Saturday, January 30, 2016

Hollywood and the Academy:
When two things are the same thing

THE RECENT diversity-related changes by the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have delighted a lot of people and enraged as many more. But one consequence of the AMPAS leadership’s announcements on Jan. 22 has been a growing tendency to put rhetorical space between the Academy as an organization and Hollywood as an industry, a collective of creatives making decisions independent of the Academy. This bifurcated mindset got its highest profile of expression at the Producers Guild nominees breakfast in Hollywood on Jan. 23.

“One of the things that makes this country so powerful is the mixed pot that is the soul of this country, said Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, the Oscar-winning director of “Birdman” and a strong favorite for a repeat Oscar for “The Revenant.” “And if that is not transmitted on the screen, something is wrong. But The Academy and all the awards are at the end of the chain — change should happen at the beginning of the chain.”

Basil Iwanyk, the producer of “Sicario,” agreed. “As Alejandro said, the Academy does exist at the end of the chain,” he said, “ ... but it’s a big mistake to focus on how the Academy votes instead of focusing on how movies and television are generated. I understand the rage at the Academy. But that’s not the problem. The problem comes much earlier in the process.”

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The hearts of these two movie professionals couldn’t be more in the right place. But there’s a convenient, disturbing compartmentalization at work in these statements, one that takes comfort with the idea that Hollywood and the Academy are separate entities, independent of each other, at opposite ends of the creative process. In fact, they are anything but.

Steve Pond, the awards columnist at TheWrap, recently reported on the perspective of those sharing this viewpoint.

Pond reported: “Those who’ve applauded and those who’ve criticized the Academy’s initiatives generally agree on one thing: The problem starts not with the Academy, but with the movie industry itself, and until more diverse voices are given positions of power within the studio system, voters will still face a lineup of potential nominees far too heavy on the white male perspective.”

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BY THEIR thinking, then, the Academy is helpless to influence Hollywood’s production culture, and that regardless of changes to AMPAS membership, the Academy can hardly be responsible for nominating films that aren’t written, produced, financed and distributed by Hollywood.

True, to a point. But by the same token, Hollywood needs the Academy to ratify and confirm (through the Oscar nominations, the Oscar winners, and over the long haul of time) precisely which films should be written, greenlighted, financed, made and distributed. As surely as the Academy is influenced by the films Hollywood anoints with production and distribution, Hollywood is influenced by the Academy, the public prestige it bestows once a year, by the motion picture history it symbolizes every day of the year.

Over generations, both Hollywood and the Academy have gone to great lengths to fortify the idea of their interchangeability (that’s never more true than during Oscar season). For that reason, and in the wake of the current crisis, attempts to rhetorically separate the two are creating a distinction without a difference. Certainly in the public eye.

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The notion that change in the industry occurs in only one direction, from Hollywood to the Academy, couldn’t be more wrong. The one-direction view reveals a disconnect, an overlooking the inescapable: The films that the Academy honors are exactly the kind of films Hollywood wants to go on producing and distributing. Many of the films that Hollywood makes are exactly the kind of films the Academy has historically honored, and continues to make part of the movie history it celebrates.

It’s not really a chain that Iñárritu and Iwanyk describe, it’s closer to a Möbius strip — something with no beginning or ending, a cycle in which two seemingly separate entities are actually, thoroughly dependent on each other at every stage of the creative process. One in which, on the basis of the public’s perception, they’re one and the same.

And the public perception is the one that really matters. Why? Simple: Because motion pictures aren’t made for Alejandro Iñárritu, Basil Iwanyk, Hollywood or the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. They’re made for the people of the world, and the more of the world’s people who appear in those films, the better.

Image credits: Iñárritu: Rex Shutterstock via

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Oscars 2016: This year, next year and beyond

THIS YEAR, it was going to be different, we just knew it. There was no going back to last year’s incredible whiteness of Oscar.

The industry was facing too much flak, getting too much heat after the Sony hacking scandal moved the rock of studio business as usual to reveal the deeply ingrained racist, sexist, biased attitudes scurrying to stay hidden from the light of day. Something had to give.

