Tuesday, January 26, 2016

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.

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