Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Hollywood Status Quo: Oscar Nomination Snubs & 'The Celluloid Ceiling'

2016 Oscar acting nominees
As the 88 the Academy Awards edge closer and the studios, agencies and PR firms responsible for promoting films, directors and actors for the film industry's most prestigious honors kick into high gear ahead of the upcoming SAG Awards on Saturday January 30th, Hollywood once again finds itself in the spotlight - for all the wrong reasons.

For the second year in a row, the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) failed to nominate a single actor of color,

Actor David Oyelowo (who was famously snubbed for his role as Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma last year) was both unsparing and eloquent on the issue when he spoke up about it at the King Legacy Awards on Monday night, as eOnline reported, Oyelowo told the audience:

"For 20 opportunities to celebrate actors of color, actresses of color to be missed last year is one thing: for that to happen again this year is unforgivable."

Even critically well-received films with majority African-American (or African) casts, or actors of color in leading roles were all but snubbed in the major categories.

The only exceptions being the box office hit Straight Outta Compton as writers Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff and S. Leigh Savidge were nominated for Best Original Screenplay for the NWA biopic - and African-American director Ryan Coogler's Creed, which earned Sylvester Stallone a Best Supporting Actor nomination and a Golden Globe win for the same category.

As Cara Buckley reported in The New York Times yesterday, director Spike Lee and actress Jada Pinkett Smith have already publicly announced plans to boycott the 2016 Oscar Awards.

Now that's really awkward for AMPAS - especially if it gains momentum and overshadows the fact that Chris Rock is hosting the awards this year; what a year for him to host right?

Spike Lee & Jada P Smith: sitting the 2016 Oscars out
Lee received an honorary Oscar at a ceremony back in November; at which the director wryly noted during his acceptance speech that the only other black guy he'd seen was the security man at the door checking credentials.

Pinkett Smith has a leading role on the hit Fox show Gotham and she's the wife of Will Smith; the popular perennial A-List actor who's films have grossed over $2.7 billion for Hollywood since 1992 and whose presence at the awards is highly coveted.

Smith's performance as real-life Nigerian-born doctor Bennet Omalu (who fought to prove his theory that ex-NFL players were dying because of concussion-related head trauma) in Peter Landesman's film Concussion earned rave reviews from The Hollywood Reporter back in November - which speculated that Smith would receive his third Best Actor nomination after being nominated for Ali in 2001 and The Pursuit of Happyness in 2006.

But the film has only grossed about $34.2 million since it was released, so not a lot of people have seen it and his work was snubbed by the Academy.

Actor Idris Elba 
As was British actor Idris Elba for his captivating role as an African warlord in director Cary Joji Fukunaga's Beasts of No Nation.

Elba's powerful screen presence and acting chops on hit shows like The Wire and Luther have earned him a slew of Emmy, Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations; and rumors continue to circulate that he's on the shortlist to take over the role of 007 Agent James Bond once Daniel Craig hands in his Walther PPK.

But while he's had a number of meaty supporting roles in major releases, apart from the 2013 film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, his role in Beasts of No Nation is the first time Elba has taken on a widely-seen leading role; and the Academy can be choosy about nominating an actor who doesn't have a huge leading-man film resume.

There was industry buzz that the Academy gave a cool reception to the film because it was released on Netflix rather than in nation-wide theaters. There was also talk that the violent subject matter of Beasts of No Nation (African warlord, child soldiers...) turned off some Academy voters.

But Leo DiCaprio gets savagely mauled by a bear, rides a horse off a cliff to it's death then cuts the carcass open to climb inside and stay warm in The Revenant and they nominated him; granted Leo has proven his acting chops in several big releases that made bank at the box office but still...multiple media sources including the LA Times reported that the graphic nature of The Revenant had some audience members retching or walking out of early screenings of the film.

But in Elba's case I think it's more than that.

The Oscars class of 2014
As Derek Thompson reported in an article in The Atlantic back in March of 2014, a survey conducted by The Los Angeles Times found that the members of the Academy who vote for the Oscar nominations were 94% white, 76% men, 2% black, 2% Latino and 0.5% Asian, Native-American combined.

The average age? 63.

Take a few seconds to look over the photo of the 2014 Oscar nominees to the left.

Do the math, it won't take long.

Would it be fair to say it's reflective of the 2014 Academy membership numbers shown above?

Let's contrast the demographic breakdown of the 2014 Academy membership and the 2014 Oscar nominees shown above to the film audience who shell out their hard-earned dollars and passion to go see these movies.

If you take a look at MPAA statistics for 2014 showing film audiences broken down by demographics (see page 12) although Hispanics, African-Americans and Asians represent a smaller share of the overall audience, when viewed relative to their proportion of the U.S. population, they're actually more likely to pay money to go to see films in the theater.

So why aren't the casts of major Hollywood films more representative of those numbers?

Image from SDSU's CFSWIF&T homepage
A recent industry report known as 'The Celluloid Ceiling' that is conducted by the Center For the Study of Women In Film and Television at San Diego State University released on January 12th offers some insight.

As reported in 'the Report' section of the January 22nd issue of The Hollywood Reporter by Greg Kilday, the representation of women working behind the camera in 2015 didn't make a whole lot of progress from the previous year.

The report reveals that women made up 17% of the producers, directors, writers, editors and cinematographers in the industry in 2014 - that number edged up slightly to 19% in 2015.

On paper 2% in Hollywood is progress, but as Kilday's THR article reports, 19% representation is the exact same number as 2001,

As THR's summary of the report shows, out of the top-grossing movies of 2015:

  • 91% had no women directors
  • 82% had no women writers 
  • 52% had no women executive producers 
  • 32% had no women producers 
  • 74% had no women editors 
  • 94% had no women cinematographers
Those kinds of numbers offer insight into the lack of racial and gender diversity in Hollywood; and they help make the 2016 Oscar nominations make a little more sense.

It's not my intent to simply trash the industry, I'm passionate about film and I care that the industry is reflective of both the shifting demographics of our nation and the film audience who pay money to see movies. 

Dr. Martha M. Lauzen
I think the simmering issue of the 2016 Oscar snubs is best summed up by a quote from Dr. Martha Lauzen, (pictured left)

As Greg Kilday reports, she's the person responsible for overseeing 'The Celluloid Ceiling' report.

As she told Kilday in his THR article:

"There's been a lot of talk in the last couple of years about unconscious bias, but I don't like that term. It should be subconscious bias. People tend to prefer to work with others who look like they do."

That's a problem that's not confined to the Hollywood film industry - it's an American problem.

So as we move forward into the 21st century, to me the larger question is less about which actors are nominated for which awards.

The questions is will the American film industry make a choice to lead, or will it remain ensconced in the comfortable bubble of the Hollywood status quo and timidly follow along?

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