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SE2 D134: BAFTA Draws A Line in the Sand Over Diversity

The British Academy of Film and Television Arts’ (BAFTA) recent decision to alter how it bestows its highest honors to filmmakers, based on matters of diversity, has opened the proverbial can of worms within the film industry. If you somehow missed out on the news, BAFTA, the UK equivalent of America’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the Oscars), has mandated that beginning in 2019 any film that fails to achieve a certain level of diversity, either in casting or crewing, will not be eligible for Outstanding British Film, Director, Producer or Debut by a British Writer awards.

Needless to say, this decision, what Slate Magazine calls ‘an incredibly bold move,’ has fired up heated discussion on all sides of the diversity issue.

At first glance, it does seem a determined step forward to level the playing field in an industry dominated by white male influence. But upon further reflection, one must ask, can an awards competition at the far end of post-production make a difference on what happens in the early stages of pre-production? Perhaps a better question would be ‘should it?’

First off, let me state that winning an award is a tremendous achievement. It’s tangible confirmation that you (and your film team) did everything right. You managed to assemble all the right pieces in the right order and connected with someone – at least the critics, if not the ticket-buying public. But in show business, winning an award does not necessarily mean you’ve recouped your investment. Winning at the box office is a more telling sign of success because winning that competition more likely ensures production of your next film.

So as a filmmaker, you have to ask yourself: what it is you want to win? An award or at the box office? Are they mutually exclusive? Can you win both?

As a writer, you often feel like a winner if someone merely shows interest in your script. And that’s a long way from winning awards or generating box office receipts. But can you increase your odds of one or the other – or simply getting produced – by writing more diversely? Since ticket buying is a free market enterprise, some box office statics might shed some light on that question.

Over the past few years, ticket buyers have consistently been made up of 50% male and 50% female moviegoers. In fact, the numbers have shown a slight advantage to women, who have at times purchased up to 55% of the tickets in a given year (2009, MPAA Film Statistics). The movies they go to see are 85% white male dominated. As a business, in the US at least, moviemakers seem to have their audiences well served. After all, if over 50% of the movie-going audience is comprised of women paying to watch men on the big screen, you could argue that studios are giving them exactly what they want to see. Why else would they be forking over their hard-earned dollars?

Yet, despite the statistics, there have long been grumblings about the portrayals and representation of women on the big screen. Only 30% of speaking parts have been female, and only 15% of featured female characters have been leading roles (Center for the Study of Women in TV and Film’s 2013 Study on Hollywood’s Gender Balance). So is there an untapped market waiting to be discovered? If the studios made more female-centric films, would the percentage of female audience members increase accordingly? More importantly to Hollywood, would the coveted male audience decrease? Statistically speaking, probably.

But statistics are a funny thing. Just because the percentage of male ticket buyers might go down, doesn’t necessarily mean that ticket sales to men would fall. A more diverse film slate may find women buying even more tickets than they currently do, but men would continue to purchase at the same levels. This would shift the statistics demographically to show a decline in the percentage of tickets purchased by men, while the box office would show an overall increase in receipts.

As it is, men make up the largest segment of ticket buyers for the top grossing films in any given year. For 2015, the top three films at the box office, Jurassic World, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Avengers: Age of Ultron, with a combined gross of 5.13 billion dollars, were heavily dominated by male movie-goers (MPAA Film Statistic, 2015). Only the fourth highest grossing film of the year, Inside Out, had a female majority audience. Given figures like that, it would appear men will continue to have a variety of movie-going options suited to their preferences.

As for women, while it’s likely the film market could support more female-centric movies, it doesn’t necessarily mean the market would, statistically speaking, make them equally successful. Based on their ticket buying history, women, in general, seem quite content with the current offerings. And since the movie industry is all about the market and how to sell more tickets – it is their lifeline, after all – if studio executives thought they could sell more tickets catering to a specific demographic, they would.

