MCN Commentary & Analysis

#OscarSoCircus

The Academy under Dawn Hudson continues to be a slow-motion car wreck.

It does one thing really well. It covers its ass.

African Americans raged on Twitter about #OscarSoWhite. So The Academy responded by announcing its 2020 effort to bring more women and people of color into The Academy. Without getting into the problems of disenfranchisement that The Academy posited as progress, the reality of 2020 would be that The Academy was able to bring in a lot of women working in the American industry to good effect, but could not achieve the same for American film industry people of color (because there are not enough people of color working in the industry at that level), so they altered the goal. The Academy refocused the expansion overseas, so that people from other countries could be called “of color” to meet the originally announced goals.

I have nothing against The Academy deciding to make a real membership expansion in the international film world. It’s a quality group. But the failure to achieve a single class of invitees that was made up of even ten percent of American Black or Latino-Hispanic or Asian industry workers is not something to admire. I haven’t done a deep dive into the invites in a couple years, but I don’t believe that American industry working in those three groups ever represented ten percent combined in any year.

The intention of 2020 was positive. The representation of its execution was false. But it did what it was meant to do: It covered The Academy’s ass.

It also set up a false narrative that continues on… that older white men who dominated the membership for decades voted in an aggressive way against racial and gender progress. 12 Years A Slave and Alfonso Cuarón and Lupita Nyong’o and John Ridley won two years before #OscarSoWhite. Iñárritu and Birdman won the year before. Moonlight, Mahershala Ali, Viola Davis, and the screenplay by Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney won the year after, before any 2020 membership effort launched.

Since #OscarSoWhite, every nomination or award seen as positive has been attributed to 2020 and in spite of white male Academy voters. Every negative is positioned as the lagging past holding onto power, like Donald Trump.

(Please note: If I wasn’t the only journalist in town who acknowledged that the Brokeback Mountain loss was in no small part homophobic pushback from an Academy that was not ready to make a closet-opening gay love story Best Picture, there was only of a small handful. Crash had support for other reasons… but homophobia was not a minor issue that season. But that doesn’t mean that a lot of old white men didn’t vote for Moonlight or Parasite. They did. None of these groups are monolithic thinkers.)

It should be noted that Best Director has been won by one white guy in the last nine Oscar years: Damien Chazelle. And the Directors Branch is seen as the most old-fashioned, racist, sexist branch in The Academy (fairly or not).

That is a long wind-up to get to today’s announcement of “new representation and inclusion standards for Oscars® eligibility in the Best Picture category, as part of its Academy Aperture 2025 initiative.”

The worst of both worlds.

Not only is it going to be nearly impossible to find a movie that doesn’t qualify through this Swiss cheese set of Four Standards, it also will piss every studio off (though they will all smile a lot) by making them worry about jumping through hoops that are mostly a distraction.

STANDARD A: ON-SCREEN REPRESENTATION, THEMES AND NARRATIVES
STANDARD B: CREATIVE LEADERSHIP AND PROJECT TEAM
STANDARD C: INDUSTRY ACCESS AND OPPORTUNITIES
STANDARD D: AUDIENCE DEVELOPMENT

Of the four areas, only Standard C is progressive by its nature, by today’s standard. You must meet both of these criteria to qualify… C1. Paid apprenticeship and internship opportunities and C2. Training opportunities and skills development (crew).

There are more of these things happening now than a few years ago. But you don’t need to hit on Standard C to qualify. You only need two of the four criteria to qualify. To make Standard C a core requirement would be bold and important, even though I don’t see enforcing this as Academy turf. But they aren’t really that bold… just as AMPAS was not bold enough to acknowledge how 2020 failed to achieve its ambitions for people of color in the domestic industry.

To get past Standard A, all you need is “At least one of the lead actors or significant supporting actors is from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group.”

Unless you are doing a period drama, there aren’t a lot of movies being made these days that don’t walk right past that one. You might ask, why is it in any way disqualifying to make a period movie set in World War I? Could there be another more bizarre stat than Taika Waititi playing Hitler was what kept Jojo Rabbit from starting with a strike against it? Does Anna Paquin count in The Irishman or was she too silent to be a significant supporting actor?

But put aside A and C. I can’t find a single Best Picture nominee in recent years that doesn’t qualify under Standards B and D. If a film were to come along that didn’t qualify under those standards, it would be a serious anomaly AND would almost certainly be a film made on a very small budget with a small distributor. Most likely, such a film will never face The Academy’s judgment.

