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Tim Gray: The Monochrome Industry

Retha Powers talks to the awards editor and former editor-in-chief of Variety about the Oscars, and Hollywood's diversity problem.

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Tim Gray.
Image from Variety.com

The lead-up to the Oscars always involves a lot of debate about nominations and snubs, but this year was notable for the focus of the public’s anger. The relatively few nominations earned by Ava DuVernay’s Selma (it received nods only for Best Song and Best Picture) and the homogeny of the nominees in general shocked and appalled many moviegoers and critics, whose criticism of the industry was summed up neatly in the hash tag #OscarsSoWhite.

On the eve of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Tim Gray, the current Awards Editor and former Editor-in-Chief of Variety, addressed the controversy in “Oscar’s Diversity Woes: Why Protesters Got it Wrong,” arguing that the issue at hand is more about the lack of diversity in all aspects of the motion picture industry and not the awards tally for a single film. In the article, Gray takes a hard look at stats that reflect a paucity of women and people of color in all areas of the film industry, from decision-makers to crew members. This, he argues, contributes to the paltry diversity of films to choose from during awards season.

The article inspired strong responses from Variety readers—ostensibly Hollywood insiders. Some agreed with Gray, some were bewildered over the makeup of the nominees, while others argued that Birdman director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s two nominations were signs of progress. Still others invoked the outcome of the last year’s Oscars, at which, as one reader wrote, “12 Years a Slave mopped up.”

Gray followed up the piece with another article that offered a by-the-numbers look at Hollywood, this time examining how studio expenditures on advertising and promotion influence the box office during Oscar season and beyond. The Oscars are ostensibly about artistry, but more than anything else, Gray argued, the industry is motivated by money.

In anticipation of Oscar night we spoke with Gray over email about this year’s nominations, his thoughts on diversity in Hollywood, and why our focus needs to shift from the Oscars to the industry as a whole.

—Retha Powers for Guernica

Guernica: You have argued that “the furor over the nominations for the eighty-seventh Academy Awards is a case of misplaced outrage.” Do you understand why the absence of best director and actor nominations for Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo caused upset? Where do you think the anger belongs?

Tim Gray: Yes, I totally understand (and encourage) the anger. But I’m saying the anger should be directed at the industry as a whole. When the Oscar nominations were announced, the protests were mostly about the exclusion of Selma. But if women are 50 percent of the population and African-Americans are 14.1 percent, why are we only talking about one film? We should be talking about dozens. Since 323 films were Oscar-eligible for 2014, we should be talking about forty-five films from black filmmakers, and even more from Latinos/Hispanics.

It’s easy to point fingers at the Academy and demand they change things next year, but I’m saying the problem is much bigger.

According to a study by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film, women directors represented only 4.4 percent of the top-100 grossing films each year from 2002 through 2012. How is this possible in the twenty-first century? Protesters should target studios (which are mostly owned by publicly held companies and thus answerable to stockholders), agencies, and guilds. It’s not as if the Academy had a wealth of films from black women directors [to choose from] and excluded all of them. It’s easy to point fingers at the Academy and demand they change things next year, but I’m saying the problem is much bigger.

Guernica: Oscar voters are 94 percent white and 77 percent male yet you say that that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) is working hard to diversify membership?

Tim Gray: It’s not like the industry has great diversity and the Academy is excluding them: The industry is not diverse. In addition, the Academy has strict rules for membership. It varies within each branch; for example, the sound branch requires credits on five films over the past eight years. So they’re not going to recruit recent film-school graduates. Is the industry creating opportunities for minorities so they can meet these criteria? No, not enough. Protesters can spend their energy trying to get the Academy to change their rules, but ultimately I believe it’s more important to first create jobs within every branch of the industry. In the meantime, the Academy has been doing an outreach to make sure the Academy reflects “other voices,” as AMPAS president Cheryl Boone Isaacs told Variety. That includes filmmakers of different nationalities, gender, race, and sexual persuasion. The Academy is also talking with studios to try to get more diversity in studio ranks, which is crucial.

Look at Shonda Rhimes’ impact in the TV world. It wasn’t easy for her, but she worked hard to ensure that her shows represent diverse points of view. There need to be more people like her making decisions in the film industry.

Guernica: In your piece you also write, “the protests are doomed to frustration, because Oscar voting involves secret ballots and individual tastes, which cannot be quantified. So a lot of lofty theories are being presented as fact, when the focus should be on hiring practices, which can be quantified.”

Selma features a black ensemble cast. And central to this film was its depiction of Martin Luther King, Jr. as a power broker who goes toe-to toe-with a president and represents similarly powerful organizers, activists and thinkers who are mobilized to change history. That differentiates it from films in which black people are not the central characters, like The Help, which historically have won Oscars. Some argue that this has a lot to do with the way the nominations played out. How would a more diverse employee pool in Hollywood have impacted this?

