#OscarsSoWhite has swept the internet over the past few months and sparked very important conversations about racial and ethnic diversity in the film and television industries.
- Filmmakers need to be aware of the stories they tell, who represents them, and why the system leans toward certain perspectives, while writing off others as “too niche.”
- Producers, Distributors, and Financiers still believe that Audiences aren’t interested in diverse perspectives.
- Filmmakers of all racial and ethnic backgrounds have stories to tell and are growing increasingly empowered to tell them.
Diversity cuts two ways in contemporary American cinema: Audience diversity, and Filmmaker diversity. The sad fact is, in 2016 it is far more difficult to be a person of color in the United States’ film industry than it should be.
This is a serious societal problem. It’s not just pervasive in the film industry, but across the country, through all walks of life and fields: it is still more difficult to be a person of color in 2016, than a caucasian American.
#OscarsSoWhite is not just a call to action for successful present-day filmmakers to be aware of their casting and crewing decisions. It’s a call to action for up-and-coming filmmakers of all backgrounds to push the conventions of cinema.
For audiences, it’s a reminder to seek out and accept those perspectives, which is more difficult to ensure or promote.
Prejudice changes with generations, slowly breaking down with decades of exposure. Diversity of sports like basketball, football, and baseball are evidence of caucasian America’s ability to accept an array of ethnic and racial identities, when it conveniently becomes part of daily life.
#OscarsSoWhite is not just a much needed illumination of systemic problems; it is a notification that, while change is happening, we are progressing far slower than most would hope.
In a time when film production is more accessible than ever, filmmakers have a clear signal that varied perspectives are massively encouraged, and desired. #OscarsSoWhite may be the single most important events for independent filmmakers in decades!
The Oscars were founded in a very different time—almost 30 years before the Civil Rights movement.
Caucasian leanings were not simply a product of the Oscars’ relationship to 1929’s film industry, but of every U.S. industry in 1929. The U.S. had little concept of diversity then, outside of harsh imbalances.
It took 11 years for an African American performer to be recognized with an Oscar win, and to date only 44 African Americans have been nominated.
The total number of Oscars given since 1929: 2,947. This means that people of color (non-caucasian or European) make up 1/34th of all Oscar winners in history.
The Oscars represent an antiquated model: for better or worse, no matter how you cut it, it’s still a stiff night of tuxedos, gowns and formality reserved for the super-wealthy.
In those social circles, there are rarely as many persons of color as there are caucasians. Again, #OscarsSoWhite highlights a larger social problem that the Oscars are a symptom of.
The bar for entry into most fields is much higher for people of color, and the bar for mainstream acceptance is even higher.
Symptoms, though, must still be given treatment.
Will this change with time? I hope so. Does a change for The Oscars require larger social awareness and reform? Absolutely.
As Oscar winner and repeated Oscars host Whoopi Goldberg said, this is not a problem specific or unique to the Oscars. The problem is overwhelming apprehension toward financing films centered around, or heavily involving people of color by financiers, studios, and executives.
Why the apprehension? It’s not because of audiences, but because of how these power-players view audiences.
AUDIENCES NEED MORE
#OscarsSoWhite proves that a wide spectrum of audiences are hungry to connect.
If executives, producers, and distributors aren’t ready to accept this signal to noise, then it’s up to independent filmmakers to meet the audience where they are!
As a Lebanese American, I tire of seeing the same portrayals of Middle Eastern people in cinema, over and over: the terrorist, the sympathetic Arab among terrorists, the tokenized Arab friend who’s exceptional at math and science, etc.
Similar critiques are often voiced by East Asian, Indian, Latino, and African American viewers, with a multitude of stereotypes attached. And, I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention this same paradigm exists for women of all backgrounds.
But many audiences are dispensing with these age-old archetypes in favor of honest, human representations of races and ethnicities that are capable of the same dualities as caucasian Americans.
This shift is happening subtly in large films—note the immense success of Straight Outta Compton—and dramatically in smaller independent films, finding their audiences through VOD, Netflix, and other home viewing platforms.
HBO even has a sizable selection of content dedicated to Latino audiences, presumably because that audience is of notable size, and growing daily.
This is a fantastic turning point for the business of releasing diverse indie films: ethnic minorities are forecasted to be the American majority within a few decades, and are queuing up digital screens for new ideas. Digital screens are where indie filmmakers can most efficiently meet audiences.
