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MPAA Must Lead — or Be Led — in Battle to Improve Diversity (Guest Column)

In his opening monologue at this year’s Oscar ceremony, Chris Rock posed the question: Why now? Why did various individuals and groups choose 2016 as the year to protest the lack of diversity within the Academy and the industry? While Rock offered a humorous but biting explanation that people of color have historically been preoccupied with more pressing issues, he also drove home the point that the film industry has a long history of overlooking the considerable talents and contributions of nearly everyone who is not a white male.

At least in part, the “Why now?” question can be explained by the country’s changing demographic composition. Minorities today account for more than one-third of the U.S. population and are projected to constitute more than one-half by 2060. There is little doubt that the #Oscarssowhite and #Oscarssomale groups have been pushed along by a cultural zeitgeist that strenuously supports inclusion. Moreover, the issue has been experiencing a slow build in visibility over the past 20 years.

As someone who has for many years documented women’s under-employment behind the scenes and under-representation on screen, I remember the days when discussions of gender diversity were confined to special issues of the trade publications and an occasional article in the L.A. Times, often timed to coincide with events sponsored by women’s organizations. Fast forward to the 2016 Oscar season, and articles about diversity appeared with such regularity and in such great volume that the topic dominated the discussion of the annual event.

“Change that comes as a result of an intervention by an external source will do nothing to burnish the industry’s tarnished image.”
Martha M. Lauzen

As a result of this rapidly growing and increasingly vociferous public conversation, the explicit denial or implicit disregard of the embarrassing statistics by high-profile individuals is no longer possible. There is also an increasing recognition that the piecemeal solutions that have provided a certain amount of public relations cover for the industry — such as mentoring and shadowing programs — are wholly insufficient to address the magnitude of the problem. And now the government has come calling, with an EEOC investigation into possible discriminatory hiring practices regarding directors; within a year, the agency could step in and bring legal action against the studios or attempt to mediate a solution. While such action may result in greater opportunities for women and people of color, it offers no redemption for the industry. Change that comes as a result of an intervention by an external source will do nothing to burnish the industry’s tarnished image and will preclude studio executives from credibly claiming that they acted responsibly and as leaders.

A second possible scenario with a much more positive outcome for the studios could occur if an organization such as the MPAA steps forward to create an independent organization charged with the sole responsibility of achieving greater diversity ratios on studio films for the key positions of directors and writers. Research and common sense suggest that by substantially increasing the numbers of women and minorities in these gatekeeping roles, the diversity of those working in other important behind-the-scenes roles, such as editors and cinematographers, would also increase, as would the numbers of diverse characters on screen. According to the “Women and the Big Picture” study conducted by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, on films with exclusively male directors, women accounted for only 15% of editors and 5% of cinematographers. On films with female directors, the percentages of women editors rose to 35%, and cinematographers to 26%.

The creation of such an organization would address the diversity issue at the industry level and at the beginning of the creative and hiring processes. Such a bold move would send a clear signal to government agencies, individuals working in the business, members of various pressure groups and moviegoers that the industry is serious about changing the current skewed ratios. It offers a clear win-win for all involved, and allows studio executives to reclaim control of the narrative. And, after all, who doesn’t like a good redemption story?

Dr. Martha M. Lauzen is a professor and executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. 

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