Tim Gray: The Oscar tallies are secret, so we don’t know if Selma missed out by one vote or by hundreds. We will never see those tallies. However, ongoing studies offer statistics that can be seen, such as the USC Annenberg Comprehensive Analysis and Report on Diversity (CARD). For example, they found that Latinos constituted only 4.9 percent of roles in 2013 films. So I think we all will be eager to see their future statistics on representation of diversity and gender, both in front of and behind the camera. Look at Shonda Rhimes’ impact in the TV world. It wasn’t easy for her, but she worked hard to ensure that her shows represent diverse points of view. There need to be more people like her making decisions in the film industry. The Selma protests are putting too much burden on one film, making one film a test case of attitudes. Again, we should be discussing dozens of films.

Guernica: A recent Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) study of movie goers found that Latinos comprise the largest portion of the movie going audience—greater than whites, who now account for less than 50 percent of frequent moviegoers. A study released by USC the same year found that Latinos are the most underrepresented group onscreen. Asians have only a slightly higher percentage of speaking roles. In your piece you pose the question: “do we blame the audience for patronizing these films, or the studios, or the guilds, since the crews were overwhelmingly white men?” But with box office sales down 5 percent in 2014, isn’t ignoring market demographics bad business?

Tim Gray: Absolutely, ignoring market demographics is bad business. I hope this quote isn’t misleading. I wasn’t trying to find the culprit, but to emphasize that you can’t point fingers at a single factor; Hollywood’s lack of diversity is widespread, and the solution needs to be addressed at many levels. Complete diversity is logical, it’s compassionate—and it’s good for business.

I don’t believe Hollywood is driven by liberal agendas, but by money.

Guernica: Are some studios responding to changing demographics in the US and the movie going audience by making films with white stars and otherwise diverse casts, which might make the predominantly white audience studio execs mistakenly believe they’re targeting feel more comfortable? For example Kevin Costner who isn’t exactly known for films with ensemble black or Latino casts has two such movies out now: Black or White and McFarland, USA.

Tim Gray: I don’t believe Hollywood is driven by liberal agendas, but by money. The studios are more receptive to diversity in films thanks to the financial success of The Help and 12 Years a Slave. There was a Hollywood myth for decades that overseas audiences do not want to see films with black characters. That’s one reason Halle Berry did the James Bond movie, to prove that a black actress can do well internationally. And 12 Years a Slave earned $56 million in the US—and $131 million in other countries. That’s proof that this old myth is false. So I hope it makes things easier for films like Black or White and McFarland, USA.

Guernica: Do you think these kinds of numbers will help films that don’t have white central characters as well?

Tim Gray: I hope so! But the battle isn’t just about who’s depicted on screen, but how they’re depicted. And it’s important to also have a lot of diversity behind the camera. As Cheryl Boone Isaacs told Variety, “There are more opportunities now, but we have a long, long way to go in Hollywood.”

Guernica: In an interview, Ava DuVernay said, “we were nominated as best picture, which is nothing to sneeze at. People act like we dragged out of there with nothing.” This is a big deal. Will Selma win Best Picture?

Tim Gray: Ava DuVernay is right: out of 323 films, only eight were nominated as best picture, so it is a big deal. I have talked with many people who guess that Selma will win for best song, but not best picture. I admire and I like Ava DuVernay, so I was disappointed she wasn’t nominated. But I was also hoping Clint Eastwood, Jake Gyllenhaal, and others would be nominated too. Ava DuVernay impresses me. It’s a lot of pressure to make a film and it’s a very different pressure to be at the center of a firestorm. And she’s been very classy and intelligent in the way she handled it all.

Guernica: Any other predictions or tips for how to make the right selections on an Oscar pool ballot?

Tim Gray: Here’s the thing with Oscar pools. There’s always one winner that is a big surprise… and if you can guess that winner, you’ll win the pool. But don’t ask me: I overthink things, and never win the office betting. However, general consensus is that Julianne Moore, J.K. Simmons, and Patricia Arquette are shoo-ins for actress, supporting actor, and supporting actress. As for best pic and director, it’s some combo of Birdman, American Sniper, Boyhood or Imitation Game, I think; actor is Michael Keaton or Eddie Redmayne. I predict Grand Budapest Hotel will win for production design, costumes, and probably music score and original script. But if you lose the Oscar pool this year, don’t blame me.

Retha Powers is General Editor of Bartlett’s Familiar Black Quotations and the Assistant Director of the Publishing Certificate Program at the City College of New York.

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