On Eve of Emmys, Hollywood Dishes on Its Diversity Problem

Actor Jason George (Grey's Anatomy), second from right, shares his experience of Hollywood's diversity problem, at a panel on Friday in L.A. sponsored by The Atlantic. Other panelists, from left, are Franklin Leonard, founder and CEO of the Black List; Ana-Christina Ramon, assistant director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA; and Len Amato, president of HBO Films. The panel was moderated by Alex Wagner, senior editor at The Atlantic, right.EXPAND
Actor Jason George (Grey's Anatomy), second from right, shares his experience of Hollywood's diversity problem, at a panel on Friday in L.A. sponsored by The Atlantic. Other panelists, from left, are Franklin Leonard, founder and CEO of the Black List; Ana-Christina Ramon, assistant director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA; and Len Amato, president of HBO Films. The panel was moderated by Alex Wagner, senior editor at The Atlantic, right.
Jason McGahan

These days, "diversity in Hollywood" is less a charitable catchphrase and more an economic imperative, according to insiders and experts on a panel sponsored by The Atlantic magazine on Thursday. 

"As the demographics change, people are aware that this is no longer some kind of good deed," said Len Amato, president of HBO Films and one of the panelists. "It’s been kind of now explained in a real business sense, a dollar sense, and that’s something that businesspeople understand."

The #OscarsSoWhite campaign on social media earlier this year called attention to the continued predominance of white male actors, writers, producers and directors in Hollywood. Last year,  the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, for the second year in a row, nominated an all-white acting class for the most prestigious awards in film, the Oscars.

Performances by Idris Elba, Samuel L. Jackson and Will Smith were ignored in the acting categories. Also, Ava DuVernay, of Compton, was shut out for Best Director, though her film, Selma, about a historic civil rights march in 1965, was nominated for Best Picture. Adding to the indignation, Sylvester Stallone got a nod for best supporting actor for Creed, as one of the few white actors in a mostly African-American cast; same was true for the white co-writers Straight Outa Compton

"I've said for a very long time, the only significant affirmative action that exists in Hollywood right now is in favor of white men," said Franklin Leonard, founder and CEO of the Black List, an online database of unproduced screenplays. "If it was purely a meritocracy, then you'd see a lot more diversity."

Leonard said DuVernay, for instance, continues to have trouble getting studio funding for her films, despite the Oscar nomination for Best Film and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Director. As a rule, he said, female-driven film projects receive smaller studio budgets, as do projects with "five and up people of color." 

Earlier this year, the academy's Board of Governors, in response to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, voted unanimously to phase out lifetime membership. Those long-term memberships, as L.A. Weekly reported in June, has allowed the likes of retired actors from a much whiter era to taint diversity figures and vote in nominations that have become magnets for criticism. The academy also said it planned to double minority membership by 2020. 

The 2016 Oscar class of 683 new members is 46 percent female and 41 percent minority, the academy said.

Actor Jason George, who plays Dr. Ben Warren on ABC TV series Grey's Anatomy, acknowledged that Hollywood has come a long way from the early days at the start of his career, when he was praised for being "not too black and not too white." George, who today is the chair of the Diversity Advisory Committee of  SAG-AFTRA, shared one especially cringeworthy anecdote about a TV writer who years ago, in an effort to instill confidence, told him she kept an ebonics dictionary at hand when writing the dialogue for his character. 

"I am sitting here with my right hand up [to God], ladies and gentlemen," he said to the incredulous groans of the audience.

George said "unconscious bias," more than racial prejudice, is at the root of the difficulties faced by nonwhite and female actors. Increasingly, the foreign box office is what drives decisions as to what films get made, and one of the unproven assumptions by agencies and studio heads is that "black people don't play in China," he said. 

Leonard agreed and proceeded to enumerate the black actors who have had hit films in China — Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx. "It's not just the Chinese market," he said. "There is a default assumption that you cannot sell people of color outside of the United States." 

He said Straight Outa Compton, last year's runaway hit film about the West Coast gangster rappers who formed the seminal hip-hop group N.W.A, was projected to gross zero dollars at the foreign box office. In November, the film surpassed $200 million worldwide. 

"For some people, they looked at Straight Outa Compton and said, 'Well, it's the story of these black gangster rappers from Compton, and that's not going to sell in France, it's not going to sell in Germany, it's not going to sell in Japan,'" Leonard said. "But if you're looking at it realistically, it's also the story of arguably the most influential music group in the most influential art form of the last 40 years worldwide, period full stop. And looked at it that way, it makes sense that it would do well here, and it makes sense that it would do well worldwide." 

Ana-Christina Ramon is the assistant director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, and co-author of the center’s 2016 Hollywood Diversity Report, a review of the 2015 television season and the top 200 films in terms of worldwide box office gross. She said her research has shown that Hollywood's theory that diversity doesn't play overseas is based more in myth than fact. Her study examined everyone involved in the production of every show and film that came out in 2015, across all mediums — network, cable, digital and streaming. 

"We look at in front of and behind the camera, who's working on those shows," she said. "And the takeaway from what we've seen is that diversity sells. That's the finding of the past three reports. So there's no way around it, no way to excuse it or to explain it away. It's that diversity sells in terms of box office success and return on investment for films and in terms of TV ratings."

Amato repeated the age-old Hollywood aversion to formulas, saying that a great story remains paramount. "When great creativity intersects with diversity, it's a winning formula," said Amato, whose roster of socially conscious, award-winning titles includes movies like Game Change (2012) and The Normal Heart (2014) as well as the recent and controversial Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill true-life drama Confirmation

The diversification of media consumption in recent years could mean that filmmakers might not have to rely on film studios as much for distribution, which could, in turn, lessen the influence of studio moneymaking formulas and, perhaps one day, undermine the hegemony of the studios themselves. 

"Do we need to be looking for different stories, stories that reflect a diverse audience, new voices, original voices, that are diverse voices?" Amato said. "Of course. It's dumb if you don't. And there's a lot of emphasis on that right now." 

On Sunday, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences will host the most diverse Emmy Awards presentation ever, according to Academy chairman and CEO Bruce Rosenblum. Nearly 25 percent, or 18 out of 73, of the acting nominees in major categories are people of color. This is up from 21.9 percent last year and only 9.7 percent in 2014. 


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