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Jonathan Demme's Diversity Challenge To Academy: Recalibrate Current Nominations – Guest Column

After generating a long string of diverse and disruptive narrative and documentary features including the Oscar winning The Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme is vexed by the lack of diversity in the past two Oscars. In a guest column for Deadline, Demme suggests reforms that go beyond those being hastily implemented by the Academy.

I love my Oscar, such an incalculable game-changer in the life of any recipient. I don’t think anyone makes a film in order to win a statue. It’s weird how each year a small group of nominees wind up in a contest they never chose to enter – a widely-publicized, narrow-focused, campaign-driven race. Suddenly, people from all categories find themselves engaged in a cinematic super-bowl they didn’t consciously sign up for.

Deadline Guest Shot BadgeThe Academy Awards process and presentation can be thrilling for folks both inside and outside the industry. However, it’s also confusing to many how fantastic films and filmmakers/storytellers on both sides of the camera can become virtually irrelevant and invisible as the awards season comes on.

Example: Superb in every aspect and featuring dazzling, heroic performances by fantastic LGBTQ actors in leading roles, Tangerine had no campaign, but someone managed to send out screeners. The film was shot — brilliantly — on i-phones (!!!!!). This hugely entertaining and ground-breaking film brings fresh meaning to the “outstanding achievement” verbiage that defines the point of the Oscars. Did enough Academy voters — overwhelmingly older, white males— watch the Tangerine screener to give it a shot at nomination? Does our membership gravitate — maybe more or less exclusively — to white stories, white actors, white filmmakers? It sure feels that way, doesn’t it?

For me, raised on white, male-dominated American movies as a kid, I now hunger for diversity in, well, all aspects of life, and certainly in films. Black lives matter. Black stories matter. Black artists matter. We’ve all got to try a whole lot harder to, as Spike Lee is fond of saying, “Wake up!” to what our country is really all about. Taken to a logical conclusion, a more diversity-seeking Academy would nurture a greater diversity-hungry audience, and bigger box-office than ever imagined would most likely follow for one and all.

Should Academy members be obliged to see all the films of the year in order to be eligible to vote on what they consider to be the outstanding achievements in all categories? As un-policeable as that notion may be, I find it an interesting thought.

It’s exciting that the Academy has responded so swiftly and openly with an admission of the white male dominance of our films, our industry, and our awards. Wouldn’t it be so wise, and so very correct, to not wait for next year to address this enormous challenge/problem? Instead, let’s recalibrate this years votes, expanding the entries in all categories, and in this way make it possible for us all to actually watch what is presently — unwatchably — so mortifyingly the “best white whatever” in all categories of the 2016 oscar ceremony? It would only take a minute, and it could help avoid what presently promises to be the most meagerly viewed Academy Awards show ever.

  1. It’s more than the “white, male dominance of our films, our industry and our awards,” it’s the social, political, and economic engineering and operation of a self-regulating trust by the MPAA, which, more and more, resembles the NFL.

    1. Here’s another cup of coffee and donut. !!!!!!
      Maybe everyone deserves an award. a movie produced and distributed.

  2. What a load of pretentious pc drivel. Creed wasn’t that good, Concussion sucked, and no one saw the Idris Elba flick. Sam L was in Tarantinos least appreciated film for a while. Thems the breaks.

    1. Even if as demme states thro some more nominees in the categories , even if they were the ones complained about, they still wouldn’t win so why is everyone wasting Americas time on this issue. It’s just an industry award it’s not a constitutional right to receive a nomination because it’s a minority category. Please stop.

    2. Its not racism its egotism !!! It takes a lot of ego to pitch a fit over a fake gold award. Samuel L Jackson blew all the protesters away and he is TOO REAL and TOO COOL to cry like a baby “its not fair” No shyt Sherlock! If they were protesting about Samuel L Jackson not winning or nominated I would understand. But Will Smith? He is NO great actor. Period!!!

