I want to start by saying I support increased racial and gender diversity in Hollywood. It’s long overdue, and it should help to expand the kinds of stories portrayed in films beyond the hackneyed formulaic stuff we’ve been getting lately.
But I’m going to get myself in trouble today.
Because as much as I’d love to join the fray in blaming studio execs (what exactly do they do?) for their lack of imagination, risk-taking and inflexibility, I have to point the finger somewhere else if we’re looking for a villain in the fight for diversity.
Why, you may ask? Because even as we Americans still have a lot of issues with race, gender (just check out any Donald Trump rally!) and age, we apparently don’t hold a candle to the prejudices of most other countries around the world. And they—as reflected by the amounts of money generated in ticket sales worldwide—often determine which actors get to play leading roles in feature films in 2016.
Foreign sales markets comprise between 40 and 60 per cent of the financing of nearly all feature films. Which is a lot of money at any budget. So guess what happens if you can’t “drive the foreign?”
You don’t get to make a movie.
No one is in the movie business to lose money, although it looks that way based on some of the films that actually get made. Our industry is a model of free enterprise, but the down side is that money-driven industries must answer to people who are looking to make, not films necessarily, but money.
So if foreign sales are driven by mostly white male actors, many great African-American, Latino and Asian-American actors (and most women, especially over the age of 40) end up in “Column B” because they don’t generate the MG’s (minimum guarantees) that production companies need to raise money for the film.
So let’s blame the foreign sales agents. Yeah, that works. Kinda. Except that they’re just reporting the news, and trying to make their nut themselves. They have to answer to the buyers in each country, who are merely responding to their audiences.
That’s it. Blame the people around the world who don’t want to see a film starring a woman or a Black actor or an old person. And blame their parents for educating them to shun diversity in their movie watching. The parents can blame the teachers, the teachers can blame the parents, and both can blame the entertainment industry for “brainwashing” their kids with mindless pulp starring white male actors.
There’s a matrix of blame to go around, but sure, the racist/sexist/ageist media has colluded to form an aesthetic audiences now cling to. But it’s an oversimplification to fling the entire detritus of shame at the execs, or even the old white dudes (read “Academy voters”, of which I am definitely not a member).
The answer is not just to pressure the industry to nominate more diverse actors only because of the color of their skin. That would impose a quota system on Oscar voting; and even though I spend my Oscar nights watching a film instead of the self-congratulatory crap of that telecast, I’d feel as though we’d lost our critical eye in some crucial way. Because if we start down that path, then we next will have to carve out at least one nomination for Latinos, one for LGBT actors, one for actors over 60 (why wasn’t Michael Caine nominated for YOUTH???), and eventually one for left-handed actors (who are daily subjected to right-handed domination—just try using those scissors with your left hand!).
Just as an example of the point I’m trying to make: STRAIGHT OUTA COMPTON, a film about arguably one of the most legendary groups in the history of rap music (and a critical success), grossed $161 million in the U.S. vs. a worldwide gross of $194 million. Worldwide, it only picked up an additional $33 million in ticket sales. Lee Daniels’ THE BUTLER grossed $117 domestically, but only grossed $43 million everywhere else. Compare that to, say, TOMORROWLAND–a critical and some say financial failure–starring white male George Clooney—earning domestically a mere $93 million, yet grossing worldwide $209 million.
In my experience working with foreign sales companies, it really is all about the numbers generated by white male movie stars vs….well, everyone else.
So the larger issue is capitalism, the profit motive and, basically, human greed, isn’t it? If a film starring a disabled Black transgender dwarf in his late 60’s were to gross $300 million, the studios would be churning out five sequels before you could mutter the words “more diversity.”