Diversity, the Oscars, and Screenwriting

by Fin Wheeler

These past few weeks, in the lead up to the Oscars, we’ve been bombarded with statistics regarding diversity in Hollywood. Here’s just a handful.

  1. The Emmys have been around for 22 years, the Oscars 88, yet the same number of African Americans have been awarded Emmys as Oscars.
  2. Between 1991 and 2008, only 14% of specs sold were written by females. In 2011-2012 that figure dropped even further to 9%.
  3. In 2011-2012 94.1% of broadcast (scripted) shows and 89.3% of cable shows had white creators. 71.1% of broadcast creators were males; cable shows were slightly higher with 77.4%.
  4. Of the hundred or so primetime scripted series on broadcast TV, there are 800 main cast members. Only 52 of those 800 are played by actors of Asian descent.
  5. In the 500 top-grossing films from 2007-2012, only 12.4% of speaking roles were played by African Americans. 75.8% were played by white actors, leaving only 11.8% of speaking roles cast with actors of all other ethnicities.
  6. In the five year period 2009-2013, 466 studio films were made. Only 22 (4.7%) were directed by women. Only one woman, Anne Fletcher, directed two features in that five year period.
  7. Hispanic Americans make up 17% of the population, but make up 32% of frequent moviegoers. (Domestically, Hispanic Americans are far more likely to buy a cinema ticket.)
  8. Fewer movie tickets were sold in the US in 2014 than in any year since 1995. (The American film industry makes more than 60% of its profits from its ethnically diverse international audiences. That percentage is steadily rising.)
  9. 93% of Academy voters are white. 76% are male.
  10. The average age of Academy voters is 63.

Those are some overwhelming statistics. It seems like we’re lagging behind in every area of diversity.   But what are we supposed to do with all this raw data? And what exactly is diversity anyhow?

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 25:  Actor Idris Elba attends the screening of "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom", hosted by U2, Anna Wintour and Bob & Harvey Weinstein, with Burberry at the Ziegfeld Theater on November 25, 2013 in New York City.  (Photo by Ben Gabbe/FilmMagic)

Personally, I like the way British actor Idris Elba phrased it:

I’m not here to talk about black people: I’m here to talk about diversity. Diversity in the modern world is more than just skin color – it’s gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, social background, and – most of all, as far as I’m concerned – diversity of thought.

So how do we set about creating, writing, developing, casting, producing and distributing screen content that’s not from a rich old white guy viewpoint, given that the vast majority of people in positions of power peer out at the world from that non-inclusive keyhole?

The issue was raised on the filmmaking reality show Project Greenlight late last year. The two white, male Oscar-winners who run the show, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, had decided that the winning film (The Leisure Class) would have an almost entirely white cast. They’d brought in Effie Brown, an African American female, to produce. During the shooting of an episode, she raised concerns that the sole African American actor was playing a prostitute beaten by her white pimp.

Her points appeared to be:

  1. America has a diverse population. Instead of casting 99% of all roles with white actors, perhaps it would be more interesting and relevant to cast with more diversity.
  2. If you’re only going to allow one African American into the project, why give them a role that will reinforce negative stereotypes? Surely that has an even more negative impact.

As Brown tried to articulate her concerns (about this casting, and its wider social statements) she was cut off my Matt Damon. He said Greenlight was set up to help the best emerging filmmakers, not as a platform for promoting diversity. He then moved on to another topic, effectively terminated all conversation on the topic of diversity. The show’s co-creator, Ben Affleck, remained silent. He didn’t acknowledge Brown’s conversation, or the points she was trying to table. He appeared to simply sit back and allow the other rich white guy to shut down any and all discussion of diversity.

What example does that set? Young kids who were watching, with dreams of becoming Hollywood powerbrokers took away two lessons: (1) If you’re asked rational questions about diversity, you should employ an ‘us versus them’ mentality and just shout your opponent down. (2) It’s always better to let another guy publicly shout down the diversity chick; that way they’ll cop the media backlash, not you.

Hollywood is supposed to be less closed-minded and conservative than the nation at large, not more so… yet here we are mere days before the #SoWhiteOscars.

Diversity-in-Film-2015-04

How did we get here?

The events of the past 2,000 years or so have more than a little to do with it.

Then, a year ago there were loud ripples as the Academy announced that all five of the 2015 Best Actor nominees were white. A few weeks later, this anger and frustration spiked as one of the nominees, Benedict Cumberbatch, used offensive phrasing in a public statement about the lack of diversity. He very quickly followed his comments with a non-apology, blaming any misunderstanding or mis-phrasing on the fact that he’s English.