But no. Despite hugely popular films starring people of color, and critically acclaimed performances at that, the 6,261 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences again retreated to the safe harbor of breathtakingly monochromatic demographics, and the attitudes arising from those demographics, in their nomination choices for the 2016 Oscars.

Thanks to changes made Jan. 21 and announced the following morning, though, that safe harbor may not be so safe anymore. Read the text below:

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In a unanimous vote Thursday night (1/21), the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences approved a sweeping series of substantive changes designed to make the Academy’s membership, its governing bodies, and its voting members significantly more diverse. The Board’s goal is to commit to doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020.

“The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up,” said Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs. “These new measures regarding governance and voting will have an immediate impact and begin the process of significantly changing our membership composition.”

Beginning later this year, each new member’s voting status will last 10 years, and will be renewed if that new member has been active in motion pictures during that decade. In addition, members will receive lifetime voting rights after three ten-year terms; or if they have won or been nominated for an Academy Award. We will apply these same standards retroactively to current members. In other words, if a current member has not been active in the last 10 years they can still qualify by meeting the other criteria. Those who do not qualify for active status will be moved to emeritus status. Emeritus members do not pay dues but enjoy all the privileges of membership, except voting. This will not affect voting for this year’s Oscars.

At the same time, the Academy will supplement the traditional process in which current members sponsor new members by launching an ambitious, global campaign to identify and recruit qualified new members who represent greater diversity. 

In order to immediately increase diversity on the Board of Governors, the Academy will establish three new governor seats that will be nominated by the President for three-year terms and confirmed by the Board.

The Academy will also take immediate action to increase diversity by adding new members who are not Governors to its executive and board committees where key decisions about membership and governance are made. …

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HOLLYWOOD KNOWS the sequel, of course, and the #OscarsSoWhite backlash from 2015 has returned, with a vengeance. This year’s tweets are no less angry than last year’s, and they’re maybe angrier, considering the 2016 drought wasn’t really expected at all. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network isn’t looking the other way. TheWrap reported on Jan. 21 that its Los Angeles chapter proposes a national boycott of the telecast.

“The lack of African Americans and women excluded from the major categories of Oscar nominees is appalling,” the chapter’s political director, Najee Ali said in a statement on Thursday. “Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the African-American president of the academy, is nothing but a pawn, and the black face of Hollywood’s system and culture that is racist, sexist and lacks true diversity.”

Ali’s statement said that NAN would hold a national “TV Tune Out” of the Feb. 28 ceremony. “This will send the message that diversity in the film industry must be more than a hollow promise,” Ali’s statement said, as reported in TheWrap.

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Make no mistake, the Oscars telecast this year will be worth watching. Last year’s program, with host Neil Patrick Harris, only garnered 36.6 million people, Oscars’ lowest viewership since 2009 (Harris’ tighty-whiteys notwithstanding).

You’d best believe that Chris Rock, as reliably incendiary as Harris is generally palatable, will be turning up this year’s show, bringing major heat on precisely the lack of diversity in Hollywood that makes his being the host this year so important.

Rock’s almost certain to draw a bigger audience, too, and that’s exactly the problem. The higher numbers of viewers are likely to be a direct result of Chris Rock hosting the show — and saying what we know Chris Rock will say about the show. The suits and showrunners will be happy about the viewer totals being higher this year than last. But let’s face it, when people are tuning into a show to watch a major comedian do a beatdown of the same show you’re watching ... that’s not a good sign.

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LOOK AT the demographic statistics for what you might call the Academy of Motion Picture Old Farts and Seances:

In an exhaustive 2012 study, the Los Angeles Times determined there were 5,765 voting members, 94 percent of them white and 77 percent male.

Only 2 percent at that time were black and less than 2 percent were Latino. According to The Times, the Academy had a median age of 62.

In a 2013 study, the paper found the Academy (then 6,028 voting members) was 93 percent white and 76 percent male; the average age crept slightly higher, to 63 years of age.

TIME Labs: The entire history of Oscar’s diversity problem in one chart

In a study of its own, The Economist found there were no actors from ethnic minorities nominated in 1995 and 1997 — or in any year between 1975 and 1980. Ninety-five percent of all nominations went to white actors. And this year, Time magazine reported that “[n]ot since 1979-1980 has the Academy gone two years without nominating a non-white actor in any of the top 4 categories.”

