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Oscar Diversity: Producer Calls for an African-American Studio (Guest Column)

Marvin Peart, co-founder of Marro Media Co., is executive producer of the 2013 Weinstein Co. release “Escape from Planet Earth” and TV shows including “Mob Wives.” In a guest column for Variety, he calls for people of color in the entertainment business to join forces to create their own content and studios.

A color-free Academy Awards is indeed a strange anomaly, in an America more enriched every day by its people of color. But the problem is one that those less experienced in the art of filmmaking — and the art of the film business — might not recognize.

So I think we should put a magnifying glass on the larger problem — the offices of the studios where projects and budgets are approved.

Minority performers are being watched closely by fellow African-Americans and other communities of color for two reasons: first, they’re in a business they want to join; and second, they most resemble them physically. That is, they’re the present — along with the community’s hopes and dreams for the future. Spike and Will have an audience right now, one even more important than the viewership for the Dolby Theatre presentations. If luminaries of color say, “Inclusion in the Oscars is the be-all, end-all,” that’s where people will set their sights. When luminaries like Spike and Will say, “Raise capital — let’s build businesses, broaden our ambitions,” these accomplishments will ultimately be more significant than an Oscar nom here or there.

Why is it, as African-Americans, we long and clamor for seats at a dinner party where the host must be forced to invite us, instead of pushing for ownership of the house, which includes the kitchen, dining room, table, silverware and especially, the door and its hinges.

Why does the African-American strive to be talent? Where is the outcry for content ownership: ownership of the studios and platforms where we so desperately want our talent recognized?

I don’t mean token efforts — our equivalent of the 40 acres and a mule our ancestors were promised.

I mean a serious approach to raising capital and producing content we want to create and own. As we push for Oscar inclusion, how far should we take it? Enact the Rooney rule, like they have in football — where one African-American coach must be interviewed for every head coach vacancy? Would any of us feel good — satisfied personally, proud in front of our children — accepting our industry’s highest honors, once the balance is re-calculated in our favor? Dash makes the point in “The Incredibles”: “If everyone’s special, then no one is.”

Will we feel respected next year — when due to this outcry half a dozen minorities receive nominations? Won’t we question the legitimacy of our nominations — at the same minute we’re settling into the Oscar party, and our nominees are getting fitted for a tux or Valentino gown? And what difference will it actually make?

So my advice to my counterparts — either on the studio lot, at rehearsals, or in the ticket holders’ line — is this. The Oscars are about gold but the industry is about and thrives on green. The award is a statue: it sits on a shelf, doesn’t grow. Money, as they say, changes everything; it’s restless, it moves. Study the audience at the Dolby; don’t study the winners or presenters.

When Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen got together and decided to form Dreamworks, how did they go about it? Did they make and execute a plan? Or try to dictate the process and terms? Not only did they build an independent studio, that studio also spawned a major animation house that competes with the likes of Pixar and Disney.

So where are our African American versions of Spielberg, Katzenberg, and Geffen? Where is the solidarity on the African-American side that says, let’s join forces? When will we start telling and stop asking? In the last 24 months, two independent studios were created — STX and Broad Green. Clearly it can be done, it’s just not being done by us. What I am suggesting is not simple by any stretch of the imagination. If it were easy, then anyone could do it.

If my African-American counterparts want to boycott the Oscars, more power to them, but if they truly decide to stay home, they should get on the phone with each other, wait for Chris Rock to exit the stage and his dressing room, then set a serious meeting. Use February 28 as the start date to address the urgent thing: How we can pool talent, resources and experiences — and have the first serious dialog about how to build the first African-American-owned studio with its own distribution platforms and output deals.

When you guys do start this independent studio, I strongly suggest you make films that inspire and also show the world that our sensibilities are much broader than “Ride Along,” “The Perfect Holiday,” “12 Years A Slave” —they’re that, and everything in between. Can’t we also produce “The Martian,” “The Godfather,” “The Sound of Music” and every other genre?

I implore African-Americans to move the goal posts. Move them, by building them. Making the roster should no longer be enough; strive to own the team. Physical skills erode. Business skills, business access — isn’t that the plot of “The Godfather”? — can be passed down between generations. Creating this type of wealth will put us on the path to true equality, in this business, country and world.

As the first African-American to executive produce a major animated motion picture — 2013’s “Escape From Planet Earth” —the opportunity came with gratitude and true sadness. Gratitude for being the first and sadness at how long it took to achieve that.  

We as African-Americans need to focus on what’s important. Boil it down to math, pure percentages: whereas five films every year get released with Academy-level roles for actors of color, 100 films are made with Oscar-worthy roles for everybody else. Those who aren’t white will be locked out every year and every year’s losers vastly outnumber any year’s winners anyway — the only people to succeed every year are the ones who own the Dolby Theatre, the network broadcasting the awards and the studios. Inclusion at an ownership level will instantly change the landscape — colorize it, bringing in the diversity that’s transformed America and kept it great.

It’s the old fishing maxim. Cast an actor of color in a movie as talent, and yes, you’ve given them a job. Teach them to own a fully-integrated studio and distribution platform, you’ve given them something for many lifetimes — a business, decision-making power, real responsibility and autonomy.

— Marvin Peart

 

 

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