Oscar & Diversity: 5 Ways to Fix Hollywood’s Imbalance

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With Oscars fast approaching on Sunday, the talk about diversity will keep building. But it’s crucial to keep the conversation going long after the Academy Awards — and to come up with do-able solutions.

Variety addressed the topic with multiple individuals, who offered concrete actions. All agreed that diversity/inclusion can be confronted on multiple levels.The big challenge: These are all long-term plans, but many people want immediate solutions. AFI’s David Chase, vice dean of academic affairs, sums it up by saying, “There is no magic bullet. It’s not going to change overnight. The best strategy is to understand diversity in a multidimensional way.”

1. Investors need to be educated.
Studios and agencies are often cited as the culprits, but another big hurdle is investors. They need constant reminders that niche films can be extremely profitable, says Oscar-nominated actress Virginia Madsen. Her production company tried for years to sell a film about a 16-year-old girl, and she was repeatedly told, “We love the story, but can’t you beef up the guy’s role?” Madsen says “the guy” was incidental, but many backers think a movie can succeed only if the lead character is male (and usually white). In a pitch session, would-be filmmakers need to bring plenty of data on successful specialty films and on the demographics of moviegoers (who are much more diverse than the young males so often targeted). And don’t overlook films films beyond the niche. The “Fast & Furious” films have a multiracial cast and are doing great globally. And “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” starred a woman and black man. So old myths about global box office need to be squelched.

2. Artists should be like Ava DuVernay.
Under-represented groups should not wait for the studios, says David Magdael, head of his own PR firm. “Ava DuVernay started making movies she felt were important for the people of her community. Then she started a distribution system. And now she has expanded beyond the African-American community; in ARRAY, she’s including other groups to reach other communities. She’s providing films and stories from different voices. Here’s a woman saying, ‘I see the change, and we need to make that change.’ Take her as an example. She’s focused and she shows what one person can do.”

3. Executives must make a commitment.
It may sound obvious, but inclusive hiring may take extra time and effort. One entertainment-human-resources veteran tells Variety that Hollywood companies should go outside the usual hiring procedures, such as attending diversity job fairs and contacting search firms that specialize in minority candidates. Two pitfalls: Don’t hire a minority person who’s not perfect for the job, because that won’t help anyone; and don’t give up too soon and just hire a friend of the boss. Inclusive hiring “requires a commitment at the highest level,” the HR expert adds, and a company needs to make inclusion part of its DNA.

4. Hollywood needs to create support systems.
Joe Hall, founder-president of the Ghetto Film School, points out that young people need sustained guidance. “Many groups that are under-represented in Hollywood — such as blacks, Latino-Hispanics and lower-income Caucasians — sometimes stay too long in entry-level positions because they don’t have a network helping them move to the next steps.” Among Ghetto Film School programs is the Roster, which creates a network of events and job discussions for diverse young professionals. Hall reminds that show business is an industry of freelancers, and a career is never linear: “We need an infrastructure for young creatives, a pipeline to support them – with internships, mentoring and guidance.” Hall — who started the first high school devoted to training filmmakers — also points out that the private sector and schools need to help. Arts funding is being curtailed, but early nurturing is crucial. “We have to train young people in a creative way. Even if they don’t go into entertainment, they will need those skills for the 21st century economy. It’s the way the workforce is shifting.”

5. Executives should realize diversity is not just head counts.
AFI’s Chase says it’s important to hire more women and minorities, but it’s also important that their stories are told. “The temptation is to tie diversity to quotas. That’s not the only approach we use at AFI. We look for a diverse range of storytellers, from people of diverse backgrounds.” This also makes good business sense: Audiences are saturated with entertainment and crave storytelling from new voices, including Latinos-Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians, LGBT artists, Muslims, disabled people and others. Development executives need to think outside the box. Chase concludes, “Diversity is not just about representation and composition, but also about making sure these stories are told.”

In photo: David Magdael (left), Joe Hall


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  1. tlsnyder42 says:

    LGBT is 3% of the people. They are actually over-represented in the arts.

