88th Academy Awards preview: Examining Oscars’ gender imbalance and another good reason Hollywood should embrace diversity

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The 88th Academy Awards will be handed out Sunday. Photo provided

The 88th Academy Awards will be handed out Sunday. Photo provided

The 2016 Academy Awards will be handed out Sunday night, and the  Women’s Media Center has revealed some appalling, if not particularly surprising, statistics leading up to Hollywood’s golden day.

The D.C.-based group has studied the Oscars for 10 years and concluded that women represent only 19 percent of non-acting nominations, according to Variety. The cause: the industry’s hiring practices.

According to the center’s study, women received 327 nominations – less than one in five nods – behind the cameras, compared to 1,387 nods for men.

The study covers 19 categories, including producers, writers, directors and cinematographers nominated from 2006 to 2015.

As previously reported, women this year represented 22 percent of nominees, a high mark for the past decade, though still well below women’s percentage of the population.

“There is a clear connection between the low numbers of women hired for behind-the-scenes jobs in film and women’s low representation among Oscar nominees,” said Julie Burton, president of the Women’s Media Center, in the Variety report. “If they’re not hired in these non-acting categories, they’ll never have a chance to be recognized for their excellence.”

The study added that if more women were hired, the talent pool for nominations would better reflect the overall population and audience, more than half of which are women.

“The number of women film directors, especially black female directors, is abysmally low in an industry that too often is insular and resistant to change. The makeup of the Academy is only part of the problem. Most often, it’s the lack of opportunity available to women, and it’s especially hard if you are a woman of color,” Amma Asante, a recipient of the Women’s Media Center award for directorial excellence, said in the Variety report.

“It’s important to change the narrative for little girls so that they can picture themselves in the director’s chair — a position of strength, power and prestige. Through the director’s lens, I have the ability to shape, create, entertain, educate and inspire. I would only hope that my work as a screenwriter and director gives hope to young women.”

For instance, no woman has ever been nominated for cinematography in Oscar’s 88-year history, although women are more strongly represented in categories such as costume design, production design, short films and documentary features.

From 2006 to 2015, women constituted 24 percent of the producing (best picture) nominees. Women also accounted for 13 percent of the total nominations for writing (original and adapted screenplay). This year, women have four nominations in the writing categories, tying the all-time high from 2007, according to Variety.

“The response often given by those held accountable for an irresponsible lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar nominations is that there just aren’t as many women or people of color as directors, producers or in leading roles to choose from,” Pat Mitchell, chair of the Sundance Institute and WMC board co-chair, said in the Variety report.

“But a review of the representation of women directors, producers and leading roles at Sundance Film Festival, year after year, is evidence enough that there’s no lack of talent or stories or films to celebrate; what there is a lack of is the commitment, the vision to see beyond what Hollywood chooses to celebrate as representative and the best.”

I’ll be live blogging and tweeting the 88th Academy Awards Sunday night on my BAM’s Blog starting at 5 p.m. Central Time. To read my Oscar predictions, click here.

2001's "The Fast and the Furious" boasted an ethnically diverse cast, setting the trend for the rest of the series. Universal Pictures photo

2001’s “The Fast and the Furious” boasted an ethnically diverse cast, setting the trend for the rest of the series. Universal Pictures photo

Talking diversity, during Oscars week and beyond

Oscar host Chris Rock, producer Reginald Hudlin and film academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs took Thursday afternoon off from Academy Awards preparations to celebrate black women in Hollywood at Essence magazine’s ninth annual awards at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

According to the Associated Press, Hudlin took the stage to present an award to legendary entertainer Debbie Allen. Actress Tracee Ellis Ross, entertainment attorney Nina Shaw and filmmaker Thais Francis were also recognized.

Francis thanked the magazine “for creating a platform of visibility.”

“A lot of us in this audience know the importance of visibility, especially during a time, in a society, in a world, in an industry that’s telling us that we’re invisible,” she said.

Oprah Winfrey opened the program, which will air Saturday on OWN.

In a year when Hollywood’s lack of inclusion has overwhelmed the Oscar race, Winfrey said, “it’s a beautiful thing that we have the good sense to do this for ourselves.”

As previously reported, the lack of people of color among this year’s Oscar nominees and the subsequent #OscarsSoWhite outcry led to the Academy’s board of governors approving “a sweeping series of substantive changes designed to make the Academy’s membership, its governing bodies, and its voting members significantly more diverse,” with the goal of doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020.

Two-time Oscar nominee Viola Davis is among those who have asserted that the problem is not so much the Oscars as it is Hollywood in general.

“How many black films are being produced every year? How are they being distributed? The films that are being made, are the big-time producers thinking outside of the box in terms of how to cast the role? … Can you cast a black woman in that role? Can you cast a black man in that role?” she said in an Entertainment Tonight interview.

