Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Films and movies:
The disappointments of Oscar 2015

WITH AN 18 percent drop in viewership this year from 2014, the Oscars telecast may have become the last, final cultural victim of the era of seriously lowered attention spans and seriously increased distractions that we live in. Or maybe it was something else, something deeper.

Thanks to a spate of nominated films that not nearly enough people saw (much less got passionate about); and a weak rationale for excluding at least one other well-received film that had clout with critics and audiences — a film whose racial undertone is the kind of thing that gives Oscar hives — the voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may slowly be making the Academy Awards the niche event it apparently wants to be.

OK, that’s over the top. Anything that gets 36.6 million people around the TV fireplace for three hours-plus in the digital age can’t really be called “niche.” But Sunday’s broadcast was watched by that number of viewers, the Oscars’ lowest viewership since 2009 — this after recent years of steadily increasing eyeball counts (and in spite of Neil Patrick Harris’ tighty-whiteys). What the hell happened?

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Part of it was that Academy voters fell in love with films, while the rest of the country was trying to fall in love with movies. While the spiritedly eccentric “Birdman” won for Best Picture, and prestige period films in British locations did well (“The Imitation Game” won for Best Adapted Screenplay, “The Theory of Everything” got Eddie Redmayne a Best Actor Oscar), other films with wide populist appeal and a correspondingly healthy box office — “Gone Girl,” “Interstellar,” “The Lego Movie,” “Selma” — couldn’t get arrested.

“Gone Girl” has grossed $167 million domestically, and $368 million worldwide as of Feb. 19, according to Box Office Mojo. “Interstellar” has grossed $187.5 million domestic, $672 million worldwide. “The Lego Movie”? $257 million in the USA, $468 million worldwide. “Selma”? $49.6 million in domestic receipts since a limited opening on Christmas Day. These were the kinds of numbers that put butts in the seats, all year long.

But with the exception of Rosamund Pike’s nom for Best Supporting Actor in “Gone Girl,” those films were shut out of the mainstream Oscar competition. “Interstellar” was nominated for work in the technical categories (Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects, for which it won) but none in the more popularly anticipated creative categories.

Films that didn’t open that widely — Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken” — got great buzz from critics and moviegoers alike. Alas, not much love from the Academy voters: “Unbroken” got technical nods for cinematography, film editing and sound mixing, but other than that? Bupkis. And Jolie, for whom the film was a deeply-realized passion project, didn’t even get a nomination for Best Director. It’s grossed at least $115 million domestic, $160 million worldwide, according to

“Guardians of the Galaxy,” a popcorn movie if there ever was one, garnered one nomination, for Best Makeup & Hairstyling, and winning nothing.

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IT’S SOMETIMES easy to forget that, at the end of the day, despite all the customer-facing razzle-dazzle, the Oscars are the movie industry’s celebration of itself. It’s not the raucous, quasi-populist bacchanal of the Golden Globes, and it sure as hell ain’t the People’s Choice Awards.

Since there’s a degree of exclusivity built into its infrastructure and history, we shouldn’t be surprised that the industry insiders populating the Academy voter rolls tend to reward their own. On that basis, we shouldn’t be surprised that “Selma,” Ava DuVernay’s towering, powerful drama of civil rights protest in the crucible year of 1965, was largely ignored by Academy voters. For any number of reasons.

Some were logistical and technological; according to at least one report, the film was subject to editing that was too close to last-minute, snarling the process of getting physical screeners —the actual discs of films in contention— into the hands of members of the Screen Actors, Producers and Directors Guilds, the people most ready to make a difference in the fortunes of “Selma” and every film from Hollywood last year.

Tim Gray of Variety reported on Feb. 3: “It can cost up to $800,000 and take three to six weeks to manufacture, watermark and ship discs. This lag time was the reason guild voters didn’t get screeners of 'Selma’; a final print was delivered Nov. 26, so screeners were not available until Dec. 18. The 'Selma’ problem would have been solved with streaming: It takes only a few days to two weeks to encode and upload a title, at a fraction of the cost.”

One reason may have been historical: not longer after it was released, the film faced a concerted pushback by historians and editorialists who claimed that the movie’s portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson contained historical inaccuracies that largely sidelined LBJ’s efforts on behalf of the Voting Rights Act.

