Hollywood’s Diversity Crisis: 7 Facts Overlooked in the Current Furor

Oscars Diversity Controversy
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Diversity was the No. 1 topic at Saturday’s SAG Awards, and will remain front and center at the DGA, WGA and every other guild’s awards through the Feb. 28 Oscars. It’s crucial that this issue be addressed again, and the upside is that Hollywood is under pressure like never before. But amid this controversy, there’s a danger that film execs will continue to do what they’ve done for decades: Overdose on the protests and the backlash, form a committee and talk even more, rather than take action.

Here are seven reasons for hope and concern about the discussion.

These protests have been going on for decades. 

Variety has been reporting on Hollywood’s racial imbalance since the 1950s. The big difference in 2016 is that the media has exploded, so the conversation is louder and more persistent. That’s good because it keeps the heat on Hollywood. But, in many cases, it’s fringe people who are speaking up while decision-makers remain silent. And the backlash is out of control. So the conversation has veered away from the central principle — that films need to reflect the global population — and has focused on details such as black actors and Academy membership rules. A lot of people are weighing in without knowing what they’re talking about. The conversation is loud, but it’s not necessarily focused.

It’s not about the Academy.

Outside observers blame the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, whose officials are silently accepting the criticism, refusing to point fingers. But industry workers know who’s responsible: studios, agencies and money men (and, yes, they are usually men).

Movie execs are not racists.

They’re just scaredy-cats. When cable TV boomed, TV executives began making adventurous choices, so TV better reflects the range of population. Film execs have gazillions at stake, so they aim for safety by imitating past successes. (It’s the same reason for the flood of franchises, remakes and reboots). They pretend their release slate is diverse because they have greenlit films targeting black audiences (e.g., “Ride Along 2”) and women (“How to Be Single”), for example. But these films are rarely tentpoles or in the “prestige” awards category.

It’s not about quotas.

The Internet is filled with an angry backlash of individuals sneering that this is about awards quotas and entitlement. No, it’s about accuracy. Since 305 films were eligible for Oscar last year, half should have been directed by women, and at least 90 directed by people of color, if the film biz reflected U.S. Census figures. So awards voters should have dozens of films to weigh, not just a handful.

The frustration is not limited to blacks.

This is a point that needs constant repetition: Hollywood films under-represent huge segments of the global population, including Latinos-Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, Muslims, individuals with disabilities, LGBT people — and other groups, like sympathetic Christians and political conservatives. And it’s limited to focus on the acting race. The key is to get new voices in front of and behind the camera — and in the exec offices where decisions are made.

It’s about decency and equality — but could also be about business.

In Hollywood, you can’t go wrong by appealing to the bottom line. If movie decision-makers don’t do the right thing because of principle or fear of embarrassment, they should realize that inclusion is good business. Minorities are a big part of the moviegoing public and want to see themselves represented. If that doesn’t happen, these audiences will eventually give up on moviegoing.

Oscar-voting is not a God-given right.

Another protest is running parallel to diversity: New Academy membership rules. The board of governors bent over backwards for industry vets, allowing them to retain membership and screening access, but stating they might lose the right to vote. That applies to only a fraction of the 6,261 voters, but we only hear from a few members crying “I worked hard! I’m not bigoted! I need my voting rights!” But, dear industry veterans, this is not about you. Academy execs are working to repair the organization’s reputation and to stay relevant. They are also trying to set an example for the entire industry. If things go well, this could be a key moment for long-overdue changes within the industry. There’s a lot at stake, so a few hundred voting privileges are not the top priority. Don’t take it personally.

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  1. 350 eligible films and 6,261 Academy members who actually view how many movies? The system itself is hapless and deeply flawed.

    • Martin Pal says:

      No one, even film critics whose job it is to see films, see all films released in a given year. Plus, do you see the irony of wanting to exclude AMPAS members who actually might have the time to see the most films?