FILMMAKERS NEED MORE
#OscarsSoWhite pinpoints the ingrained industry standard that caucasian voices are prioritized.
The call from audiences for greater attention on diversity removes gatekeepers’ power, reminding power players that their multi-billion dollar industry would crumble without audiences.
This recent reminder gives racially/ethnically diverse storytellers a lot of leverage; storytellers who have struggled with their sense of place in this industry since its inception. #OscarsSoWhite is an announcement: “Someone out there wants your stories!”
Let’s not forget, it hasn’t been that long since Charlton Heston was considered a sensible casting decision for the Mexican protagonist in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil.
Looking back down the timeline, one would think we’ve come a long way. However, look to the recent, and highly publicized casting of Emma Stone as a Hawaiian-Chinese character in Aloha, Rooney Mara’s portrayal of Tiger Lilly in Pan, or a few years ago when Angelina Jolie portrayed a real-life woman of Afro-Cuban decent in A Mighty Heart. Correlate this with Scarface and most Americans could safely assume that there exists not a single Cuban actor.
Hollywood has also utilized a repetitive practice of writing minority characters out of original screenplays and adapted stories to accommodate caucasian stars and budgetary concerns related to too much diversity. The growing is far from done, as an industry and as a society.
#OscarsSoWhite is a rally cry for filmmakers to embrace uniquely varied experiences and backgrounds, to tell a host of stories from perspectives outside their own, and to subvert conventions, with the promise that groups will be out there looking for their visions.
There are a few Lebanese-centric stories I’ve always wanted to tell, but assumed would be impossible, at scale. This is seeming less and less like the case, today. Who knows where society will be when I’m mature and responsible enough to put those stories on screen?
BROAD V. LIMITED APPEAL
The highest of the highs choose where their dollars go, to whom, and why? The highest of the highs in the United States are predominantly caucasian. Few of them are young and progressive, and those who are have yet to flood the business of cinema.
For the deep pockets behind large-scale contender films and Blockbusters, the question is one of broad market appeal—again, their perception of audience interests.
In the eyes of financial green-lighters, the goal is to garner the most possible ticket sales and home viewing purchases/rentals, and to profit off of films that cost more than most States’ education budgets.
I’m sure many of these executives and accounting heads realize there is broad appeal for minority performers and filmmaking perspectives, but their primary focus is reduction of “risk.”
With very few exceptions (Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Lopez, and few others) execs see it as a risk to show broad audiences large-scale, massive budget films that break outside of familiarity. Their goal is money, pleasing shareholders, and continuing the game. Who’s to say whether the next James Bond will be black or white, but the controversy surrounding the very conversation has been contentious, to say the least.
As the film industry has grown, dipped, re-grown, and evolved across the years, a through line has always been caucasian starpower on screen. Audiences have been primed to assume that minorities will only star in certain rolls, while caucasians can star in any.
This social norm is no different than other U.S. conventions involving high-profile super-powers: the political system will remain predominantly white and male, and there’s nothing odd about Silicon Valley having the same demographics.
It is unspeakably unfortunate that racial and ethnic identity are lumped into the same financial risk assessments as storytelling devices, and that these human issues contend with formulaic storylines, predictable character arcs, and redundant visual effects sequences.
Don’t race and ethnicity mean more than that? In the big business of American entertainment, and in American big business as a whole, no. That is the source of this problem.
Pursuit of massive wealth will not disappear, and I don’t think anyone could convince a studio head to take, what they would perceive as, a $200 million risk, no matter the cause.
I’m a firm believer that change comes from the ground up, enters the system, and shifts it from within. This is why #OscarsSoWhite isn’t only meant for the Oscars—that system may change a little, then it’ll revert back and forth for decades.
#OscarsSoWhite is a message to independent filmmakers: if we create a plethora of diverse and compelling stories, at a volume the world has never seen before, that are niche marketed and profitable in their own rights… Well, things will begin changing.
Eventually, more diversity will enter Politics, Silicon Valley, and the entertainment business. Different movements will occur, shifts will transpire, and acceptance will grow. In the meantime, filmmakers must be the boots on the ground, empowering audiences with an array of visions.
Look how quickly the other award shows, festivals, and markets turned their focus on diversity after the Oscars controversy. Reactive or not, change happened and will continue to happen.
