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The Academy’s Diversity Problem Is Complicated

The Academy's Diversity Problem Is Complicated

There are many issues swirling in this Oscar diversity debate.

At the heart of it is how much the Oscars reflect the way that the Academy likes to see itself. That’s one reason why I believed that “The King’s Speech,” “The Hurt Locker” and “12 Years a Slave” would win Best Picture. I was surprised by “Driving Miss Daisy”‘s win, as well as the one for “Crash.” Remember, even if they are mostly white, male and senior, and many have not actively worked on a movie in years, the 6000-strong voting Academy members consider themselves to be industry professionals capable of judging good work. They are mostly liberal. They tend to like well-made, high-minded movies that make them feel proud to be coming from Hollywood.

So why no people of color in the key races this year? Consider the candidates. There are reasons why each of them did not make the cut.

“Beasts of No Nation.” The movie debuted to rapturous response at Telluride before its day-and-date release on Netflix and via distributor Bleecker Street and indie exhibitor chain Landmark Theatres in 19 markets on 31 screens. The movie failed at the box office, because Netflix was invested in streaming it online (claiming 3 million streams in 10 days), not making it work in theaters. They knew they’d lose money on theatrical, but wanted to qualify the movie for the Oscars. While there was an awards campaign, Netflix is far more savvy about how to work their documentary division at this stage — and landed two Oscar contenders, even though some complained they overspent (’twas ever thus). Cary Fukunaga, while hugely admired by critics and indie circles, is not well-known by the Academy directors branch; he’s never had a film in Oscar contention, and his biggest hit was the first season of HBO’s “True Detective.” Part of the problem: Many of Hollywood’s best and brightest are working in television and the Academy can be snobby about that. 

Even though unknown Abraham Attah and better known British star Idris Elba (best known for TV’s “Luther” and studio action fare) were widely praised, they did not land Oscar nods. Arguably, it wasn’t just a question of whether or not Academy members saw the movie, whether on Netflix, in theaters, or on a screener. (It was a stunning cinematic experience on the big screen.) It’s more that the movie wasn’t deemed a hit. It stayed small. Also, the supporting actor category was the most competitive in years. SAG nominee Michael Shannon didn’t make it either, nor did last year’s Oscar contender Michael Keaton, splitting the vote with “Spotlight” costar Mark Ruffalo, nor widely praised Paul Dano (“Love & Mercy”).

“Straight Outta Compton.” In this case Universal took the movie out in the summer and turned it into a commercial breakout. They did not play it in festivals to give it extra cred, but gave it a full court press for Oscar consideration. They did not stint on spending. Its strongest assets? F. Gary Gray’s direction, the screenwriters who landed the film’s only Oscar nom (and happened to be white), the score (mostly not original), editing and sound. The media is at fault here: Why weren’t Coogler and Gray in the The Hollywood Reporter director’s roundtable, which reflected less the actual contenders than the Oscar perennials — Quentin Tarantino, Tom Hooper, Danny Boyle, Ridley Scott and David O. Russell, none of whom landed nominations — who would play best on their TV show? (THR apologized for the all-white actresses group, and made up for it with the actors, which included Samuel L. Jackson of “The Hateful Eight” and “Concussion” star Will Smith.) The more mainstream PGA went for “Compton” with a field of ten. The Academy may vote to go back to ten as well, on the basis that “Straight Outta Compton” would have made it.

“Selma” made that cut last year because it was an Academy movie: A reverent biopic of a great slain Civil Rights leader, directed by rising star Ava DuVernay, who delivered a powerful dramatic movie (while dinged by some of the experts of the period). “Straight Outta Compton” was a hip hop musical aimed at a younger male demographic, totally different from the Academy’s. I talked to lots of voters who loved it, and I thought it would get in. It’s those preferential ballots. With a lot of competition the consensus rules.

“Creed.” From the beginning, supporting actor nominee Sylvester Stallone’s narrative dominated this Oscar campaign. Writer-director Ryan Coogler’s debut “Fruitvale” was picked up by the Weinsteins and became a festival darling, playing Sundance and Cannes, and was an indie hit, but with this MGM/New Line/Warner Bros. sequel, Coogler carefully fashioned an accessible, entertaining, dramatic narrative. He wrote a script that was strong enough to lure Stallone and let his stars — Stallone and Michael B. Jordan — shine. Both should have been nominated. Why wasn’t Jordan taken more seriously? That is a deep and disturbing question. He is relatively young and largely not established with the Academy electorate, many of whom dodged “Creed” thinking it was just another “Rocky” sequel. Best Picture voters tend to ignore sequels, as they did “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” with certain exceptions like “Mad Max: Fury Road” or the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

“Concussion.” Look at the reviews. They were ok but not great. Laudable as his mission was to raise consciousness about the dangers of head injuries in football, Peter Landesman was more agit-prop journalist than compelling filmmaker. Will Smith did a solid job embodying a Nigerian neurologist trying to make his mark in America. But the movie needed to be stronger, and did not catch fire at the box office. SAG didn’t go for him either. Smith is more global movie star than respected master thespian, partly due to his own eagerness to please within the studio system with mixed resuts. He’s been nominated twice, for Michael Mann’s “Ali” and Gabriele Muccino’s “The Pursuit of Happyness.”

The Academy wants to make changes, and they have been aggressively inviting a younger, more diverse membership ever since CEO Dawn Hudson and president Cheryl Boone Isaacs have been in charge. They know the problem. They want to move the needle but it’s going slowly. The Governors meeting this coming Tuesday will bring a wide-ranging discussion of what they can do to improve the situation. Some people want to limit voters to people who have worked in the last ten years. Indiewire’s box office pundit Tom Brueggemann suggests a point system with more points for Academy winners and active members and fewer for inactive members. This won’t fly. Most people in the movie business don’t work a lot of the time. These professionals are experienced, knowledgeable and worthy of respect. Agism isn’t the solution.

They just don’t tend to like hip hop movies, necessarily, or follow small-scale festival hits that haven’t penetrated their consciousness. Part of the fault is within the Academy screening committee, which chooses the movies that show to the membership over the course of the year. Many worthy and diverse films do not get picked. 

My modest proposal for modernizing and winnowing down the Academy voters? If they can’t figure out how to vote online, even with coaching from the Academy, maybe they aren’t cogent enough pick the Oscars. 

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