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Indulge some cynicism about targets and forecasts; such things are woefully easy to smudge and tweak and rationalize. The Academy’s stated intention to “doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020” sure sounds impressive, and will be when it happens.

But hearing it, you can’t help but think about the pledge made in 1978 by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), which called for racial parity in American newsrooms by the year 2000. We all know how that turned out.

If there’s a lesson for the Academy to learn, it’s embodied in an observation made by a journalism educator years ago.

“It is hard for a diverse newsroom to emerge within traditional newsroom culture,” Dr. Mercedes Lynn de Uriarte, a professor of journalism at The University of Texas at Austin, observed in March 2003. Just change the word “newsroom” in the previous quotation to “Academy” or “Hollywood,” and you’re up to speed.

The Oscars 2016: The other diversity

SO MUCH of the current Oscar-related conversation around the need for wider “diversity” has more or less automatically revolved around race, ethnicity and gender. But what we mean when we talk about diversity is subject to other interpretations in the context of art and popular culture. Some of the films that were overlooked for nomination didn’t fit in the box marked Traditional Cinematic Origins.

“Tangerine,” Sean S. Baker’s story of a transgender sex worker’s revenge on the pimp who cheated on her when she was in jail, attracted considerable attention not just based on its powerful voices and characters, but also on the fact that such a great film was made with three iPhone 5Ss. For whatever reasons the Academy voters had for not nominating “Tangerine,” we’re entitled to believe that one of them may have been an inability to take such a film seriously as art because of its physical origins as a product of the DIY ethos.

In their minds, by this speculation, “Tangerine” was too easy, it bypassed all the customs and mechanisms and bylaws that make Hollywood what it is. It came from outside the system; in today's ravenously competitive marketplace, that fact alone makes it a threat to the system.

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We’re equally entitled to believe that same thinking was present in Hollywood and circulating among Academy voters considering nominations for “Beasts of No Nation,” the Cary Joji Fukunaga film of child soldiers in an African civil war. The $12 million film, released by Netflix in October, stars Idris Elba and Abraham Atta, in two of the best performances in any film released last year.

“Beasts” came away with nothing in the Oscar nomination announcement. Reason? Much of it almost certainly had to do with the subject matter; thematically speaking, a civil war in Africa is hardly a walk in the park.

You have to wonder (given the 94 percent white Academy voter demographic) whether “Beasts” ever really had a shot, and the fact that four of the country’s biggest movie theater chains effectively locked “Beasts” out of their theaters) and considering the film’s raw discomfiting violence amid civil war in West Africa, a world as far from the lives of Academy voters as our world is from the sun.

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Chalk this up to an absence of the diversity everyone talks about when they talk about diversity at all. But “Beasts” exhibited another kind of diversity, the kind hinted at with “Tangerine.” Netflix released “Beasts” in first-run movie theaters and as streaming content, online — on the same day, and faced a revolt among the bigger exhibitors, TheWrap reported.

The industry reaction to this “day-and-date” approach — putting streaming technology on an equal same-day footing with old-fashioned butts in the seats — means that, among other things, Netflix is seen by Hollywood and the studios as a prime danger, an existential threat to the very business model of the movies.

No doubt, some Academy members voted accordingly in their nominations. This other diversity got short shrift on nomination day, just like the diversity everyone’s talking about right now.

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It’s really nothing new for Netflix. Variety reported on how last September the company faced the same reluctance from the major theater chains showing the sequel to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which Netflix developed with IMAX and the Weinstein Company. AMC, Cinemark, Carmike and Regal — the four chains that monkey-wrenched “Beasts of No Nation” as a theatrical film — did the same to Netflix’s earlier day-and-date bid.

And don’t even get me started about “The Interview.”

Expressions of intolerance like this don’t really enter the conversation when people discuss the merits of more diversity in Hollywood, but they probably should. Fact is, it’s minority and independent filmmakers who are the most likely to take out-of-the-box approaches like “Tangerine”'s to getting a film made. They have to. They don't have monster production budgets, they can’t always secure big financing, they don’t have access to industry contacts, they often can’t pay for a hotel room in Park City, Utah for a week in January.