The $17.5 Million check written by Fox Searchlight to acquire Birth of a Nation (2016) at Sundance was made very knowingly. One rarely cuts a check like that for social good, if ever. Fox is a large business and industry front-runner.
The right film was made at the right time, and it will reach more eyes than it ever could have before. I’m completely excited about this! I’m excited to see this vision and narrative, and I’m excited it will reach this expansive sea of eyes!
Let’s take a moment to look at the structure and sequence of events—note that this is no way meant to cut down Nate Parker’s film, it’s social importance, or how excited I am to finally see it when it’s released:
- Nate Parker is obsessed with a story and manages to get it made.
- The story means a lot to Nate.
- The story means a lot to many people who are underrepresented and oppressed.
- The film is shown as its issues come to a countrywide head.
- Nate Parker’s important story is bought and will be seen widely by the people who care most about its message, and now many many others.
Fox cut Birth of a Nation’s check because the marketplace spoke out, demanding films like Birth of a Nation. The marketplace asked and a studio had minimized risk. 1 year ago, that might not have been the case for a film like Birth of a Nation, which may have been a talked-about film among cinephiles, but broadly overlooked elsewhere.
There are more marketplaces for films now than ever before: theatrical, festivals, and home video are no longer the limits. Almost every film of any concentrated quality can find a few sets of eyes—maybe not an expansive sea, but certainly a lake to start.
With diverse audiences showing their desires, diverse filmmakers wanting to tell their stories, and technology making small films possible, the stars are aligned for independent filmmakers to build bodies of unique work, upend the marketplace, and reach audiences around the world.
AUDIENCE ACCESSIBILITY IN THE AGE OF NICHE
Diverse audiences are breaking conventions of media consumption, opting to find what they specifically want, instead of simply having broad media sold to them.
We live in the internet age: media consumers can find what appeals to their unique tastes and media makers can find consumers with a few clicks and a couple bucks. We no longer need millions of dollars for TV ads.
Facebook ads allow anyone to identify those with common interests and reach out to them directly with a message or product.
Try this fun experiment: go to Facebook and type in the top search bar, “fans of [your favorite movie’s title].” You’ll see groups and individuals who’ve posted their fandom. You’ll get exact numbers. You’ll get what’s crudely referred to as Market Research.
You can replicate this with books, TV shows, publications, websites, apps, and more. If you make, or want to make a film that’s niche oriented, and want to see who may be interested, run this search.
For a relatively small amount of money you can market that work to each and every interested party on Facebook.
Sure, if I were making a film centered on a Lebanese American protagonist, my search would not be as simple as “Lebanese Americans.” But, searching books, films, and other media similar to my story, with diverse casting will likely garner results.
To quote Seth Godin, “Find your tribe.”
Audiences want to see themselves represented and theater ticket-buyers are not exclusively caucasian. Not by a longshot. It’s clear that racially/ethnically diverse groups consume lots of media, from an array of sources, in an array of locations.
Not everyone will take an interest in your film, but not everyone has to. If your work makes a sincere splash and resonates deeply with a specific tribe, you will have made enough of an impact to get more viewers aboard for your next.
For ethnic and racially diverse filmmakers, the tools are available at low cost, and audiences have made themselves known through social commentary, blogs, forums, comments on news articles, Facebook fan pages, and, of course, hashtags.
The beauty—and sometimes scary part of the internet is that it allows like-minds to connect. As filmmakers, we can use this to circulate our films and messages, if we have them.
#OscarsSoWhite is an example of this very phenomena: the oversight of wonderful and diverse performers at 2016’s Oscars was noticed by many. Because of the internet, they were able to mobilize, make a statement, and affect positive change.
Your film can do the same thing. So feel powerful as an independent filmmaker in 2016. The system itself may not change anytime soon. It may take a Century or more. The medium of filmmaking may change all-together in the interim.
But because you and I are making films today, in this age, in these times, we have opportunities unpossessed by generations before: we can make great art without gatekeepers, and we can propagate any message we wish, or no message at all.
Whether you want to make art for fun, for political activism, for artistic merit, or some combination, let #OscarsSoWhite illustrate that messages spread when people care.
If you care about upending racial and ethnic norms in contemporary cinema, let #OscarsSoWhite indicate that there’s never been a better time to push that revolution forward. ShoHawk notwithstanding, your films will have an audience.
Thanks for reading, and feel free to comment with your feelings on #OscarsSoWhite, below! 🙂