  2. anonymous says:

    If you got to almost any Academy screenings, they are predominantly attended by the elderly. There are very few young faces, faces of color, and/or younger women. The women attending are generally the wives of the older senior members. It’s predominantly a geriatric, out-of-touch crowd, so much so that it’s not unusual to see someone struggling with a walker, cane, having help with a nursing assistant, or coughing up half a lung while on an oxygen tank. These are not generally-speaking people who are highly active in the filmmaking biz. The Academy is doing the right thing to phase out members who haven’t worked in the business in 30 years or who haven’t been nominated. That’s not asking a lot! In fact, it’s probably too generous. It’s crazy that anyone who hasn’t made a movie in 30 years can sit on any branch membership committee and pass judgment on the entry or denial of membership of those who have actually produced recent work. To be relevant, the Academy would do right by accepting more qualified younger members (those who have been nominated and/or won), and a more diverse group to replace these old timers, as they plan to do. This is what they did in the 1970s and it helped break open the glass ceiling then. They can, and by the sounds of it, (plan to) do it again.

    • Martin Pal says:

      The year before the 1970 realignment of voters that you speak of the “old membership” picked what might be considered the most daring and progressive choice of any Best Film winner: Midnight Cowboy. The year after this realignment with younger, diverse, relevant voters they picked Patton. Just sayin’.

    • M.G. says:

      Hey Anonymous, that is simply an out and out lie. Period.

  3. Martin Pal says:

    “Given that the facts do not support the fantasy of a “system” of “dominant” whites who do not allow blacks to make films, to appear in films, to be paid for films, or to win awards for films, one must ask: who is hating on whom here? Seeking an alleged “system” of “dominant” whites, we discover, instead, a conspiracy theory. It is a racist fantasy nurtured in the current American education system. The nightmare figure of this fantasy is the evil and all-powerful white. Whenever anything occurs that involves black people and white people, the white people are powerful, and they are racist, and they destroy. Period. No other interpretation is allowed. In fact, any other interpretation is demonized as racist.

    The Oscar Blackout protest is not just wrong because there are no facts to support its premises, and plenty of facts to prove those premises wrong. It’s wrong because it is hypocritical, selective outrage.”

    • Martin Pal says:

      Every single person on earth could find they are part of some minority and play the victim game and look for offense. On the day of the Oscar nominations, Earl Ofari Hutchinson, whom Los Angeles residents should know, was on TV with another groups saying, “After what happened last year, they (AMPAS) promised us this would not happen again.” Really? How entitled is that to believe such a thing possible? AMPAS people “promised” them there would be black people nominated this year? They would control how individuals voted? This whole controversy is quite hypocritical in most all its aspects.

  4. Bill B. says:

    Enough with fanning the flames.

  5. weddle32 says:

    Awards should be presented to people that earn them. Not to people that feel entitled because of their race

  6. Nicolette says:

    written by a white man. no wonder it’s all bullshit.

  7. Otto Pozzo says:

    First you say “It’s not about quotas” then you proceed to give us quotas.

    Here’s an idea, get a clue.

  8. John Dartigue says:

    If “Fact #2” is correct (that this has nothing to do with the Academy), then “Fact #7” is incorrect (that several hundred voters ought to be sacrificed/punished for the good of the cause). You can be cavalier with your own perks, Mr. Gray, but you shouldn’t be with other people’s, unless you ask and they say yes. On that point, you need to dismount from that very high horse. An implicit promise was made to members when they were accepted into the Academy: as long as you pay your dues and don’t embarrass the organization by murdering someone, you’re a member for life and you get to vote. If the Board of Governors wants to change the rules for future generations, the Academy’s charter allows it to do so. But they shouldn’t be taking away something that’s already been bestowed. Especially when it’s being done to save face and their skin.The Academy hierarchy ran scared and instead of shutting up and pointing its finger at the film industry as a whole, it opened its mouth wide and allowed both feet in. This problem didn’t start on January 16, 2016; it’s been going on for years and years and a previous Board of Governors should have and could have done something about it long ago if this had been such a priority, which it clearly hasn’t been…until now, but only because some bullets started flying.

    –J. Haszler

  9. LB says:

    Amen. May this be the last word against crazy aspersions from commentators with some serious problems.