Or would they?

Are the executives who make the decisions to greenlight a film doing so with an open mind or are they too entrenched in a mindset tempered by box office receipts to see an opportunity to increase revenue? Should they re-examine their strategies to open up more markets? Or would they just be sacrificing box office dollars to make a social statement? Perhaps a look at statistics along ethnic lines will be revealing.

According to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), there were 1.343 billion tickets sold in the US and Canada in 2013. In 2015, 1.321 billion tickets were sold, a difference of 22 million. Hispanics have consistently bought around 23% of all tickets sold despite only representing about 17% of the population. In 2013, Hispanics accounted for 25% of tickets sold, an uptick of 2 percentage points. This corresponds with the release of the highest grossing Spanish-language film Instructions Not Included. A large part, if not all, of that increase can be attributed to this one film.

On the African-American front in 2013, ticket sales also increased by two percentage points from 11% to 13%. This in a year that saw such major African-American themed films as 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, The Best Man Holiday and Black Nativity. In the subsequent years with no major or substantially fewer releases of ethnically-based films, the percentage of tickets purchased fell back to 23% and 11% respectively and an overall decrease in the number of tickets sold. So it would seem that there is an audience for these so-called niche market films, which represents a potential windfall for the studios willing to produce and release them.

So, why are there so many white guy movies when there are ready markets to be capitalized on? Probably because there are so many white men running the studios and making the decisions on which movies get made. It may be a natural tendency for white male executives to make the types of movies they want to see, just as writers write the stories they want to tell, often drawing on their own experiences. A lack of diversity in those positions would naturally link to a lack of diversity in the stories that get projected onto the big screen.

There is also a lack of diversity in the product these decision makers have to choose from. I have been a member of four different writers’ groups, and while there have been a number of women writers in all of them, there has been a surprising lack of writers of color. In only one group were there writers of color: one black male and one black female. Both were actors first and just beginning to dabble in writing. Only the young lady brought in material to be critiqued. The gentleman, though he showed up frequently to read other’s work, never brought in any of his own scripts. He was always working on them for later. The bulk of the writers in all these groups were white men, myself included.

Now, this is only anecdotal evidence from a few writing groups, but it may be telling in that, as a society, we don’t encourage our young writers of color to tell their stories. That may be in part because they don’t see their stories on the big screen and don’t feel there is a place for them in an industry that caters almost exclusively to white males aged 12 – 49. It becomes a Catch-22 for them. They don’t write their stories because they don’t see themselves represented on the screen; they don’t see themselves on the screen because they don’t write own their stories. I do know a number of writers of color from various online forums, but they represent only a handful of writers in groups whose memberships are in the thousands.

That brings me back to BAFTA’s recent decision. It’s certainly a well-intentioned idea to bring more voices into the world of cinematic art, but can an award on the backend of production truly make a difference in the decision making on the frontend?

There are several problems with BAFTA’s approach. First is the idea of mandating diversity. How do they do it? What is the acceptable level of diversity to be eligible for an award? Is it fair to deny a breakout writer, who has written an exquisite drama about growing up in Ireland, the opportunity to be eligible for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer simply because he didn’t have any Black or Asian characters in his screenplay?

BAFTA seems to have answered this by saying the required diversity can be satisfied off camera with the crew. But how many crewmembers need to be ethnically diverse in order to qualify? Are we talking just the director? Or is one director worth three grips? Maybe if all the PAs are diverse, that will suffice.

The online screenwriting forums have blown up over this, with some writers applauding BAFTA’s move, while others are expressing their horror over the demise of period pieces. Let me reassure you – or burst your bubble as the case may be – if you are an unknown writer working on a period piece, you’re not going to get produced. The market barely tolerates those movies now from established writers.

