Beyond the Oscars: Probing the Unrepresentative Film Industry

Every year, the front three or four rows of the Dolby Theater, the permanent home of the Academy Awards, are reserved for nominees, past winners and their dates. As the lights dim the ceremony begins, and when the stars take their seats, the faces of these actors are instantly recognized. Leo, Jennifer, Meryl, Bradley, Cate — the list goes on.  The camera pans across them ad nauseam throughout the three-hour spectacle, and gives viewers at home a chance to get a close up glimpse at Hollywood’s royalty. However, as the camera zooms out and all the honorees come into the shot, one thing becomes abundantly clear: they’re all white.

This trend of homogeneity dates back to the inception of the Oscars 88 years ago. Throughout its history, 95% of all nominations have gone to white actors. Only seven people of color have ever won an award for Best Actor, and no African American has ever won Best Director or best Original Screenplay. On top of this, in the past ten years, not a single Asian, Hispanic, or Native American has won an acting Oscar.

Racial minorities are not the only groups sidelined by the Oscars and the industry itself. Both women and members of the LGBT community have consistently highlighted their lack of accurate representation in Hollywood relative to their proportion of the population. A recent study showed that only 19% of all non-acting Oscars in the past decade have gone to women. Fewer than fifteen actors have ever received Academy Awards for their portrayal of gay men or women across all categories, and only one woman has ever won Best Director (Kathryn Bigelow for the Hurt Locker). These statistics arguably disseminate from the fact that the Academy itself is only 23% female.

While these issues have been simmering for decades, they culminated last month when all 20 nominees for the four best acting categories were white for the second year in a row. Creed and Straight Outta Compton, both featuring mainly African-American actors, were lauded by some critics as some of the best films of the year, but only received nominations for the few white people involved. There were many other critically acclaimed films such as Chi-Raq, Beasts of No Nation, and Concussion that were completely ignored.

In response to these objections, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Head of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has pledged to double the amount of minority members by 2020. In a statement she gave after Smith and Lee announced that they were boycotting the ceremony, she assured, “The Academy is taking dramatic steps to alter the makeup of our membership. In the coming days and weeks we will conduct a review of our membership recruitment in order to bring about much-needed diversity in our 2016 class and beyond.” Presumably, Isaacs hopes that this re-shaping of the demographic makeup of voting pool will carry over to the nominations themselves.

There is no doubt that the Academy is in need of some fresh (non-white) faces; recent statistics have shown that only 6% of the organization is people of color. But what if the Academy isn’t the only problem? It seems as though racial imbalances are embedded far deeper than just awards ceremony, in the film industry at large.

The outrage at the lack of diversity at the Oscars has revealed a tangled mess that measures all the way back to the demographic makeup of the film industry itself, and people are starting to take notice.

In reality, the ethnography of the Oscar’s voting base represents that of Hollywood’s pretty accurately. According to the 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report, 16.7% of lead actors in theatrical films were members of a racial minority. This statistic includes roles in B-movies not suited for the Oscars, as well as films geared primarily towards black audiences such as the Tyler Perry series. If you take those films out of the equation, the amount of black lead actors in movies evens out to about 6%-8%, pretty much matching the fraction they represent in the Academy. Further, this same statistic is mirrored in the amount of nominations minorities receive. According to The Economist, “The Academy has largely judged what has been put in front of them: minority actors land 15% of top roles, 15% of nominations and 17% of wins. Once up for top roles, black actors do well, converting 9% of top roles into 10% of best-actor nominations and 15% of the coveted golden statuettes, a bit above their share of the general population.”

While these statistics help lift some of the blame off the Academy, they only reinforce how racially preferential the film industry itself is. The nominations awarded to minorities might adequately mirror their proportion in Hollywood, but their proportion in Hollywood doesn’t nearly reflect their fraction of the population. In fact, if the pool of those eligible for Oscars accurately matched the ethnic breakdown of the US Census, of the 305 films considered this year for Best Picture, 45 should have been directed by African Americans, 50 by Hispanics, and many more by Asian-Americans, Native Americans, and other minorities.