    3. “No one saw” Beasts of No Nation is not a good argument for why it shouldn’t have nominations. If our standard is box office success, just give every Oscar to Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

      But in Idris Elba’s case, I think the discrimination has less to do with skin color than theater owners’ hatred of streaming services, which threaten their business. Ditto for Hollywood as a whole, now that they’re waking up that Netflix is as much a foe as a friend.

  3. I went to a screening of Tangerine and was quite surprised to see the filled screening room was overwhelmingly older white men and women..People were raving about the film and at the end there was a hearty round of applause… There is this idea that older academy members are very conservative…But our older and many times retired members see so many more films than our younger members and in theaters. They are not stupid or racist. Its interesting to discuss a film like the Revenant, calling the director a visionary genius.

  4. Perhaps the most ridiculous notion so far with this whole ridiculous criticism of the Oscars. Adding nominees to this year? How far do we go out? What if Will Smith or Idris Elba weren’t in the Top 6…or 7…or 8? What if Compton didn’t place in the Top Ten?

    What about an Academy that is inherently biased against younger actors in the Best Actor race knocking Jacob Tremblay out of contention?

    This whole thing is just frustrating to me. Granted, I think the adjustments Cheryl Boone Isaacs made to the voting bloc aren’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just silly that this is an issue. Two years ago, an intrinsically “black” movie won Best Picture and Lupita Nyong’o won Best Supporting Actress. And what has Lupita done since then other than been motion-captured in Star Wars? Nothing. And whose fault is that? It’s not the fault of the Oscars.

    (On another note, I just watched Tangerine on Netflix the other day and didn’t understand the buzz AT ALL. It looked good (would’ve never known it was shot on an iPhone), but it’s story was incredibly weak and the performances (whether they were realistic or not) were not anywhere close to being award-worthy.)

    1. You keep using words like “ridiculous” and “silly”, indicating that you are comfortable with the status quo and don’t see a problem or need for change. Here’s the thing- the world is changing . You may hate it, but the motion picture industry needs to catch up or people will go elsewhere for their entertainment.

      1. Yes and the oscars is the wrong target. Performances should only be based on merit not on race. If few movies that have minority actors, you can’t blame the oscars for that– nor should we have token nominations. There are only two worthy snubs here, smith wasn’t even nominated for a sag award– does that make sag racist too even though they nominated idris? It’s the studios not the oscars, the moment we start awarding people based on their race, their credibility is lost

      2. But Demme’s comments about “adding” to this year’s nominees is ridiculous and silly. The problem is not with the Oscars despite what Demme seems to think. As I stated, Boone Isaac’s changes are fine (and perhaps a very good thing) so you putting words into my mouth that I’m fine with the status quo is incorrect.

    2. How incredibly insulting– this suggestion is going way too far! Every nominee here deserves the nomination and unfortunately there are years when performances get left out. Why don’t they all revote and see if people will still want Demme to get his Oscar!

  5. I didn’t see Tangerine but would nominate Straight Outta Compton, Beasts of No Nation and Can You Dig This?

    1. It’s a gross out about scum of the earth in Hollywood.
      Sin de rella. Get it.
      (Cinderella.) The star of the movie. Shock.

  6. What an idiot. I guess he needed some attention.

    But if I’m Idris Elba, Michael B. Jordan, Ryan Coogler, etc… And somebody came to me from the Academy tomorrow to say, “You know what… We’re gonna expand the category and put you in as well.” I’d tell ’em to fuck right off.

    I mean, he’s literally asking the Academy to go pat the little black artists on the head and tell ’em they’re good boys and girls too. That’s more insulting than not getting nominated in the first place!

    We need to be figuring out how to improve this in the future, and aggressively so, but you can’t go back or else all achievement (no matter how deserved) will always have an asterisk beside it. And nobody wants to be recognized with an asterisk beside their name.