Still, the forums have been replete with cries of reverse racism and corresponding responses of ‘white privilege forced into equality merely feels like oppression.’ While there is some truth to that later statement, I don’t think denying any artist an opportunity is equality, even if you’re trying to make up for years of disparity. Why should an artist today pay the price of discrimination committed by someone else? And how long will this reverse discrimination last? The film industry has been going for one hundred years. Will another hundred years of holding back ‘artists of privilege’ make up the difference? Or only so long as it takes to get truly diverse films made?

It’s usually around this point in the discussion that someone tries to show precedent for such action by bringing up affirmative action hiring practices or university admission quotas. Such programs are inherently discriminatory, a fact that even most proponents readily admit. The arguments for these programs are similar to what I’ve outlined above: a need to counterbalance historic inequalities, empower disenfranchised minorities and promote diversity.

The arguments against such programs that look to ethnic origins for inclusion include the mismatch effect – where elevating a minority individual into a position they are not prepared for engenders failure – and class inequality exclusion – the idea that race-based acceptance benefits middle and upper-class African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans at the exclusion of lower-class European-Americans. Race-based admission standards also adversely affect Asian Americans, as they are the only minority group to suffer a deduction in SAT score consideration because they consistently outscore the white control group. This means Asians must have near perfect scores on their SATs in order to receive the same consideration that other minorities score far lower on the test.

To put this real world terms, Princeton Sociologist Thomas Espenshade and researcher Alexandria Walton Radford conducted a study that found white students were three times, Hispanics six times and African-Americans more than 15 times as likely to find admission to a university in the US as Asian Americans. (No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, 2009)

The road to diversity isn’t always pretty, but how much further away from the goal would we be without these programs? And BAFTA’s decision is just basically an extension of these types of progressive programs, right?

I think there is a critical difference. The above programs are front-loaded. The decisions and rewards – or penalties – that go with them happen at the beginning. Once a student has been accepted into college, it is incumbent on that student to succeed or fail. No one is withholding degrees at commencement because the graduating class didn’t maintain the diversity it began with. What BAFTA is proposing is something different: to deny recognition after the work is complete.

As I stated earlier, it’s nice to get an award, but do writers, directors, producers or even the studios make films simply to get an award? I suspect their ultimate goal is more geared to what the box office brings in. And simply mixing up the crew does little to change the story audiences see on the screen. And I can guarantee no one is going to see a film because the crew was diverse.

In fact, BAFTA’s decision to stake its reputation on diversity is one that may actually tarnish the image of the awards. No longer is it an award for Best Film or Best Director but an award for Best Film with a Diverse Cast. That unstated qualification cheapens the win for the recipient who knows he wasn’t in competition with all contenders.

While I think BAFTA’s choice was made with a positive overall goal, I think, ultimately, it will have little impact on the movies that get made. It’s a symbolic gesture that may prove to be more divisive than inclusive.

But if true diversity is our ultimate goal, what can be done to ensure our films have more inclusive points of view? I believe it needs to start at the top – with the executives who make the decisions. They need to be more open to ideas outside of their own experience. They need to be a more diverse group in general, and that will require a studio head to recognize the financial possibilities of investing in new markets. But, with tent pole films currently bringing in $500 million to $1 billion in box office proceeds, that may be a tall order to fill.

We also need to encourage more writers from all walks of life, from all cultures and backgrounds, to tell their stories. They need to know that their perspective is necessary to weave the full tapestry of human experience. And we need the next generation of directors to want to tell those stories, to look at those different perspectives and provide unique insight into what makes us all human.

And lastly, as audience members, we need to exercise the power of our wallets if we truly want to effect change. Studios listen to sound of dollars being rung up in theaters. So instead of lining up for the next Transformers movie, maybe we should check out the latest offerings from Ryan Coogler, Alfonso Cuarón, Ava DuVernay or possibly someone entirely new.

BAFTA’s decision may not have any practical effect regarding diversity in film, but perhaps as a symbolic gesture, it may kick start the conversation and inspire those who can make a difference to act.

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