The Oscars made a historic move when they announced their new inclusion requirements for best picture eligibility. For some, this was a welcomed change from the Academy, while others found it to be intrusive to the sanctity of movies and the stories that people want to tell.
For people like me, it was the single bravest act I’ve witnessed from an awards body that I’ve loved my entire life. As a Latino/Black man from an inner-city community, who has often felt like he didn’t belong in this very arena, it was by far the most appreciated gesture. It encapsulated the example of the change that people in the street have been asking for since the murder of George Floyd.
I’m not comparing the murder of an innocent man to a few actors getting a part in a movie; I’m referring to those with the capacity to undo the wrongs, to actually undo them. It’s about the systemic and alienating structure that is built, not “broken.” To say it’s “broken” is to say that it was initially constructed correctly, inclusively. It was not. The system must be reformed, molded and adjusted to a world that is drastically more diverse.
There are many filmmakers, producers and studio executives that are not pleased with the announcement. Actress Kirstie Alley shared on Twitter, “this is a disgrace to artists everywhere…can you imagine telling Picasso what had to be in his f—ing paintings.”
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The Academy isn’t telling Picasso what to put in his paintings. Still, if he wants to submit his artwork for an Oscar, he’s got to use more vibrant colors or invite a local young painter to watch his process so that perhaps one day when Picasso is dead and gone, this young observer — who’s been watching him for all these years — can grab his own canvas and draw a picture.
We have many masters in our industry, from Steven Spielberg to Quentin Tarantino to Roger Deakins. These icons won’t live forever. It is their responsibility to take their knowledge and bestow it to the next generation. This doesn’t mean they invite the nephew of the studio head, who already has ample opportunity to follow him on set. It’s time for Hollywood to step outside of itself and look beyond the Sherman Oaks, Brentwood and Beverly Hills zip codes for their next proteges.
The arts are the most undervalued and underfunded items in our education system. When budgets are cut in schools, the arts are first on the chopping block. Here’s a gentle reminder for Hollywood. There are places all over this country where a teenager has never seen a theater stage before or has no idea what a cinematographer is or does. You have been afforded one of the most unusual professions that exist. You express your deepest, most personal feelings on the world and share that with millions. The Academy, journalists, artists and countless others are merely asking you to pay it forward. Reach out, connect and be open to a different interpretation of what your films can be and what your sets can look like.
Imagine Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” looking exactly the same. No change in cast or swaps of technical artists. It’s very probable that under the new rules, Scorsese and Warner Bros. won’t qualify under standards A and B, regarding on-screen representation and creative leadership. Your only chance now is the road provided by C and D standards.
If you’re Warner Bros., one of the largest, most profitable studios in the world, you must create a paid apprenticeship and internship opportunity for women, POC, LGBTQ+ and people with disabilities. Along with that, you’re also training and providing potential skills to new crew members. Do you have the younger versions of Chloé Zhao, Bradford Young, Joi McMillon and Mica Levi in your midst, partaking in your process?
I just painted a picture for you, and “The Departed” is now eligible for best picture under this model. You didn’t change a single thing about the film. It still wins the Oscar, and you now have a pipeline of new innovative talent that is going to make you a lot more successful.
The Oscars are not a requirement to make art. Art is a requirement for the Oscars. There are still 22 out of 23 categories where you are eligible without having to change anything. I’m unsure if it fits under this model, but the headlines at the end of the evening on Feb. 29, 2004, would have been very interesting if they read “‘The Return of the King’ Goes 10 for 10 and Not Best Picture.” My instinct says you want to be on the right side of history on this one.
The initial and natural go-to analysis of the Academy’s announcement was going to be, “How many films would have met the criteria in the past 92 years?” In the last 20 years, and without actively going through financial documents, the initial estimate seems to be probably no film would have been excluded by these new standards. There are some that can surely be questioned such as “The Departed,” “The King’s Speech” and “The Artist.” You can also investigate some closer calls like “A Beautiful Mind,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “No Country for Old Men” and “Spotlight,” but this looks to not change the makeup of the last 20 years.
One potential issue with the Academy’s new rules is it leaves itself open for “loopholes.”
“Spotlight” is a close call because does distributor Open Road Films, when they submit their paperwork to the Academy, say, “Spotlight is an LGBTQ+ film?” It deals with a marginalized group, with themes that surround and directly talk about homosexuality. Would I classify “Spotlight” as an LGBTQ+ film? I would not, but Open Road could, and in a world where art is subjective, who’s to say it is not? As we struggle to have the Academy understand the correct definitions of lead and supporting performances (i.e., Rooney Mara vs. Cate Blanchett in “Carol”), this seems like something that leaves the door open for scrutiny and even more members airing their grievances.
It will be interesting to see how studios decide to pivot their financial models to support this diversity initiative, which isn’t required until 2024. The hard truth is, there may be a lot of studios that can’t financially support a model such as this. Smaller, independent studios that struggle to get their films seen by the general public, and compete in the awards season machine against more affluent brands, may not have the capital to expand their headcounts or support mentorships. This may result in fewer films submitted for the Oscars because they’ll need to be more strategic in their festival purchases throughout the year.
Here’s a thought to leave for the “grumpy” members who are vocally not pleased with this news. 2020 is a standard practice year. There are a minimum of 33 women directors that are in the race and have created films that should be on your radar and worth your consideration. How about we revisit this conversation on March 15, 2021, the day the Oscar nominations are announced? I am currently predicting and believe the Academy has an opportunity to nominate two women in best director, for the first time in the 92-year history: Regina King (“One Night in Miami”) and Zhao (“Nomadland”). Let’s see, without having your hands forced, if you can think outside the box.
Until then, history has its eyes on you.