  7. It’s Amazing people are still talking about the oscars and the academy

    It’s about casting!! Plain and simple. When Hollywood changes that then the Oscar bs will fall into place.

  8. This is a ridiculous idea. The only reason why Jada and Will Smith are boycotting is because Will didn’t get nominated and their sense of entitlement. Will Smith’s performance was awful and that accent was worthy of a Razzie. If Jada and Will were really interested in diversity, ask them how many black directors Will has had on his movies….ZERO.

    1. Agreed…Will Smith one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood…Use that clout to further the career of a young talented director..

    2. Eddie Murphy pointed out the same things in 1988. Just with more “elegance”.

      (And Denzel’s quip when presenting to Spike Lee recently, went without hoopla: he always HAD to be twice as good as a white actor, to keep a job.)

      From Smith’s producing slate, Shyamalan and Prince-Bythewood are Indian and black.

  9. Why is this conversation always about black/white? Last I checked, there were a few more races than just two, in America.

    1. Because for Demme and his generation, taking those baby steps into diversity comprises “black/white” only. I doubt he knows anything about continental Asia, Asian diaspora or the Asian American immigrant experience beyond takeout Chinese in Tribeca.

  10. Can someone tell me why 8 films were nominated this year and not 10? There were several films that were not nominated (that should have been) that could have filled those slots.

    1. It’s actually a great question, and it has to do with math. First thing that happens is that all the members list their top five choices for Best Picture, in order. The Academy really only focuses on the #1s (at least initially). They tally up which films have the most #1s, and then those that have a #1 ranking from a minimum of 1/11th +1 of the nominating base make up the nominees. BUT! If a voter’s #1 choice doesn’t receive a #1 from 1/11th +1 of the voters, that voter’s #2 is taken into consideration, but at a lesser rate (each #2 is worth a half #1 vote). This may bring up the #1s that didn’t get the minimum necessary votes to a nominee status. This continues down the line for all five of their choices, until the options are exhausted. In other words, the 8 films nominated managed (after tallying all the votes in order up) to earn enough #1 votes (including 1/2 #1 points for #2, etc.) to reach that 1/11th +1 #1 status. They don’t just throw in the next film on the totem pole to make it a hard ten. The films that weren’t nominated didn’t earn the requisite number of points. This means that a movie like STRAIGHT OUT OF COMPTON, for instance, may have earned a ton of #4 or #5 of the year votes (and likely did), but simply didn’t reach the necessary percentage of points to be a nominee.

      1. My brain just imploded. Is the voting that complicated? One thing I noticed in some posts is that some Academy embers do not vote, for whatever reason? Why are they even members? Is the voting process an open, non-private moment? There are so many unknowns in an institution that seems to have no specific rules, some lazy voters and some dis-gruntled potential winners/losers.

      2. Omg!!!!!!???!!!!
        Just make it ten.
        The ten highest who cares how many number 1and2.
        Ten. Ten movie nominees.
        Add a comedy for g sakes.
        Omg!!!!!!
        Ten.

          1. Ten movies.
            The viewers are confused and assume it’s unfair to nominate ten one year and only 8 another year and spend a life in confusion discussing why there should be 8 instead of ten sometimes not always. It’s the same as having a non filmmaker pres. of the academy………insulting.

  11. It just so happens we have an opening for a new directorship. Would Mr. Demme be interested?

  12. When you look at all the movie awards in the US and in other countries, the consensus this year in film is that only one black actor is viewed as possibly being snubbed, and he is British actor Idris Elba. That said, “Beasts of No Nation” made a grand total of $90,777 at the US box office, and is not widely regarded as a “feature” film. It was purchased by Netflix, not for a true theatrical release, but to stream.

  13. Beyond embarrassing. While we are at – let’s award every actor who appeared in a film this year a “participation Oscar”.

    Sad enough to see Will Smiths wife whining her husband didn’t get nominated after his terrible “Coming to America” type performance – but come on – oscars are for the best of the best performances…we don’t set aside a couple every year for people of color.