  2. tlsnyder42 says:

    Cut the crazy commie claptrap! Why does “diversity” only mean race, “gender” and class??? What about religious or political diversity? Then again, since more than 70% of Americans identify themselves as Christian, shouldn’t 70% of the people be Christian, and 70% of the ideas in American movies and American TV programs? Reportedly, more women are going to college than men now. Is anyone going to correct THAT imbalance? Or, must we always be forever harangued by Neo-Marxist, baby-killing feminist baloney from the likes of Hillary Clinton????

  3. CG says:

    Here’s an idea: HIRE THEM! There are exceptionally smart, hardworking, dedicated, multi-cultural industry professionals out there – and apparently just a phone call away per the organization who commented here. On shoots, I frequently see young minority crew people, who seem to be doing very fine work. I’ve also known a young editor, first AC, and seen hoards of PAs from diverse backgrounds and they all are pretty darned great at what they do. Hopefully, there will be a day when they are “in consideration.”

  4. I’m all for diversity in the film business . Being a Latina young woman in the business I would have to thank streetlights for getting me here . Streetlights is an amazing program that’s mission is to help diversify the entertainment industry by helping inner city minortiy people that have desire and passion for everything film get into the business Streetlights should have been mention in this article and I’m hoping that this comment bring awareness to such a great amazing program . I didn’t need film school to be working on one of the biggest shows on tv right , all I needed was my desire to never give up and the streetlights program that gave me a chance .If people are looking for ways to diversify the business.. Streetlights is the first place to look into . There’s not enough space in this comment box to describe all the great benefits the streetlights program has to offer or to mention all the success stories that come from it . My advice is for everyone to check out streetlights!!!

  5. Tom Wilson says:

    I wish Ryan Murphy would look beyond USC and AFI film schools. There is a great deal of talent among graduates from community colleges, and among minority crew members who are on sets working today. Despite the fact that many people in our industry did not possess a college education, they have stood on the stage giving an acknowledgement speech at the Academy Awards.

  6. My 24 year campaign to break racial barriers in Hollywood – what works:
    STREETLIGHTS, founded in 1992, with a mission to increase ethnic diversity behind-the-camera.

    Streetlights has a track record:
    • More than 2,000 graduates have attained Entertainment Industry careers through our program.
    • 100% of Streetlights’ graduates are ethnic minorities.
    • All graduates started as Production Assistants and advanced into positions in every department behind-the-camera including: 1st AD’s, 2nd AD’s Set Dresser, Props, Script Supervisor, Camera, Sound, VTR, DIT, Grips, Electricians, Writers, Directors, Producers and Editors, etc.

    I founded Streetlights, the only non-profit in the country that not only trains and places a multicultural population in production jobs on the set, but helps them to advance. Want to change the complexion of the Academy? Of course, utilize the diverse crew members working today, but also look beyond today and help us cultivate the management and crews of the future.

    We at Streetlights are incredibly baffled as to why a program that is actually solving the problem isn’t being consulted about how to do it successfully, while the big powers get press coverage year after year, committees get formed and then die off for lack of follow through. The truth is, any one could pick up the phone and get a diverse crew from us tomorrow.

    • Robin Smalley says:

      I second Dorothy Thompson’s post. Streetlights has done an extraordinary job training and placing people with diverse backgrounds and frankly, I am left scratching my head why they weren’t consulted for this article. And equally puzzling is why every producer in town doesn’t have Streetlights on speed dial.

  7. PICturePlay says:

    But I indeed agree at the point that Hollywood Studio Human Resources need to change their way in recruiting talents, especially for strategic position. Such as acuquisition , distribution, marketing, and other executives.

    There are a lot of brilliant minds from other part of the world who understands movie business and have a smart brain to create a good movie.

  8. Mike says:

    Social media is in a frenzy (and not in a good way) with Stephen King’s obsessed fans raising hell about the colorblind casting of Idris Elba as Roland in The Dark Tower. And then you get the obsessed fans who are panicking that the Susannah character will be whitewashed to compensate for Roland being, er, blackwashed.

    Sometimes you can’t win.

