Opinion: If Hollywood wants diversity, it must start at the top | Film | DW | 20.01.2016
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Opinion: If Hollywood wants diversity, it must start at the top

Hollywood must wake up and understand that its international audiences want diverse films, says DW's Scott Roxborough. Just shaking up the Academy won't solve #OscarsSoWhite.

"40 White Actors In 2 Years And No Flava At All. We Can't Act?! WTF!!" wrote director Spike Lee in an Instagram post on Monday, summing up the anger and frustration of many non-white filmmakers. Lee said he won't attend the Oscars this year in protest. Actress Jada Pinkett Smith is also boycotting the awards. Expect more to follow.

Their outrage is justified. Beyond the acting categories, there was only one non-white talent nominated in the main Oscar categories - Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who got a best director nomination for "The Revenant," starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Stand-out performances by Will Smith in "Concussion," Samuel L. Jackson in "The Hateful Eight" and Idris Elba in "Beast of No Nation" were ignored. Spike Lee's excellent "Chi-Raq," a re-imagining of the Greek play "Lysistrata" set amid the bloody gun violence of Chicago's South Side, was similarly snubbed.

Adding insult to injury, the nominations for "Straight Outta Compton" and "Creed," two films from black directors with mainly black casts, were rather nominated for their white components: Sylvester Stallone in "Creed" and the four white screenwriters in "Compton."

Changing the Academy isn't the point

Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, herself an African-American, said she was "heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion" among this year's nominees and said it was "time for big changes" at the Oscars.

Scott Roxborough, Copyright: DW/H.-C. von Bock

Scott Roxborough presents DW's movie magazine, Kino

Boone Isaacs has already introduced efforts to broaden and diversity the Academy's membership - currently the average Oscar voter is a 63-year-old white male - but it has been a slow, and often frustrating, process.

Nevertheless, altering the makeup of the Academy does not get to the root of the problem. A more diverse Academy would be a welcome development, but it won't change anything if the people who decide what films get made remain, in Lee's words, "lily-white."

Bust the myth: 'Black' movies do sell

Fully 96 percent of Hollywood film and TV executives are white, according to the most recent Hollywood Diversity Report, published by The University of California, Los Angeles. These men (they are nearly all men) are Hollywood's gatekeepers. They decide which scripts get produced, which actors get cast and which films get the big marketing push from the studios to send them around the world.

To address the issues at the core of the #OscarsSoWhite protest, Hollywood also has to confront one of the most persistent myths about the film business, which is that black movies don't sell. I've heard this argument from producers and film distributors the world over. If anything, films starring minorities have increased in recent years, as the importance of emerging film markets, in Russia, Brazil, and particularly China, has grown.

Ticket sales outside of North America now account for 60 to 75 percent of the overall box office sales for a typical Hollywood blockbuster. Foreign audiences, the argument goes, aren't used to seeing black actors on screen and won't come out to support a movie with a racially diverse cast.

Film fans want diversity, Hollywood falls behind

For them, I have just two words: "Furious 7." The car-crashing action film boasts a totally diverse cast and earned more than $1.5 billion worldwide. Having black British actor John Boyega as the face of the new "Star Wars" film hasn't hurt that franchise either. The fact is that excellent movies with excellent non-white talent, provided they get the proper marketing and sales push, have no problem competing for audiences.

Scene from Star Wars The Force Awakens, Copyright: Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM/David James

"Stars Wars: The Force Awakens" proves global audiences want diverse casts, says Scott Roxborough

"Straight Outta Compton" earned more than $200 million worldwide. "Creed" has made $140 million to date.

Hollywood, whose community prides itself on being liberal and open-minded, has fallen behind the movie-going audience. The UCLA study found that Hispanics and African Americans make up more than half of "frequent moviegoers" in the U.S., the heavy users who buy the majority of movie tickets.

There's a saying: Green is the only color that really matters in Hollywood. By ignoring non-white audiences, by blocking opportunities to actors and filmmakers of color, the studios are leaving money on the table.

#OscarsSoWhite isn't about affirmative action or political correctness. It isn't about the show. It's about the business. It's well overdue that Hollywood acknowledged this - and did something about it.

Scott Roxborough hosts DW's weekly movie magazine, Kino.

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