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But in a Jan. 15 analysis, Kyle Buchanan of Vulture offered up the elephant in the American room, that other possible reason, the one people don’t want to talk about:

“It’s true that 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture last year, but it may be just as true that some Oscar voters, still recovering from that harrowing picture, were now reluctant to watch another important historical drama about race. Ninety-three percent of Oscar voters are white, and while the Academy is making a concerted effort to diversify its ranks — and is now presided over by its first black president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs — progress has been slow.”

DuVernay’s film of protesters who attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March 1965, in the face of Alabama cops determined to keep that symbol of resistance from taking place, has been widely praised by critics and the public. Which raises the question of how and why a relatively minor, administratively procedural matter should scuttle the legitimate chances of such a galvanizing picture to vie for Oscar gold.

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THE ONE unalloyed triumph of Oscar glory for “Selma” was “Glory,” the John Legend-Common composition that took the Best Song Oscar on Tuesday. But despite this moment, and if we didn’t know it already, what the 87th Oscars ceremony showed us (along with the process that led to it) is that Oscar plays by its own rules. Always has, always will.

The problem is that this year’s golden-dude derby showed the industry’s mattering less to the people it should matter to more: the paying customers, the everyday people who go to the movies. That much is reflected in the viewership numbers just released.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The new playa:
How Larry Wilmore changes late-night

ON JAN. 19, after considerable media fanfare, veteran TV writer-producer Larry Wilmore debuted “The Nightly Show” on Comedy Central. Wilmore, who created “The Bernie Mac Show,” played an early role in ABC’s new and brilliant multiracial bellwether series “Blackish,” and who for seven-plus years was Jon Stewart’s minority-affairs go-to as Senior Black Correspondent on CC’s “The Daily Show,” followed Stewart that night and kept his promise to shake things up in the exclusivist late-night desert that, until that night, defined the chieftains of America’s TV after dark.

Wilmore’s been all over the place from the jump, weighing in on issues from the furious controversy over Bill Cosby addressing rape allegations to normalizing relations with Cuba, from the firmness of Tom Brady's footballs to the need for taking climate change seriously. “If we don’t figure this out,” he said, “it won’t be just black people saying ‘I can’t breathe.’”

And on Feb. 4th, in what Mediaite called the first great “Nightly Show” segment, Wilmore engaged in a deep dive on the particularly sensitive issue of black men and the police with a panel of four black fathers.

Wilmore appears on a set whose backdrop is a Robinson-projection view of the world upside down, and it’s an apt visual metaphor for Wilmore’s own industry; maybe never before has the world of U.S. electronic media been in such a heads-is-tails situation vis-à-vis race and ethnicity.

Wilmore’s program takes its righteous contrary place in a late-night environment where Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel are the walking symbols of the white male hegemony that’s characterized late-night broadcast TV almost exclusively since Steve Allen pioneered late-night on the “Tonight Show” in 1954.

And Wilmore breaks the mold in other ways. As an experienced TV comedian, writer, producer, showrunner and now the host of a major late-night franchise, he’s precisely the kind of success that has a big influence on Hollywood: one whose diversity is as much about what he does as who he is.

The fact that he’s African American complicates things wonderfully (for viewers) and seriously (for risk-averse TV suits).

The good complication for TV viewers is obvious; as an insider Wilmore plays a big role in programming that pushes back against a TV landscape that overlooks or marginalizes minorities, broadening our own perspectives and exposing us to the perspectives of others.

For TV executives, Wilmore frustrates the creative inertia that defines the U.S. entertainment industry on matters of race. It’s no longer enough to say or think that “there’s nobody out there.” And it hasn’t been for a long time.

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WILMORE MAKES his ascendancy in what can fairly be called the Shonda Rhimes era – an ongoing period in which the creator and/or executive producer of “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” “Private Practice” and (our latest guiltless pleasure) “How to Get Away With Murder,” has obliterated old assumptions about blacks and the power equation in modern Hollywood.

Shows like Fox’s “Empire” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” ABC’s “Blackish” — and the full-on commitment ABC has made to more diverse programming (“Fresh Off the Boat” just debuted, “American Crime” breaks in March) throughout the calendar — are also indicators of how the landscape is changing.

Rhimes’ juggernaut has raised the bar and the stakes for broadcast networks and their counterparts throughout the television universe. “Diversity” may be the hot buzzword for programmers right now, but whether the spate of minority-themed shows represents a sea change in perspective or just a momentary spasm is yet to be seen.