    1. Based on the best huh? Then what’s JLaw doing there this year? Or Eddie Redmayne? Many regarded them as good but not nearly good enough for an Oscar. One need only take a look at some of the winners and an argument can be made that it’s just as much about politics and who’s studio can push out a better campaign as it is actual acting ability or even quality of film. Sure those things matter but not nearly as much as “the politics”.

      Jada should never even open her mouth again at this point as she obviously has a bias skewed towards her husband. And someone who produces films and only puts their family or close friends in lead roles doesnt get to complain about the way Hollywood works.

      The problem as many have said isn’t with the oscars, though I do like the new rules, it’s with the industry itself. As an actor there are many times when I’m looking at a casting call, read a synopsis, get excited about the project and “Caucasian” is what the majority of roles call for when really any race could portray any role with the story they are trying to tell. And what’s sad is blacks have it good compared to Hispanics and Asians.

  14. Oh please. This is the whole affirmative action mindset coming full circle. So if blacks who make up 12 percent of the entire US population for example happen not to be nominated in a given year, it is a crisis? If people want handout nominations just say it. Diversity in films is fine, but this is silly.

  15. Political correctness killed Demme’s career. After Silence he was so appalled at being accused of homophobia (the Buffalo Bill character… these days it would be transphobia) that he bent over backwards to only make films that a Social Justice Warrior would approve of. Unfortunately, none of them were vaguely interesting. He lost his edge.

    1. Sorry you didn’t think the Oscar-winning PHILADELPHIA, about AIDS and Homophobia, was “edgy” enough for you, Mr. Hipper-Than-Thou.

  16. This is a terrible idea. “Let’s all do a re-vote so we can make people feel a little better about themselves.” The problem isn’t the Oscars. There wasn’t anything worthy of being nominated so why force their hand to make people feel accepted for something they didn’t deserve. You need to go to the root of the issue; stories the studios decide on, casting, etc… It’s not what is picked, it’s the fact that there are so few options to choose from. If we see an equal amount of films across the racial spectrum and there are still only white actors and white movies and white directors being picked then you can truly call foul. But until then, know where the real fight is.

  17. How incredibly insulting– this suggestion is going way too far! Every nominee here deserves the nomination and unfortunately there are years when performances get left out. Why don’t they all revote and see if people will still want Demme to get his Oscar!

  18. The issue begins with getting studios to make great films with a diverse cast of actors and directors. then, if the Academy ignores these films, there is a diversity problem among Academy voters. Film critics were not particularly high on Will Smith’s performance in Concussion and I don’t think any of them considered Creed to be an Oscar worthy film while most gave the film very positive reviews which might be partially nostalgia-based for the Rocky franchise. There are a lot of very, very good films with all or mostly white casts which get totally overlooked at Oscar time year after year. Great films and great performances have been snubbed from the very first Oscars to the present. America has evolved into a much more diverse country but Hollywood has been slow to change with the country’s diversity of population..

  19. heres a thought – lets not have anymore Oscars. this way everyone will be happy. A disgruntled wife won’t have to plea for her mediocre actor husband to be nominated for a movie of the week anymore.

  20. “meagerly viewed Academy Awards show ever” – Wow this guy hasn’t a clue what he’s talking about. The ratings will be through the roof this year. People will tune in the see Rock rip Hollywood a new one. It’s going to be the most uncomfortable 5 hours of TV ever.

    By the way Mr Demme, Silence of the Lambs was without a doubt the most homophobic and transphobic film of my entire lifetime.

    1. What I’ve enjoyed about these comments most are the ones who are racists but don’t have the courage and honesty to come out with revealing that about themselves.

      I’m glad the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences has a president who is black, a woman, and is working toward diversifying the outdated, out-of-touch, membership body which will be manifest in the Oscar years which follow this current one.

      It was long overdue.

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