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Tentpoles all in one color?

Bigger films seems to mean less work for minorities

On the eve of the 42nd annual NAACP Image Awards, the talk has turned to the significant lack of inclusion of African-American nominees in three previous awards shows: the Golden Globes, SAG Awards and the Oscars.

This year, the Academy Awards is dubbed a “lily white awards show” by Vicangelo Bulluck, exec producer of the Image Awards.

“It’s perplexing. Is it some subconscious reaction where some of the walls went up?” he queries. “There were some works that were worth recognition — the young actresses in ‘For Colored Girls,’ Halle Berry in ‘Frankie & Alice’ and Sam Jackson in ‘Mother and Child.’ ”

To the challenge that there are not enough films out there for consideration, Bulluck responds, “That’s the line we always hear, ‘They can’t find us. They can’t find us as executives. They can’t find us as talent. They can’t find us as directors. They can’t find us as writers.’ We know that’s not true.”

Bullock offers a joke: “Maybe the Oscars needs to also extend the acting categories to 10. Maybe that way they could be inclusive.”

The awards exec is not alone. Some nommed Image Awards producers note the problem and weigh in.

Paul Hall (“For Colored Girls”) agrees that there is a notable lack of diversity in the Oscars, SAG and the Globes awards — particularly this year. “No question about it. We were on a different course for the last few years and there was much more diversity,” Hall says, referring to Oscar wins for films like “Precious” and “Million Dollar Baby.”

But 2010 was a different year. “Tyler Perry decided to do a really dramatic piece of material with ‘For Colored Girls,’ ” Hall continues. “Perhaps the Academy, SAG and the Golden Globes did not pay attention, took it for granted, that it was perhaps another comedy. I believe they just didn’t give us the benefit of the doubt.”

Many in the industry see overlooked minorities not as cultural bias but purely the result of a numbers game — real or perceived. The smaller number of films made, the smaller number of roles to be filled.

“As the studios are making fewer films and independently fewer films are being made, with that comes a big lack of diversity,” says Matt Alvarez (“Are We There Yet?”). “Also, the majority of African-American films that are made today are in the comedy and action space, and these films aren’t going to be recognized in these awards shows.”

“It’s disheartening in 2011, when we have a black president that we’re still lagging behind in Hollywood,” laments Debra Martin Chase (“Just Wright”). “There are so few black movies being made. The studios are looking to make big tentpole movies and not making small movies. And when they’re considering making any niche movie, a Hispanic or African-American movie, when they run the numbers they assume that there’s no foreign (market).”

Another concern is that movies and TV shows in 2010 did not deal with the full range of human experiences.

“Stories should include everybody. And so when they don’t, we’re missing out on some very powerful stories,” says Neal Baer (“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”). “It is incumbent upon us to try to reflect the multitude of experiences that are going on in this country and around the world in the features and TV shows that we make. We should strive to cast colorblind. We should find whichever actor is right for the part. Whoever is right for the part should be cast and that person could be black, Hispanic or Caucasian.”

J. Todd Harris (“The Kids Are All Right”) doesn’t think it’s an Academy problem or a Golden Globes problem as much as it is a reflection on the business of the entire industry.

“As a producer who’s constantly trying to put together elements that sell products overseas, it becomes a challenge to cast black actors beyond Denzel Washington and Will Smith, because what we’ll hear is that most black actors have very little currency in certain geographic regions of the world, like Asia. The bottom line issue is often straight-up financing. When I look at casting my own films, I’m aware that I’m making an international movie and it’s Denzel who can sell tickets. It’s not Eddie Murphy. And I’m not even sure it’s Jamie Foxx.”

Technology is having an impact as well.

“The business of making films rests entirely upon the ability to make money off those films,” says Ali LeRoi (“Are We There Yet?”). “And the business changed with the advent of all this digital technology. The way that money is made off a film now has been severely impacted by digital streaming and DVD. If I’m a business guy then I want to get the greatest opportunity to make what money there is to be made off that product. Unfortunately for minority and African-American casts, those movies tend not to be the ones that are going to bring back a $100 million-$200 million box office. When it takes $30 million to make a small love story and $60 million to promote it and you’re going to suffer $50 million in piracy — I’d love to make that movie, I just don’t want to be the one who has to pay for it.”

But to some it’s not all about the bucks.

“It’s an argument somebody could make because it’s a business,” counters Bulluck. “But it’s a short-sighted argument because the money is in the multi-cultural audiences. The sense that we are getting is that Hollywood is anointing the next generation of stars. I almost find that more disturbing than it just being totally white. I hope they’re savvy enough to know that nobody is going to be a mega-star without a multicultural following.”

Roger Bobb (“For Colored Girls,” “Why Did I Get Married Too?”) sums up his take. “African-American writers have to write those types of films. Non-African-American producers have to believe in those types of films. And studios then have to back those films. Then, hopefully, the award bodies will appreciate them for what they are.”

With young filmmakers, change seems to be on the horizon, as is the case with the small NAACP-nommed indie “Night Catches Us.”

“I come from an immigrant family and the whole film industry was that you had to know somebody,” says Shahrzavi Davani, an associate producer on “Night.” “It was always daunting to find your way in. But it’s easier to make movies on a lower budget and digital. Now anybody can make a movie. So it’s becoming more diverse through that. But we’re still a long way before the Oscars notices those kinds of movies — but not that far away.”

Chase insists that the international business for African-American films must be nurtured.

“If you go anywhere in the world, black music is everywhere,” Chase adds. “Beyonce’s huge. If you assume that there’s no business and therefore you don’t promote international, then it’s not going to happen. African-American stars, unless they’re in an action movie, aren’t being given an opportunity to build a profile internationally.”

Per LeRoi, it rests upon the studios, the directors and the casting directors to create a fair representation of the world. “Just cast your films as if they occur in the real world,” he says. “When you do that there are more opportunities for more diverse actors to get recognition. There are people of color in the world. Put those people in your films. That’s all there is to it.”

More on the NAACP Image Awards:
Tentpoles all in one color? | President’s Award: Colin Powell | Chairman’s Award: Dr. Regina Benjamin