  10. DougW says:

    Oscar voting is not a god given right, but it is a right of being an Academy member. You would complain, too, if your voting rights were taken away.
    #OscarSoWhite basically is demanding a quota. If there’s not at least one black acting nominee, we boycott, we protest, your whole awards are a sham, no matter how many black actors were nominated for/won Oscars in recent years.
    The only serious black contender for an acting Oscar nomination this year was Idris Elba. That’s it. And should anyone reasonably expect an actor to get an Oscar nomination when his film grossed a grand total of $90,777 at the box office? Sorry, that’s not a feature film, and the Academy should look at its eligibility rules before there is no difference between a theatrical film and a cable/streaming film which is up for Emmys, not Oscars.
    Be careful using US census figures regarding the Oscars, as half the acting nominees are from other countries. Also, the notion that the gender and race of film directors (or any other career for that matter) should reflect population percentages is preposterous.
    There is absolutely no evidence in the history of movies that if women and minority audiences don’t see themselves on the screen they will stop going to the theater.
    I am all for more diversity in film, though #OscarSoWhite seems only interested in blacks. I’m especially shocked at how few women are in films. Many action films I watch have about 2-3 female speaking roles, and 100 male speaking roles. (Women can be henchmen, too, Hollywood.) What I’m not for is the Academy freaking out over a twitter hashtag and two years where no black actor was nominated. That’s not a big surprise. An acting nomination is a rare thing – 10 men, 10 women. And this year only 10 from the US.

  11. icefrost says:

    It seems to me that this is not the first debate about diversity within the academy membership. In the past the Academy membership has been labeled “old white straight men”. In the last 2 or so years there was a push to invite more women and people of color. So,the last 2 years have seen all white acting nominees. Prior to that there were both nominees and winners of color as Clooney has pointed out. Maybe the “old white straight men” weren’t all that bad.
    Plus maybe fingers can be pointed all around. What happened to two great performances. Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor in “Tangerine”. No Oscar nominations for either,but no Image Award nominations either. Can I start trending with #imageawardssostraight?

  12. Kenny says:

    Wow! More words on a meaningless awards show. No matter how many articles Variety publishes, no one really cares.

    • Mark says:

      Just because you claim not to be interested in the Oscars, although you took time out of your day to comment on the subject, doesn’t mean they’re not important.

  13. M.G. says:

    You’re right on that last point. It’s not about industry veterans, but the Academy is making it about them. And that’s wrong. That’s ageism, it’s illegal, and won’t fly. If they want to bring in more QUALIFIED women and minorities, fine. But unless the thinking is that these new members will only vote for minorities – which is racist – nothing will change. It’s supposed to be about the merits of the work, not the color of the skin. There is no problem with the Academy’s reputation.

  14. VeryTrueTim says:

    Great article, Tim. It’s good to see some members of the entertainment press get it.

  15. jim says:

    I bet this will be the least viewed oscars ever. Who wants to watch a theatre full of people sitting around feeling uncomfortable.

    • Mark says:

      Nope, this will be the most watched Oscars in decades, as people like you tune in to be outraged at all the PC, SJW, Hollywood talk.

    • Ken says:

      Thank Academy prez Cheryl Boone Isaacs for this. She publicly moaned and bellyached about this year’s roster of nominees. “Uncomfortable” indeed.

  16. James says:

    It’s kinda hard not to take it personally. It’s incredibly hard to get into the academy and the business is incredibly fickle. You are hot one moment and not working the next– I don’t see why eliminating older voters is the answer and it’s incredibly discriminatory.

    • Malcolm says:

      While there are good reasons for eliminating some voters – and many caveats for RETAINING membership – it is painfully ironic that the implication is that older members will be sidelined.

      Just as older actors are sidelined, along with women and non-white faces.

      • Martin Pal says:

        Agree, two of the people who might have their voting privileges revoked are a lesbian producer (9 to 5 is one credit) and a gay man (Tab Hunter). So much for diversity.

  17. Arnie Tracey says:

    As long as choke-artists, like Apatow, are the only people writing and directing for both women and Jewish tastes, and as long as he insists on ramming hacks from, say, “Girls,” down America’s throat, there will be many diversity-related issues.

  18. TheBigBangof20thCenturyPopCulture says:

    #8. White is of ethnic variation and not one skin color. But no allowance is made for different shades of pale. Meanwhile, you must be whitest white to get the most steady, quality, positive, non stereotype work.

  19. Murica! says:

    This is ridiculous!! Diversity doesn’t mean black people only!! All this nonsense because a bunch of black people are upset about the lack of black nominees. What about the other minorities? Nobody seems to care about asian, hispanic or arabic people. It’s all about black people this and black people that!!

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