George Clooney recently noted in Variety: “If you think back ten years ago, the Academy was doing a better job. Think about how many more African Americans were nominated. I would also make the argument, I don’t think it’s a problem of who you’re picking as much as it is: How many options are available to minorities in film, particularly in quality films?”
As a number of notables in the entertainment business—including Spike Lee, who has opted to attend a Knicks game over the Academy Awards this year—have recently pointed out, why do we only ask this question once a year? This question should not be asked once a year because it’s not a once-a-year problem. The problem is systemic and all one has to do is follow the money, as a savvy detective might say in some Hollywood crime thriller from a bygone era.
There is a direct relationship between the decline of middle class films and the lack of, and perhaps ten-year decline, of diversity in movies. The current problem with the studio system is that they’re making fewer movies and putting much more of their money into them. They’re taking gigantic gambles financially, and the way they offset these bets is to ensure that the entertainment they’re producing appeals to as many people as possible. This approach, of course, dilutes the originality, and therefore, its appeal to niche audiences.
This focus is myopic and frustrating to not only the creatives in the business, but also to the viewers out there looking for substantive storytelling. In my own personal experience, I had been developing a project a few years ago for a production company that involved a lead character who was Chinese-American. The character’s family’s immigrant background, and their place in the story’s milieu—the cultural melting pot of New York City—played a critical role in understanding the inherent flaws of the character. The backstory was, essentially, built entirely upon the pressure his family put on this character, for he was the first in the family to be born in America and thusly carry on their legacy. After numerous meetings and rewrite requests, my writing partner and I got hit with their final note: there just aren’t enough options for viable Chinese-American actors to play this role, so we’re asking you to rewrite him as a white man.
Remember: follow the money. On the surface, this decision—and decisions similar to it—has less to do with bias as it does with what current actors draw the most box office receipts. Of course, below the surface, these decisions have a lot to do with bias.
The studios are desperate for franchises. That is their primary objective, and it has become their sole business model. The days when studios bankrolled unique, niche market, character-driven movies are, more or less, over. Diversity equals niche, and in Hollywood’s eyes, niche doesn’t sell. With respect to that bygone era mentioned above, the image of Hollywood has always been largely, if not entirely, white; and what is it that Hollywood excels at? It excels at recycling material. There’s a dollar and a cent to be made by telling the same story, in an identical way, in the same color, again and again—all the executives have to do is switch up the actors and rework the one-sheet.
Why would you try something new when it could mess with such a substantial bottom line?
I’ve made my opinion clear, and that opinion is, while it might seem financially beneficial to continue in this manner, this model will not sustain itself. As I wrote in a recent piece on Middle Class Filmmakers, “An industry that cares about itself—both its product and its legacy—must look to the future and nurture their professionals to ensure the brightness of that future.” Nurturing that future means supporting diverse filmmakers, because more diversity in filmmaking will beget more diversity in storytelling, which is something this industry is severely lacking and the public demands—and it’s this lack of diversity that is hurting the quality and breadth of the stories being told through the medium. If the entertainment that Hollywood produces reflects less and less of the people it’s trying to entertain, these people are going to stop buying what you’re selling.
In addition to my own filmmaking, I’ve had the privilege of teaching filmmaking over the past few years. I’ve taught an incredibly diverse student body—I’ve taught students from India, China, Africa, The Middle East, Eastern Europe, among various other regions—and there is somewhat of a trend that I’ve noticed. What I’ve noticed is that many of these students who come to America to study filmmaking want to tell stories that are typical of Hollywood: the strong-willed white male lead, the vulnerable female in imminent danger, and a largely action-intensive plot. Invariably, when I pose the question to them: why do you want to make this film, with these characters, and this world, a world far removed from that which you’ve grown up in? They usually respond: “That’s what Hollywood wants.”
There is a perception overseas that Hollywood only puts out a certain type of product, and that perception has only gotten larger and stronger these past ten years—the ten years Clooney speaks of in Variety. The advice I give these students is the same advice I give to any filmmaker, particularly those middle class filmmakers out there: draw on your own background, and the more obscure, idiosyncratic and on-the-outskirts that background is, the better. Write about where you’re from, create three-dimensional characters that reflect the characters in your life, characters raised in your part of the world, from your unique culture, because you know it better than anybody, and that has immense value. That value has the potential to translate not only into good, fresh, unique stories, but also into financial profit—originality is what people want; the problem is, Hollywood isn’t selling it. But if we demand it, they will have no choice but to put it on the market.
Keep demanding diversity, and it will come.
William Dickerson received his Master of Fine Arts in Directing from The American Film Institute. He is a writer and director whose debut feature film, Detour, was hailed as an “Underground Hit” by The Village Voice, an “emotional and psychological roller-coaster ride” by The Examiner, and nothing short of “authentic” by The New York Times. He self-released his metafictional satire, The Mirror, which opened YoFi Fest’s inaugural film festival in 2013. He recently completed his third feature, Don’t Look Back. His award-winning work has been recognized by film festivals across the country. His first book, No Alternative, was declared, “a sympathetic coming-of-age story deeply embedded in ‘90s music” by Kirkus Reviews. His latest book, DETOUR: Hollywood: How To Direct a Microbudget Film (or any film, for that matter), is available now. He currently serves on AFI’s Alumni Executive Board and is a Faculty Member at the New York Film Academy.