But wait! It gets weirder.

Standard B commands:

At least two of the following creative leadership positions and department heads—Casting Director, Cinematographer, Composer, Costume Designer, Director, Editor, Hairstylist, Makeup Artist, Producer, Production Designer, Set Decorator, Sound, VFX Supervisor, Writer—are from the following underrepresented groups:
• Women
• Racial or ethnic group
• LGBTQ+
• People with cognitive or physical disabilities, or who are deaf or hard of hearing

Truth is, the roles of casting director, editor, hairstylist, make-up artist, and set decorator are unfortunately already seen as “women’s jobs.” The odds of any medium or higher budget film not having women in at least two of those five slots are very low, much less the other nine slots.

Then the document adds, “At least one of those positions must belong to the following underrepresented racial or ethnic group”

So now there seem to be THREE requirements. Unless you have someone who is doubly underrepresented. The Daily Double.

I guess this keeps you from trying to find the trifecta. Of course, you could find three separate people who are underrepresented, which would be honorable. Or more!!!

But this isn’t a game. And this new effort makes it into a game. And I hate that about it.

Then the other cakewalk is Standard D:

D1. Representation in marketing, publicity, and distribution

The studio and/or film company has multiple in-house senior executives from among the following underrepresented groups (must include individuals from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups) on their marketing, publicity, and/or distribution teams.
Women
Racial or ethnic group


Asian
Hispanic/Latinx
Black/African American
Indigenous/Native American/Alaskan Native
Middle Eastern/North African
Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander
Other underrepresented race or ethnicity


LGBTQ+
People with cognitive or physical disabilities, or who are deaf or hard of hearing

Does anyone know a major or minor distributor that doesn’t have multiple women and/or LGBTQ+ people in senior executive positions in marketing, publicity OR distribution?

There is a weird quirk in the lazy writing of Standard D. Some feel that distributors will not only need “ multiple in-house senior executives from among the following underrepresented groups” but also (must include individuals from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups)”

So how many senior executives in these areas do smaller distributors have? Gay? Not enough. Female? Not enough.

I don’t know what the official executive list is at, say, Roadside Attractions. According to IMDbPro, this very successful Oscar player has five executives. Three of these folks are out gay men. Do they now start the qualification process with a strike against them because none of the five is racially or ethnically underrepresented? Is The Academy undermining their business—which is often taking on completed or near-completed films—and throwing it to Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Group to push it out via TriStar where there is a much bigger full-time staff?

Or do you go through the DNA of the movie, individuals and companies, and qualify with a “senior executive” of one of the connected companies that qualifies as underrepresented in the “right” way?

Or does The Academy just look the other way because this is all so misguided and open themselves up to lawsuits they could lose if they ever disqualify anyone?

I expect these rules, which are not solid, to float away like the effort to dislodge older and retired Academy members out of some sense that getting rid of them would help The Academy be better. A few got kicked, but few, and mostly people who just weren’t paying attention to the mail asking them to re-qualify.

And then there is the question of whether, if The Academy is going to stick its nose in this whole situation with criteria, if these criteria are not way too easy a bar to hop or limbo under.

But I’m not going to get into this because I simply do not believe that The Academy should be attempting to play morality police over cinema. For one thing, the publicity gamesmanship disqualifies the permanent leadership of the organization from being seen as morally superior.

Also, trying to reverse-engineer any outcome is, like every science fiction movie, subject to unexpected consequences, just as the move to 10 Best Picture nominees has been.

But most significantly, disqualifying films is not a way to encourage change. This set of rules is a mess. No one is likely to be disqualified. Ever. But it’s not a moral play. It’s a power play. It’s the takeaway of a salesman trying to get someone to buy. “Don’t jump through our hoops and you can’t qualify to play in our game… You will lose something of value.”

Yes, there will be some assistant who gets a bump up in status and some money as a result of this rule if by some miracle, there is a shortage of qualifications. Producer: “Uh, Gina… we need a Polynesian or something in the #2 Casting slot. I think we qualify, but let’s make sure. If she’s a gay girl, even better. Call my assistant when it’s handled, love. Thanks!” CLICK!

And let me be crystal clear… I believe the studios and producers should be under pressure all day and all night to include more people of color and women and other underrepresented groups in every level of film and television production. I absolutely do not object to the goal as offered behind this set of Standards.

But this is, for The Academy, which is struggling in many ways, putting the cart in front of the horse. And why? To look like they are doing something, The only positive press AMPAS has mustered in recent years has been around their status as social warrior (although they have cooked the books and misled to take that credit).