Next time you hear the word “diversity” in a context related to the Academy Awards, don’t think the scope of that word ends with race, ethnicity or gender — the usual referentials of the D-word. There’s also a serious need for more diversity of technology in Hollywood. Oscar missed the chance to observe that this year. Maybe they’ll get it right next year. Or the year after that. Whenever it happens, sure as the sunrise.

Image credits: Tangerine poster: © 2015 Magnolia Pictures. Berasts of No Nation poster, Netflix logo: © 2015 Netflix.

The Oscars 2016: Two fighting an uphill battle

OF ALL the people embroiled in the Oscars controversy, you have to feel for two in particular, caught up in this mess by accident and through no fault of their own, people in both an untenable and an enviable position as change agents now, on Feb. 28th — Oscar night — and beyond.

Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the president of the Academy and an African American, is in an impossible public-relations position, presiding as she does over the very organization that’s the source of the problem.

With the serial embarrassments of last year’s Oscars derby and the embarrassment of this year’s nominations, Isaacs could be forgiven if she hollered and threw up both her hands, tired of pushing against an institutional boulder that will not budge very long or move very far.

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A statement from Isaacs preceding the one on Jan. 22 shows how dedicated she is to making change from inside the beast.

“I’d like to acknowledge the wonderful work of this year’s nominees. While we celebrate their extraordinary achievements, I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion. This is a difficult but important conversation, and it’s time for big changes. The Academy is taking dramatic steps to alter the makeup of our membership. In the coming days and weeks we will conduct a review of our membership recruitment in order to bring about much-needed diversity in our 2016 class and beyond.

“As many of you know, we have implemented changes to diversify our membership in the last four years. But the change is not coming as fast as we would like. We need to do more, and better and more quickly.”

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And to some extent, the Academy has undercut my man Reginald Hudlin, one of Hollywood’s most able and in-demand multihyphenates, and the one in charge of producing the ABC telecast slated for Feb. 28.

Hudlin, who secured the services of Chris Rock as the host for this show, finds himself producing a program that, like last year’s model, could well be defined as much by the films and actors that weren’t there as by the films and actors that were.

Since the public tends to associate the telecast with the Oscar and the Academy for which it stands, both Isaacs and Hudlin face the discomfiting disconnect of performing their roles on behalf of an organization whose membership includes precious few people who look like them. And that’s a position they shouldn’t be in.

Image credits: Isaacs: Via TheWrap. Academy A logo: © 2016 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Hudlin: via Twitter (@reghud).

The Oscars 2016: The unsilence of the director

CELEBRATED Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme, in a guest column for, weighed in with his perspective on the Oscars controversy:

“For me, raised on white, male-dominated American movies as a kid, I now hunger for diversity in, well, all aspects of life, and certainly in films. Black lives matter. Black stories matter. Black artists matter. We’ve all got to try a whole lot harder to, as Spike Lee is fond of saying, “Wake up!” to what our country is really all about. Taken to a logical conclusion, a more diversity-seeking Academy would nurture a greater diversity-hungry audience, and bigger box-office than ever imagined would most likely follow for one and all. …

“It’s exciting that the Academy has responded so swiftly and openly with an admission of the white male dominance of our films, our industry, and our awards,” wrote Demme, who won a Golden Dude for “The Silence of the Lambs.” “Wouldn’t it be so wise, and so very correct, to not wait for next year to address this enormous challenge/problem? Instead, let’s recalibrate this year’s votes, expanding the entries in all categories. ...”

It’s anyone’s guess as to whether the Academy’s ready for an across-the-board tweaking of this year’s nomination process. Almost certainly not. In principle, Demme’s idea is great; there’s no time like the present to fix mistakes that shouldn’t have been made in the first place. But you can bet that the main scream from Hollywood would be “there’s not enough time for that!” — followed by the kind of deliberate institutional immobility that would make such a statement a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Demme surely realizes there’s not a chance in hell of this happening. But outrageous as it is, his idea communicates urgency, and the understanding that the Academy will be this demographically myopic, this institutionally rigid at the peril of losing more of its centrality in the wider popular culture.

Image credits: Demme: Via IMDb.
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