If, as soon as the Oscar nominees were announced, the first statements each of those five white actors made had mentioned their disappointment at the lack of diversity, that would be have been seen as genuine.

But when, weeks later, the focus of pre-Oscar buzz had shifted to the competition between the two male English actor nominees (and it’s became clearer by the day that the younger of the two was more likely to win). That’s when the offending statement was made. To the cynical, and disappointed, onlooker it does appear that the sore loser decided to throw the diversity issue under the bus, just to take a little of the spotlight from any competitiveness he might have been feeling towards his fellow English actor.

Perhaps the actor’s choice wasn’t a conscious one. And when Matt Damon very publicly shut down a female African American as she dared to broach the topic of diversity, he probably wasn’t consciously trying to telegraph to future generations that diversity should never be listened to or tolerated, yet those are the messages they projected.

Diversity should be an active conversation because our most dangerous ignorances are those we don’t even realize we’re choosing to be ignorant about.

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Take the Academy’s PR following the announcement of this year’s nominees. They knew before the list of nominees was made public that they should issue a comment on the lack of diversity, but they chose to let it slide. Instead, they just waited silently during the first wave of critical comments, then announced that it was all okay, because this year’s host, and many of the presenters, would be a more diverse mix.

Inevitably, talk show hosts and comedians everywhere delivered monologues joking about how the white folks at the Academy were allowing the help to hand awards to more white folks.

As if that weren’t enough, the Academy (usually incredibly strict about pre-Oscar confidentiality) allowed their official florist to be interviewed on TV. The florist stated proudly that the color-theme for this year’s ceremony was ‘all-white’, he went on to assure the viewers that the theme had been chosen months before, so it wasn’t a race thing at all. The interviewer then asked if they’d thought of changing the theme, the florist replied that they had considered it, but they’d already ordered the plants and flowers from the growers.

That’s right: the Academy allowed their official florist to go on-camera and suggest that their profit margins were more important to them than the idea that they might offend millions of (non-white) Americans.

…And the Academy is supposed to be the best representatives of all those working in the field of moving pictures.

So what can we, as an industry, do to effect change? And what can we, as screenwriters and creators of original content, do?

The Establishment

Would it be so bad if the Academy announced that it’s going into voluntary diversity? That for the next five years there will be no white nominees in the four acting categories, and that in the producing, directing and writing categories there will also be race and gender quotas for nominees?

What would this achieve?

It wouldn’t drastically change how any of the big-budget action movies are made. These are the projects that make the most profit, often from franchising. While those income streams remain relatively secure, that would leave the smaller ‘Oscar-bait’ projects to diversify.

The most common argument against diversity from the power players is “audience,” but that no longer applies. White people pirate content. Less Americans than ever are paying for content. We are also in an age where same-sex relationships are open, not illegal. And for the first time in recorded history, women are more highly educated than men. Plus, this is the digital age. An “audience” is not what it was two years ago, and it’s certainly not what it was half a century ago (when most Oscar members where still average members of society).

The second most common argument is “we’ll let change trickle up.” The idea that change should start outside the American film industry is frankly ridiculous. There is only ever one day each year (Oscar night) when American films don’t dominate the box office. If you want to boast about being the best, that also comes with the responsibility of being the most evolved and the best.

I’m not saying it would be easy. Nothing worthwhile is.

Prior to the abolition of slavery, most people in positions of power felt it was fair and easy to maintain the status quo. Prior to changes in civil rights, votes for women and marriage equality bullies everywhere said it was just easier to ignore that cultures and civilizations everywhere are continually evolving.

Plus, there’s the phenomenally successful Fast and Furious franchise. It’s incredibly diverse casting is celebrated as one of the cornerstones of its success.

Why can’t Hollywood have a five year period where they produce films with more females in the cast than males? Why can’t they cast any actor in a role, instead of white ones? Why can’t they green-light stories that are more than just “white boy meets white girl plus a few action sequences”?

What can screenwriters do?

Think about how many specs you’re going to write this year. How many of them have a diverse cast? How many projects have a female lead? Would it kill you to go a year or two without writing any white male characters?

To paraphrase the presidential hopefuls, Come on screenwriters. Write diversely, and make the American film industry great again.

~

Fin Wheeler is a member of the Australian Writers’ Guild and has a feature in development.

3 thoughts on “Diversity, the Oscars, and Screenwriting

Add yours

  1. “I’m devastated to have caused offence by using this outmoded terminology. I offer my sincere apologies. I make no excuse for my being an idiot and know the damage is done.” In what way is that a “non-apology” from Mr Cumberbatch? If you write an article with simple inaccuracies like this, it undermines your claim for the very real concerns you raise to be taken seriously because the reader stars to wonder about the accuracy of other things you say.

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