  9. PICturePlay says:

    I think it’s not exactly correct for putting Star Wars : Force Awakens as a front examples of how casting a woman and a black man as leads, have a significant factor in boosting ticket sales and interests.

    Star Wars is An Established Brands. You can play around with the casts, since Star Wars itself has become a well recognized brand.

    Sure, putting a black man and a woman as main protagonists gave a fresh look for Star Wars. But, what sells is the name of Star Wars. Not counting its massive and giant marketing efforts.

    We can see how Disney /LucasFilm sold Force Awakens from its trailers. They prioritized it as ” A Huge Massive Action Film as a sequel of Star Wars”. Not as an action movie starred by a woman and a black man.

    To change it, we need to change perspectives. Including how Every Companies sells their products. Not only movie industries.

    Cosmetic Companies should stop selling their products using a paradigm of white Caucasian girl as a standard of Beauty. Or White Caucasian Guy as a standard of attractiveness.

    Or those every Companies who use that same strategy. And it has been practiced for decades!!

    • timgray2013 says:

      You explained it better than I could. You are my new best friend. Thanks.

      • blue439 says:

        The article didn’t imply a cause and effect relationship between casting a black man and a woman as the leads and the huge gross. I think it said casting white actors isn’t a REQUIREMENT for a blockbuster. J.J. Abrams should be lauded particularly for casting Boyega as the part was not written for a black actor. I do think casting directors in particular, need to be educated in diversity as they are the gatekeepers for directors. If a role is not written for a specific ethnic group, then the assumption tends to be the character is white and everyone else is eliminated from consideration.

      • PICturePlay says:

        No, Tim. I only spoke up about things that I think could give different insight.
        I always love your articles and analysis. I learn a lot from you, since I’m working in movie industry.

        Regard from Indonesia

  10. Ken says:

    The latest STAR WARS did indeed co-star a woman and a black man…but I would wager that the vast worldwide audience for this latest chapter turned out to see Han, Chewie, Luke, C3P0, R2 and Leia reunited. With all due respect to Ridley and Boyega, they were not the drawing card here. SW:TFA was a lousy example for your article.

    • timgray2013 says:

      I didn’t say they were the reason for the film’s success. But “conventional wisdom” in Hollywood says that overseas audiences won’t go see movies about black lead characters. That fear often dictates Hollywood casting and marketing choices. “Star Wars” was another reminder that overseas audiences will go see a movie they want to see, and race isn’t a factor.

  11. Nanny Mo says:

    This is astounding in its racism and stupidity! The private film industry is not a regulated business like health care has become. America is not Nazi Germany with “re-education” camps for the studios! If Americans really believe all the insanity that this article suggests, then freedom is over. Think about it. Hollywood, do you want your art determined by the whims of the current elite? These change with the wind. The only color-blind way is to let there be one Oscar vote per Academy member with no racial and gender quotas. That is the only way to protect the Oscars from becoming meaningless like so many socially-engineered programs. If this continues it will be the end of this once proud, racially unbiased, voice of the people.

  12. Michael Anthony says:

    All this is nice and good, BUT, the bottom line is money. If films don’t make money, or have the potential to, they won’t get made. “Compton” is a good example. The music transcends racial lines. “Selma” is another example. It didog at the box office, but even minorities didn’t rush to see it. And while black lives do matter, so do all other minorities. The protests thus year irks me. In all “Best of” lists, there were 3 to 4 actors listed as possible Oscar contenders. None made it in, but none made it on the majority “Best” lists. The protests make it seem that a minority MUST be nominated, regardless of merit. Do that, and you might as well as cancel the Oscars. And if they do that, then I want to see non blacks nominated at the NAACP Awards.

  13. skabak says:

    Great for Ms DuVernay, but maybe she should get the facts right about Lyndon Johnson and read the warts and all books about him by Robert Caro.

    • Mike says:

      Du Vernay really screwed that bit up. Rewriting such recent history to make a story that better suited her purposes was nonsense and robbed her film of the impact it could have had.

  14. Michelle says:

    Excellent article. Hope the right people read it and take heart.

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