“You can change the Academy, but if there are no black films being produced, what is there to vote for?”

Hollywood’s lack of diversity makes even less sense when you consider an annual analysis released Thursday found that movies make more money when exactly half their casts are non-white, according the Associated Press.

“These aren’t momentary glitches. It’s the handwriting on the wall,” and it points to how profoundly out of touch the Academy is when giving Oscars only to white actors, Darnell Hunt, who directs the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the AP.

The Bunche Center has analyzed each year’s top-grossing films since 2011, grouping each movie according to how many non-white actors hold the top eight roles, and calculating the median global haul of each level of diversity. The best performing films, with a median ticket revenue of $122.2 million, turned out to be movies in which half the main cast was non-white, reports the AP.

That’s more than double the $52.6 million median haul for films with no non-white actors in the top eight. Films where more than half the principal actors were non-white also did worse, with a median of $52.4 million.

Casts with non-whites in four of the eight top roles also provided the best return on investment, delivering ticket sales that were 3.4 times the films’ budgets, on average.

In the U.S., Caucasians remained the largest moviegoing demographic in 2014 at 54 percent, reports the AP. But U.S. Hispanic and Asian audiences make up a greater proportion of frequent moviegoers than their population.

Considering that China is on pace to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest movie market in a few years, sheer financial necessity – undoubtedly the best motivator for the entertainment industry – may force Hollywood to embrace diversity.

The study points to racially and ethnically diverse movies like Lucy, starring Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi and Amr Waked alongside Scarlett Johansson, which grossed $444 million worldwide; the remake of Annie, starring Jamie Foxx, Quvenzhane Wallis and Cameron Diaz, which made $119 million; and the blockbuster Fast and Furious franchise, which has hauled in $3.9 billion in global ticket sales.

“You only need to look at a film franchise like Fast and Furious to see what an enormous success that movie has been, and in large part I would argue it’s because of the diversity of the cast,” Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton said in the AP report. “I think the Academy has reacted very, very quickly and positively to what I think was a very, extremely unfortunate situation this year.”

The Bunche Center report is interesting not only in the context of #OscarsSoWhite but also in light of the hilariously scathing smackdown on Hollywood whitewashing delivered this week courtesy Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Watch it here.

Ava DuVernay. Photo provided

Ava DuVernay. Photo provided

Quick hitters:

A new ‘Wrinkle’ for Ava DuVernay. “Selma” director Ava DuVernay will helm Disney’s upcoming movie adaptation of the beloved 1963 sci-fi novel A Wrinkle in Time, according to Deadline.com.

Jennifer Lee, who wrote and co-directed Frozen with Chris Buck, is penning the adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s Newberry Medal-winning book for Disney. The story follows a brother and sister as they travel through time and visit strange worlds with a friend and three witches in a quest to find their missing scientist father.

Deadline reports that DuVernay also has been offered the helm of Intelligent Life, a sci-fi thriller scripted by Colin Trevorrow and his Jurassic World collaborator Derek Connolly with 12 Years A Slave Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o attached. The movie is a fable about a United Nations worker in a department designed to represent mankind in case of alien contact, who falls for a mystery woman who turns out to be one.

Geena Davis to speak at University of Arkansas. Geena Davis is coming to my part of the country. The Academy Award winner and founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media will give a free public lecture the university on the ways women are represented in the film industry – both onscreen and behind the camera. She will also discuss the Bentonville Film Festival, created last year to promote and champion women and diversity in media, according to a news release.

The lecture will be at 2 p.m. Thursday, March 10, in Giffels Auditorium in Old Main. The event is sponsored by the Department of Communication’s Film Appreciation Society.

Women’s growing readership of comics marks ‘sea change.’ My excellent colleague Matthew Price recently returned from Portland, Ore., where he attended this year’s ComicsPRO annual membership meeting. ComicsPRO is the largest organization of direct market comic shop retailers.

He reports on NewsOK that writer Gail Simone, the keynote speaker for the conference, noted that she had seen in her roughly 15-year career a shift in comic readership, which has accelerated in the recent past. Namely, women and girls have been driving interest and sales, as more and more publishers try to keep up with demand for female-led titles and female-friendly creators.

“Don’t tell me the industry can’t make a change,” Simone said. “We’re in the middle of a wave right now.”

Former DC Comics President Paul Levitz, now working with Boom! Studios, said comic shops will be key to the continuing diversification of comics material.

“Diversity of comics is needed,” he said. “The medium is capable of telling any kind of story.”

With more and more movies as well as TV and streaming series drawing from comics, women coming to power in the comics realm could have a big impact on what we see on screens in the near future.

-BAM

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