Vive le difference! (Let’s have more of it)

Diversity isn't just an Academy issue, it's an issue for the whole biz

The 84th Academy Awards don’t need any more analyses on who won and why. But the buildup to the Feb. 26 event raised questions far beyond the kudos business — questions about bigotry, and about the increasing mood of anger and hostility within and outside showbiz.

In past years, bad-mouthing was a part of the awards season, but it was always directed at films: Whisper campaigns claimed “Good Will Hunting,” “The Hurricane,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Hurt Locker” et al were unethical, factually bogus, whatever.

This year, the target was the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences itself, as the media spent much energy focusing on its internal reorganization, the org’s “relevance” (an elusive term, at best) and its membership. Journalists covered these things as if AMPAS were the U.S. equivalent of Syria, with gunfire and rioting expected any day now on Wilshire Boulevard.

On Feb. 19, the L.A. Times reported that the average age of Academy voters is 62, the org is 77% male and 94% Caucasian. This was not a surprise to anyone involved in the big-bucks awards business. But the study received extensive coverage in the mainstream media and blogs around the world, lamenting the lack of diversity and urging the Academy to take immediate action.

No one would dispute the lopsided makeup, but those op-ed pieces missed the bigger questions: How diverse is the entire entertainment industry? For that matter, how diverse are the Fortune 500 companies or firms that supposedly embody the future, such as social-networking sites, Web startups and tech newbies? How diverse is the government?

In a story accompanying its stats, the Times quoted lead actor contender Demian Bichir saying if there were more Latino Academy members, “That would mean there would be a lot more roles for Latin actors and a lot more movies for (Latin) cinematographers.”

The org reflects the film industry, it doesn’t make policies. This is not meant to excuse the Academy, but to spread the responsibility wider.

It’s easy to point a finger at a person or group, because then you absolve yourself of any responsibility: They should fix things.

No, we all should fix things.

The AMPAS board consists of powerful people who can help bring about change, not necessarily through the Academy but in their daily jobs. Change has to start at the grassroots level.

Some studios, networks and guilds (WGA, DGA and SAG) have outreach and employment-access programs to train racial minorities and women, among others. But what about guilds and unions without any programs, or orgs whose job training consists of enlisting relatives of its members?

And nurturing is one thing. The key is in hiring. That’s where agencies, studios, networks, production companies and marketing folks come in. (In terms of diversity, the music industry and ad agencies are way ahead of the curve, says one expert.)

In 1994-95, Margaret Cho starred in ABC’s “All American Girl.” Aside from providing fodder for her standup, the show has another distinction: Ever since the sitcom format began in 1950, there has been one, repeat one, sitcom starring only Asians and Asian-Americans.

SAG and WGA are among the guilds working against age discrimination. Many of the pundits lamented the fact that the Acad’s average voting age is 62, apparently feeling that these people aren’t qualified to decide what’s good. Agreed, cross-sections are terrific — but don’t forget that in some societies, age is respected and elders are considered wise. What a concept!

In strange ways, the 84th Academy Awards point up the national mood. Superficially, there is the nostalgia factor, as reflected in the show’s PR material and theme (happy movie memories), host (Billy Crystal) and top winners (“The Artist” and “Hugo”). In times of high anxiety, people think life was somehow better before.

But more than that, the awards season reflected the country’s sense of anger and anxiety. Folks are worried about their jobs, the economy, new technology, nuclear proliferation, the environment, the whole magilla. People want change, they want it now and they want someone, anyone, to be responsible. We want answers.

You sense the anger in the workplace, in stores, in traffic. Kids have picked up the mood, and you see it in schoolyards. You see it in the GOP primaries, where candidates’ main accusations of each other and the president is, “You’re not the solution; you haven’t been doing enough!” John McCain expressed dismay in the Boston Herald over the unprecedented level of “negative campaigning and the increasingly personal attacks.”

You see it in journalism, where reporters seem less interested in the facts than in catching someone with their pants down. Bad behavior is rewarded as Hollywood execs are terrified that somebody somewhere might write something negative about them.

There is plenty — puh-lenty! — that needs to be done at the Academy. But that’s a topic for another time.

Meanwhile, the Academy needs to take action on the diversity issue. So do we all.