African American Film Execs On Oscars, Strategy & Progress In Hollywood Diversity

Echoing the general direction the discussion over diversity in Hollywood has taken, the primary theme running through the ICON MANN Panel held today at SAG-AFRTA’s LA Headquarters, “Black Book Value: The Business of Diversified Content,” was that real change will come from, as Tendo Nagenda, SVP Production at Disney put it, “what stories are going to be told, how they’re going to be told, and who is going to tell them.”

icon manModerated by ICON MANN founder Tamara Houston, the panel was attended by Cassandra Butcher, Vice President of National Publicity at Fox SearchlightParamount Pictures Production Executive Alana Mayo, and Nagenda. All three have achieved enormous success in an industry widely perceived as being difficult for people of color to break into, and as such had a lot to say on their own careers and on efforts within their respective companies to increase the representation of minorities on the silver screen.

The uproar over the lack diversity and representation in Hollywood has of course reached a fever pitch – again – this year thanks to the paucity of nominations for nonwhite creators at the 2016 Academy Awards. About the Oscars, the consensus from the panelists is that it isn’t really malice, but circumstance and strategy that can affect nominations. Butcher said that a big part of the issue has to do with the campaigns. “It should start in development,” she said. “The filmmakers who come to us with the goal of [getting to the Academy Awards] need to start at the beginning. Because there’s a significant amount of money that needs to be spent when you’re doing an Academy campaign… I’ve found that with movies like Ray, or Hustle & Flow, those filmmakers knew what they wanted.”

Reiterating that “it starts at the beginning,” Butcher added that films should take advantage of experienced talent working on the production who have been through the process before. “You don’t get nominated by luck, you get nominated because you campaigned,” she said. “That means kissing a lot of babies, literally shaking a lot of hands,” and making sure Oscar voters are given opportunities to see the film.”

Mayo added that there are “traits of movies the Academy has traditionally responded to, and the type of talent the academy knows and the academy loves.”

Nagenda agreed. “I actually, and this is sad, but I wasn’t surprised by the lack of nominations or attention the past couple of years or even years before that,” he said. “And I think really what we’re talking about is obviously the Oscars and the Academy is very public, and very visual representation of where the industry is every year, and so that’s very important. But it definitely starts way before you get to the point of nominations.”

“What I think we see with the lack of diversity and conclusion, how we want to define it with the number of nominations or exposure, it sort of starts much earlier,” Nagenda continued. “How those decisions are made, what stories are going to be told, how they’re going to be told, and who is going to tell them. So by the time you get to the Oscars,” the studio knows where the film would be positioned.

“If you’re looking at the Academy decisions you have to look at the Academy make up, in terms of what people feel is film quality, how they judge it, there are trends that have to do not just with diversity and inclusion, but type of stories, biopics, true life pieces, dramas and comedies, dramas over sci-fi films.” In a sense, he continued, the awards become “sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy” due to the Academy being filled with a lot of former Oscar winners and thus reflecting previous results. The idea being much of that will change as the Oscars membership evolves over time.

The conversation touched on several related issues, including the need for mentorship to bring the next generation of diverse talent into the industry, the very understandable desire from all audiences and creators to see themselves reflected in film and television, and the efficacy of a do-it-yourself approach. (All three agreed that first time writers and directors regardless of race or background will have challenges getting seen simply due to being unknown.) Late in the panel, the panelists were asked how they think the industry will look in five years, and if it will be a more diverse body. The problem, all agreed, is getting better and will continue to do so.

“That’s not just wishful thinking, it’s a necessity as our world becomes more diverse,” said Nagenda. Citing the fact that Disney is “very much focused on a global landscape,” he said “we have to play in every territory in the world, and what allows you to do that is the ability to bring people into the tent. That has to be by being inclusive, by telling a variety of stories, by telling them in a variety of ways.” Nagenda cited Disney’s plans for a live-action version of Mulan as one example of the company’s efforts.

“I don’t doubt the entertainment world will be more diverse in five years because of how global our business continues to become, China for example is the fastest growing international market.” Mayo added. “So it stands to reason we’re going to make movies that are increasingly meant to speak to that audience as well. But also just speaking domestically the demographics of this country are changing rapidly. Having our audience in mind it’s going to be so imperative to make movies that serve and speak to audiences that want to see themselves.”

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