What’s next? Carbon footprint? Distributors have to shelter the homeless? Maybe they could take the leftovers from food delivered to Academy members during the pandemic and feed the hungry. (At least that would be directly productive.)

No. The Academy will continue to put on a big, well-intended show of affecting the work life of the underrepresented in Hollywood and the world while having almost no impact.

You want to turn this old cynic’s head? Publish the stats for every movie submitted for Oscar every year. What percentage of women? Of Black Americans? Of people of color from everywhere? Of LGBTQ+?And so forth. If they are in the investigation business, let the public know what you find.

I’ve been around this business my entire adult life. Shows don’t turn my head. Hard, cold truth does… and it is the rarest commodity in town.

7 Responses to “#OscarSoCircus”

  1. Bob Burns says:

    50 years after Selma inclusive behavior should have been second nature for the film industry, taken for granted as the normal, successful way to conduct business. These standards are a condemnation of the film industry’s ongoing failure. That fact will remain long after the whining and the backlash.

  2. Sam E says:

    That was weird, here’s guessing the new criteria go the same way as the best ‘popular picture’ award.

  3. Sam E. says:

    The Oscars don’t hire people to work on film sets. If only 10% of management level workers in Hollywood belong to any racial minority, then the only thing this seems to accomplish is an extra layer of bureaucracy and punishing smaller films and ones that don’t meet the rubric undeservingly. Dave mentions period pieces but also what about like a Polish film? Not every country in the world is racially Heterogeneous.

  4. Bob Burns says:

    all the Academy is saying is they will not award films and filmmakers that are not trying to include minorities, Anyone is free do do what they like, make films as white as they like, they just won’t qualify for Oscars.

    Look at the film credits and ask yourself how many jobs and how much of the money goes to whites. My guess that last year, white people made well over 95% of the money. Probably closer to 100% than 95%.

  5. Bradley Laing says:

    —I heard this on a National Public Radio station. A man was interviewed. He said: after Hurricane Katrina, a lot of workers in the tourism industry, who were black, were fired. They were replaced with latino-looking people. The tourists, white tourists, rebelled. They wanted to be served by black workers. The man being interviewed essentially was saying, the white tourists wanted the 1920s segregationist experience on vacation. I heard this and thought: wait, maybe the fired black workers were just good at what they did, and that is why the tourists wanted them back? The man being interviewed said that these fired people were shortly thereafter rehired.

    I am sure that I, being a human, could be wrong about my own idea. But what does it tell you about a paying group of people, and an industry, if the guy being interviewed was right?

    And what does it tell you if he was wrong?

    I suspect this was on the NPR show “on the media.”

  6. YancySkancy says:

    My brain hurts. A list of rules that just codifies what studios and prodcos are doing anyway and that have nothing to do with the ostensible purpose of the Oscars, which is to award quality work. And it’s all so convoluted that kneejerk rightwingers think it looks like a sign of the SJW apocalypse, while the hard lefties see it for the toothless p.r. move that it is. Then there’s all those in the middle saying “Wow, if you criticize this, you must be anti-diversity.” I agree with David that the goal is admirable, but the approach is flawed, inadequate, vaguely insulting, and ridiculous as criteria for awards-giving.

    Also, re Brokeback Mountain, I’ve never quite understood how its 8 nominations, including wins for Best Director, Adapted Screenplay and Original Score, are accounted for in the #OscarsSoHomophobic narrative. I recall seeing anecdotal mentions of Academy members who opposed it, but did it really amount to some sort of movement that affected Best Picture voting but not individual branch voting? And were these homophobic voters not also racist, which would’ve theoretically hurt the chances of the eventual Best Picture Winner, Crash? Serious questions, not snarky observations.

  7. Bradley Laing says:

    Do the Gurus O’ Gold commentators think this relates to my posting about the NPR article about race in New Orleans and the tourist industry?

    Hollywood reportedly casting light-skinned actors to appeal to China

    “Since 2012, US filmmakers apparently became aware of the aesthetic preferences of Chinese moviegoers — who place a higher premium on light skin — a practice known as colorism, Axios reported, citing a 2017 study.

    The researchers concluded that Hollywood is not only influenced by Chinese censors but by cultural preferences, as well

    Hollywood is casting more light-skinned actors for major roles in movies to appeal to Chinese audiences following the Communist Party allowing more foreign films in the country, according to a report.”

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