Since the nominations’ release, these glaring representational imbalances have elicited a dramatic, incendiary reaction from the Internet and social media—as well as from the film industry itself. The hashtag “#OscarsSoWhite” was revived after its stint on Twitter last year in response to the exclusion of Ava duVerney and David Owelyo in the nominee pool for their work in Selma. Hollywood stars such as Jada Pinkett-Smith and Spike Lee have decided to boycott the event in compelling protest. Countless op-ed pieces have been written by actors and activists alike, and numerous interviews have been recorded, everybody wanting to contribute their two cents.

Across the board, the general consensus in Hollywood is that something needs to change. With the recent nominations serving as a catalyst, floods of opinions on the demographic makeup of the film industry have come to light. Viola Davis, a longstanding voice of African Americans in cinema, hit the nail on the head, asking the question that many have recently been grappling with: “You can change the Academy, but if there are no black films being produced, what is there to vote for?” Cuba Gooding Jr. reiterated the depth of these issues, arguing that, “Awards are the end of the chain. Diversity has to begin when you decide what story you greenlight as a studio executive, and I think that’s where it has to start.”

The industry seems to be slowly coming to terms with the fact that the source of these problems comes not from in front of the camera, but from far behind it. While the number of minority actors, directors, and screenwriters might be low, the amount of executives and CEOs of color who run Hollywood studios is one third that. And people who run multi-billion dollar corporations have the same amount of risk-aversion as Ebenezer Scrooge. So when the old, white men in charge of MGM, 20th Century Fox and Universal are deciding whom to hire in their top Academy Award contender films, they stick with what they know sells: other white people.

Hollywood has always been, and will always be, a moneymaking venture. Those involved are constantly looking to make a profit, and the lower the risk of a project, the higher the chance that a studio will receive returns on their investment. As Stacey Smith, the founder and director of Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative put it, “In short, content with diverse leads or diverse directors isn’t perceived to be bankable in Hollywood. Underrepresented directors telling stories focusing on different cultural groups may be disproportionately disadvantaged within a system that relies on stereotypes and conventional knowledge when awarding finance.”

The television industry is about 20 years ahead of Hollywood in terms of heterogeneity.  When cable TV started booming, the executives in charge began taking more risks with hiring and choosing new shows. These chances have appeared to pay off big time, with minority-based shows such as Jane the Virgin and Empire becoming some of the most popular on air. Modern Family has been lauded for casting a gay couple as central characters. Additionally, How to Get Away with Murder, following the precedent set by Grey’s Anatomy (both created by the African American woman Shonda Rhimes), received great praise for employing “color-blind casting.”

It should be noted that while these changes are commendable and Hollywood should definitely take notice, the risks associated with airing a new TV pilot are significantly lower than those involved with financing a film. Film executives currently have a steady, reliable white audience, with no significant incentive to take risks that might alienate that audience (especially if that risk could cost them $200 million dollars).

As sobering as the racial statistics surrounding the film industry are, there is hope that Hollywood is moving in the right direction. The outrage at the lack of diversity at the Oscars has revealed a tangled mess that measures all the way back to the demographic makeup of the motion picture industry itself, and people are starting to take notice. Movie stars, as well as the general public are calling for a change. In reality, the statistics favoring a more diverse Hollywood are already in place. An article in Identities.Mic reported, “According to the report, the 15 films with 41% to 50% minority casts in 2012 received the highest return on their investment. The story was the same on TV: Both black and white households responded better to diverse casts; median ratings were the highest for shows that had 41% to 50% minority casts.” Hopefully, studio executives will begin to notice the disparity between what they are producing and what their audiences are asking for, and respond accordingly.

Cheryl Boone Isaac’s pledge for more diversity within the Academy is promising as well. While these changes may take time, there is a chance that they will pay off in the long run. The Oscars still hold a relatively large amount of prestige and power within the film industry, and those who are nominated for Oscars receive many more roles and opportunities afterwards. If more minorities are in the Academy, more minorities will be nominated, and more minorities will get better offers on films after. Ideally, this cycle would perpetuate itself, eventually demonstrating to the studios the value of people of color in the film industry. Maybe by that point, as the camera sweeps across the first few rows of the audience of the Academy Awards, the sea of faces might better represent the country.