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Oscar Voters Ask: Why Are Studios So Silent on Diversity?

In the past few weeks, Cheryl Boone Isaacs and Dawn Hudson have been quietly meeting with Chris Dodd of the MPAA, reps from the NAACP and studio execs, aiming at a more inclusive industry. As Academy voter David Magdael says, “People are tired of just talking. Cheryl and Dawn are at least taking action. And not everyone is happy, but I’m hopeful the studios will see the value in it and also take action.”

Magdael, who head his self-titled PR company, adds, “And why is only AMPAS talking about this? Why aren’t the studios speaking up?”

AMPAS execs have addressed the diversity issue a few times, but have remained mum about their meetings and other actions, despite attacks from outside and within the organization. Variety spoke with nearly 20 film workers and reaction was all over the map about the Academy membership rules. But they unanimously agreed the Academy needs changes and that AMPAS and Oscar noms are a symptom of the real problem: the film industry.

Virginia Madsen, nominated for “Sideways,” says that for many under-represented groups, “It’s exactly what Viola Davis said in her Emmy speech: lack of opportunity. We have to start that conversation, not just talk about who was nominated.” Madsen adds that the gender/racial imbalance is not just an issue in tentpoles, but in independent films as well: “Just try making a film centered on a woman or an Asian family.”

Sonny Skyhawk is an industry veteran of nearly 50 years and is founder-president of American Indians in Film and Television. He’s also a new Academy member. He tells Variety, “The industry is now in crisis mode and reform is absolutely required. Telling a wider spectrum of stories and presenting a more representative array of faces will lead to increased profits. It’s really that simple.”

Magdael adds, “At the end of the day, it comes to the product. If we don’t have the films to vote on, if the studios are not greenlighting enough films made by people of color, this will happen.”

For AMPAS, it’s been the perfect storm. Not only were the 20 acting contenders all Caucasian when nominations were announced Jan. 14, but subsequent awards have shown more inclusion, making Oscar look bad in comparison. Winners at the SAG Awards touted the diversity; however, aside from Idris Elba in “Beasts of No Nation,” all the SAG’s non-Caucasian wins were from television.

Actress and Academy voter Shohreh Aghdashloo praised the strides made in TV, such as those in her Syfy series “The Expanse.” She says it’s an example of actors and crew of “all different colors and backgrounds, from all corners of the world.” As for the film industry, she adds, “I’m really happy at the steps Cheryl Boone Isaacs and the Academy have taken but it doesn’t end there. Making movies with diversity is not happening on the scale it should. This is just the beginning of a very important conversation — not just in the States but elsewhere in the world.”

Boone Isaacs and Hudson have spoken out about getting the Academy’s house in order, hoping that this can set an example for the industry. They stopped short of pointing fingers at studios, financiers and agencies, knowing that things could get really ugly if Hollywood workers increase the accusations.

Madsen says that in the short term, “The conversation is becoming louder and right now it’s dividing people. But the goal is raising awareness; speaking out does make a difference.”

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