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According to a Directors Guild of America study released in January, first-time minority directors helmed only 13 percent of episodic programming (read: dramatic shows) over the five-year life of the study (2009-2014). So much for bringing along the next generation.

There’s more that’s just as dispiriting in the 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA. Citing figures from the 2011-2012 season, the study found that minority show creators were only 4.2 percent of broadcast comedies and dramas; minorities were lead actors in 5.1 percent of broadcast comedies and dramas; and 62.5 percent of the writing staffs of those broadcast comedies and dramas were 10 percent minority or less.

In some metrics, the study found, minorities got better representation on cable properties – but in other ways less representation as well. One graph from the survey found minorities and women panoramically underrepresented anywhere from 3 to 1 to, in one case, 12 to 1.

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TO NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke, the time’s more than right for television execs to adopt a mainstream mentality vis-à-vis minority viewers — an assessment, finally, of minority audiences as something other than “minority.”

“On top of just wanting to reflect how the world looks, diversity is good business," Salke told The Hollywood Reporter. "A show like Empire is a turbo boost to the change. It's a wake-up call that there's a gigantic audience that doesn't want to see themselves reflected in token casting. They want authenticity.”

Late-night is something of a litmus test for television as a whole; that’s why Wilmore’s “Nightly Show” could be such a game-changer. The role of late-night has genuinely evolved in recent years. From the beginning, Stewart and “The Daily Show” deftly blended reporting and on-point commentary; his Comedy Central counterpart, Stephen Colbert (who replaces Letterman on “The Late Show” later this year) joined, and then dominated, the national conversation. Late-night has become a source of actual news for the younger demographic of viewers that the industry and its advertisers covet.

And with Stewart’s Friday announcement of plans to step down from “The Daily Show” sometime later this year, the wagering over his replacement has already begun, with a number of names already floated. In the parlor game of name-dropping to come, most of the prospects will be white males. So why not Larry Wilmore? As someone with the multi-hyphenate talents Hollywood both needs and craves, he’s in the perfect position to be for late-night what Shonda Rhimes is for prime-time: An example of what happens when you change the game by changing the players.

Also published at Medium. Image credits: Wilmore: Peter Yang/Comedy Central. Rhimes: via; possible original derivation: ABC. Directors by ethnicity chart: Directors Guild of America.

This is where you can reach me now

Nothing is worse than an itch you can never scratch.

— Leon in ”Blade Runner”

A LOT CAN happen in nine weeks, believe me. Since your not-quite-humble narrator last checked in:

ISIS’ pointlessly ruthless atrocities have continued unabated, killing more innocent people in secret undisclosed locations. In the days before Christmas, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, a gunman with Ferguson and retribution on his mind, killed two New York City police officers in Brooklyn, before committing suicide.

Last month President Obama delivered the 2015 State of the Union, by most estimations an address that gave us a good long glimpse of the Barack Obama we fell in love with: bold, cocky, aspirational, just this side of smashmouth.

A few weeks back, the Seattle Seahawks — my team! — handed the New England Patriots their fourth Super Bowl victory in a deservedly improbable, utterly unnecessary pass on the 3-yard line — or was it the 2? — that was intercepted with seconds left on the clock.

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Brian Williams, the anchor of the NBC Nightly News, paid the price for misremembering personal events. Williams, who apparently recalled a successful 2003 RPG attack on his helicopter over Iraq when there never was one, was furloughed for six months from arguably the best gig in broadcasting. Lester Holt is filling in.

In the last few months, Cuba released an American prisoner, an overture meant to support the White House inclination to explore normalizing relations with the island nation. Ohio State upset Oregon to win the first undisputed, undilutable college football championship. David Carr, a beloved columnist with The New York Times, died, as did Edward Brooke, former Massachusetts senator, veteran “60 Minutes” correspondent Bob Simon, legendary football coach Jerry Tarkanian, actress Donna Douglas (Elly May on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” if ya don’t know) and Gary Owens, the celebrated voice of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” died at the age of 80.

In that same time, yours truly made the move almost 1,100 miles south, vacating the lush rainforest of Seattle and moving to Los Angeles, where media opportunities are more plentiful and the sun is a more reliable everyday companion article.
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