Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Color of Money Isn't Always Green

"When making a business decision, the only color that matters is green."
-Dom Pagnotti, He Got Game
(NOTE: I try to keep this blog to the world I know best - low budget indie filmmaking from a production perspective. Sometimes, however, my knowledge of that world can shed light on topics in the news. While I have no intention of having this blog become a "soapbox" from which to make broader assumptions, some things need to be said.)

Worrying about who does or does not get nominated, no less wins, awards in the movie business is pointless. Opinions are like that anatomical feature where the sun don't shine - everyone has one.  Or, as William Goldman once famously said, "In Hollywood nobody knows anything."

So, when Ava DuVernay was not nominated for her direction of Selma, I was neither angry nor surprised. Let's remember that Alfred Hitchcock never won an Academy Award for a motion picture he directed*, and many talented directors have been passed over. Odd as it may seem, directors of nominations for Best Picture are often passed over

All of this suggests that there was no grand conspiracy on the part of the voters to snub Ms. DuVernay, nor was there a conscious racial or gender bias. I cannot imagine many - if any - of those people saying "I'm not voting for this Black female director."

Still, I was forced to reply when I read a comment in reply to a Forbes article by Scott Mendelson (who was angry about the snub) that said 'I have worked in Hollywood, and the only gender that matters is talent, and the only color that matters is green.' This person was making an assumption that is logical, but untrue, either in Hollywood or even in the indie world with which I am more familiar (more on that later).

Yes, the folks in Hollywood WOULD hire talent blindly, IF they knew it when they see it. They do not. A look at the tremendous number of box office failures each year tells us that.

The way the money people in Hollywood keep their jobs is by making safe choices. If you make a blockbuster movie and hire George Clooney in the lead and it fails, it's unlikely you will lose your job. Monument Men, anyone? If you hire a heretofore unknown in that same lead and it fails, everyone looks for your head. "How could he be so stupid?" Especially on the studio level, keeping your job is more important than making money, and, as you are talking about a world of OPM - Other People's Money - the two do not always go hand-in-hand.

What that means is that track record matters, and, thus, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You hire those you know because its safe, so they keep getting to make movies, and their track records get longer, and so it goes.

Even if Selma were to sweep the Oscars, the studios (which is where the big money is) would STILL say that Ms. DuVernay only succeeded with Selma because it was a "Black" movie, and argue that she could not direct some subject matter where race is not an issue. To paraphrase Robert Evans, in Hollywood, there are 100 reasons to say no and very few to say yes.

If Hollywood is so gender blind, why was an Oscar winning actress at the height of her talents and looks - Charlize Theron - being paid $10M less than her male co-star before the Sony hack?

In the days when I was still trying to raise money for indie projects, one "fact" I was told in terms of casting is that, regardless of the popularity of the lead actress, the financing depends on the male lead. I was once raising money for a project where I had another former Academy-Award winner attached (Best Supporting Actress) and investor after investor told me that it "didn't matter," and why didn't I get someone like Eric Estrada attached for the much smaller male lead (it was the 90s, and Estrada was one of the go-to names you always got as a 'sure-thing' when raising money).

Since posting this, David Carr wrote a very good article in the NY Times with much the same theme. He points out - as others have - that the Academy, in the last few years, is 93% White, 76% Male and an average of 63 years old.There were a number of articles that popped up today about how many movies about White men won nominations today, and how skewed the nominations seemed.  

It's worth noting that Director nominations come from the DGA - not the Academy, and that Best Actor Awards come from SAG, a group  that is much more diverse. He mentions what may be even a bigger problem - that  Paramount had planned its push for Interstellar much longer, and belatedly got behind Selma , doing so only after it received critical acclaim. This seems more important to me. Anyone who followed the difficulty a member of the "club" - George Lucas - had getting  Red Tails financed tells you that in the halls of power, where the money is, there is still a belief that movies that feature women or people of color are "niche" movies and don't have a wider audience. 

There was never any proof of this myth of money and gender, but it was a perpetuated over and over again for years. While I hear it less often now, it clearly has not gone away when it comes to money and gender equality.

If anyone thinks gender and race have nothing to do with who Hollywood entrusts it's money to, then they likely also think we live in a post-racial, society.  I suggest that they look a little closer.

Even in terms of my smaller world of indie film, gender matters. Race matters. In fact, everything matters.  I have been told - more than once - that a certain African-American would be a bad "fit" with a certain director (in one specific case, a famous TV actor who was directing his first short). I have been asked if a female First AD could "handle" a difficult director or situation.

There is no doubt that there are more opportunities for not only women and people of color today in the indie film world and Hollywood, but for folks from all walks of life and backgrounds. I can remember when producers would question my hiring of a female gaffer or female assistant camera, asking if the "cute little things" could carry that heavy equipment (in the film days, carrying heavy mag boxes was part of an AC's job).  That rarely comes up anymore.

It's also thankfully true that awards don't guarantee future funding or hires, and lack of them does not preclude those possibilities.

Sometimes, the bias can even be worked to a filmmaker's advantage. I worked as line producer on an obscure film by a first-time female feature director that raised a good deal of it's money from women who were attracted to precisely because of it's female perspective on love.

Maybe if we stopped making believe that we did not see differences in people, but rather acknowledged it and tried to deal with it, we would make progress toward that post-differences world a little quicker.  In the meantime, let's at least stop being so surprised when it happens.

*Hitchcock did, of course, win a Lifetime Achievement Award.

No comments: