This past weekend, on a long drive from New York to Massachusetts, I popped on the most recent episode of the Broken Projector podcast and listened to Scott and Geoff talk about award season. While their conversation was typically on-point about the slow changes that will need to occur within the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for more diverse Oscar nominees, it also struck me that one part of the equation is always being left out of the conversation. What is the role for those of us who aren’t involved in making or producing movies?
We’ve certainly talked the industry side of things to death. It’s getting to the point where even the man on the street can repeat the statistics regarding the lack of diversity within AMPAS. When the Los Angeles Times turned their eye on Academy voters in 2012, they discovered that 94% of the voters were white and 77% of the voters were male; black and Latino voters combined make up less than 4% of the Academy, leading many people to complain that the Academy is ill-suited to recognize films that feature non-white talent and narratives.
But this attention paid to Academy voters and the industry as a whole always leaves film criticism and audience preferences out of the equation, as if the millions of people who attend and write about movies this year are simply waiting for the industry to catch on. The truth is that the people who sit on the other side of the screen have our part to play in making Hollywood a more diverse industry, and, at times, we are just as capable of creating our own opportunities… and just as culpable for what goes wrong.
Since critics and culture writers are the ones who often champion diversity during award season, it’s easy to paint ourselves as the heroes in the Hollywood narrative, the ones holding the industry’s feet to the fire and chipping away at a history of ethnic homogeneity. And this is great, provided we don’t look too closely at the way power is structured within our own part of the industry. In October, I wrote about a handful of recent studies that suggested a dearth of female film critics currently working in the industry; a similar piece ran just a few weeks ago in Variety, drawing extra attention to the link between female film critics and movies made both by and for female audiences. At this point, the idea that there is a disconnect between film criticism and certain types of films shouldn’t be anything new.
And while our ability to talk about film criticism and gender may be improving, we’re still behind the curve in how we talk about film criticism and race. To the best of my knowledge, there has been no similar academic or critical study on the numbers of non-white film critics; this puts additional importance on anecdotal evidence, such as a recent article by the editor-in-chief of Movie Trailer Reviews. Titled “Struggles of an Independent Non-White Film Critic,” the piece begins with the author describing the pressure he feels when engaging with movies like The Hateful Eight and Straight Outta Compton, noting that his white counterparts have the luxury of viewing this films in a bubble while race is always part of the equation for a non-white film critic. It is a later section of the piece, however, where the author really drive his point home.
Many young black critics consider themselves “every day man/woman” reviewers because normal critic circles don’t include us (or any other non-white critics) unless we get a cosign from another white critics. The deck is stacked against us being included. (…) It angered me because we’re just as much part of the press and critic circle as anyone else. We’re going to the same press screeners. We’re getting the same press emails. We get credentialed press to events. We get interview opportunities and access. And unlike many of my non-white colleagues, we’ve had to do it without the help of bigger traditional sites.
Anyone who has ever read or written independent film criticism knows how hard it can be to establish yourself as a writer, but we’ve come to treat that difficulty as a sign of the industry’s fairness. Good writers are eventually given a platform for their voice; hard work and unique perspectives pay off. This article offers an important reminder that this process is not always universal. I’ve watched many websites grow from humble beginnings to industry touchpoints over the last decade – I’d like to think that Film School Rejects is one of them – and dismissing non-white film critics because they currently inhabit a more vernacular “every day man/woman” niche is closing the very same doors that other film editors and publishers walked through years before. If it’s important for us to develop more female film critics to ensure that their voices are being heard – especially on movies that target female audience – then the same is just as true for non-white film critics as well.
Around this time last year, the Motion Picture Association of America released their annual market research on movie theater attendance in the previous year. The report shines a great deal of light on the movie habits of the typical North American audience member. The average person, for example, sees an average of 5.5 movies a year in movie theaters, while the category of frequent moviegoers – people who see at least one movie a month – account for only 11% of the overall population but 51% of North American box office. This category of ‘frequent moviegoers’ is of particular importance when we look at the overall breakdown of ethnicity for Hollywood. Despite the fact that non-Caucasian audiences make up only 37% of the overall movie-going population, that number jumps to 44% when looking at frequent moviegoers, particularly when looking at the Hispanic population (25% of the total).
These numbers are also reflected in the “surprise” box office success of several 2015 titles, including films like Straight Outta Compton and Creed. When the former was blowing the doors off the industry tracking, every major Hollywood website featured an article poking holes in the financial forecasting methods that could so greatly undersell film with non-white leads. One Variety article quoted Wilson Morales, owner of the website Black-Film.com, as saying that there were very few black box office reporters or analysts, leading to “no one predicting the box office who’s African-American.” The success of these films even continued into award season, with both Straight Outta Compton and Creed able to secure a few Oscar nominations, despite the fact that neither were presented to audiences as prestige pictures throughout much of their theatrical run.
And while these all might be encouraging signs for the overall health of the industry, it still suggests that cinema geared towards non-white audiences is intended to be primarily populist, with any award season consideration being of secondary interest to the box office success available to a film. There are plenty of films – many of them starring Eddie Redmayne – that function primarily as the artistic side of an otherwise commercial industry. These are films that are created and marketed towards audiences as prestige pictures, with smaller budgets and the goal of being in the conversation come award season. Part of the reason people were so excited by Selma’s success was not just that it was a great movie, but also a great movie that operated within the niche of prestige pictures. It bucked a trend of non-white populist cinema.
It’s interesting to compare a film like the 2013 period piece Belle to Brooklyn, the current Best Picture and Best Actress nominee. On the surface, the two films are very similar. Both are period pieces with modest budgets – each film had a reported budget of around ten million dollars – while also featuring a young up-and-coming actress in a standout role. Both films also had the benefit of critical buzz, pulling in an 83% and 98% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, respectively. And while Belle would win awards from notable film societies such as the African-American Film Critics Association and the Black Film Critics Circle Awards, its May release date would effectively remove it from Oscar and Academy Award contention later in the year. Had the producers and distributors put more faith in their potential audience – had their film been dropped into the middle of award season like Brooklyn and been given the opportunity to succeed as a prestige film – it may have been the film to show that non-white narratives are just as successful come the fall.
Making a Difference
For many people, being an audience member or a critic (“every man” or no) is the only avenue of change available to us. We can’t very well go out and make a movie featuring non-white actors just to prove a point; nor do we really have the money or the influence necessary to fund the types of projects that we feel should be in contention around award season. What we can do is try and shape the conversation. We can spend money on the types of movies we’d like to see succeed, have conversations about these movies on social media, and ensure that we’re talking with – not speaking for – the non-white members of the audience who might champion films deserving of our attention (especially the films we may not have discovered on our own).
Next: Hollywood’s Diversity Problem Dominates the Oscar Conversation
Think that’s overly simplistic? Maybe. But I can’t help but think of World of Tomorrow, the animated short film by Don Hertzfeldt that Film School Rejects named its Movie of the Year back in December. When World of Tomorrow was nominated for an Academy Award last week, congratulations poured in across social media for Hertfzfeldt, but many people were just as quick to praise Rolling Stones critic David Ehrlich for his role in raising awareness of the film. Many film critics – people who would go on to push for the short as a serious contender come January – were only introduced to the movie because of Ehrlich’s tireless praise for the film. Maybe we can’t all be a David Ehrlich, but when it comes to the next deserving non-white Academy Award filmmakers, we all have a chance to be part of the dull roar of change.
Related Topics: Awards