Chap Entertainment, and others. They also volunteer for community projects in the neighborhood with Rideback.

Lin’s diversity initiatives are numerous: Rideback employees work with fifth-graders at Union Avenue Elementary, which serves a mostly immigrant student population in Historic Filipinotown, teaching them how to write screenplays as part of a citywide Young Storytellers program. 

Along with filmmaker Ava DuVernay and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Lin launched the Evolve Entertainment Fund to open doors into the entertainment industry for underrepresented college students through paid internships and mentoring. 

And this year, Lin plans to expand the Rideback Collective, a collaborative screenwriter program, by providing financing for up to 10 writers to develop their projects, which Rideback would then produce.

The future of successful storytelling, he says, is a world in which Hollywood power brokers no longer say that diversity should be a priority for business reasons. Instead, success will mean routinely hiring filmmakers and TV show creators who are diverse.

As for Lin, “I’m not waiting for the future. I’m doing it.” 


Dan Lin’s best advice

Move your company offices to a ­diverse neighborhood. We moved our offices from Hollywood to Historic Filipinotown because we wanted to work in an area that was more ethnically diverse, representing a richer array of cultures and backgrounds. We employ neighborhood residents and look for people who have different life experiences than we do.


Selected works

VEN.02.20. Lego Movie
Warner Bros. Pictures/Everett Collection

The Lego Movie (2014)

Budget: $60 M.
Global gross: $468 M.

VEN.02.20. It
Warner Bros. Pictures/Everett Collection

It (2017)

Budget: $35 M.
Global gross: $702 M.

VEN.02.20. Aladdin

Aladdin (2019)

Budget: $183 M.
Global gross: $1.05 B

VEN.02.20. The Two Popes

The Two Popes (2019)

For Netflix.
Four Golden Globe nominations.

A version of this article appears in the February 2020 issue of Fortune with the headline “Riding for Representation.”

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