Insight With Beth Ruyak

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A Look At Why The Oscars Are So White

lincolnblues / Flickr
 

lincolnblues / Flickr

Hollywood Foreign Press Association has recently donated $2 million to the California State University, Northridge Cinema and Television Arts program.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the people behind the Academy Awards, is 1,000 times bigger than the HFPA and most of the members who vote for the Academy Awards are white men older than 60.

Following this year’s #OscarsSoWhite backlash, the governing body of the Academy Awards swiftly released a plan to double female and minority members by 2020.

It will also include ten-year limits on the voting abilities of new members of the Academy.

But the head of CSUN’s film program, Nate Thomas, doesn’t have much hope these changes will help. 

He says these changes don’t make it any easier for a person of color to get into the academy.  

About Grant Money: Hollywood Foreign Press Association has been donating money to the California State University, Northridge Cinema and Television Arts program since 1996. These gifts, over the past 20 years, have totaled $1 million. This year, though, the HFPA gave CSUN $2 million.

The HFPA says it gave CSUN the grant because of its focus on diversifying its student body –an issue in the Hollywood spotlight right now.

More than $1 million of the grant will go to endow scholarships for film school students from low-income families and who are members of groups underrepresented in the film industry, ie. woman and people of color.

But these types of grants can only do so much to diversify the industry.

Head of Film Production at CSUN Nate Thomas says the HFPA is a small, diverse group of people that believe in diversity and invest in diversity. “They’re putting their money where their mouth is,” he said.

When it comes to getting an MFA, the scholarships funded by this grant could be a free ride for someone, Thomas says. This money also allows the school to attract students by helping pay for education.

Some of the grant money goes to CSUN graduate students to complete their thesis films. Many of these short films have been shown at film festivals like Cannes, and have gone on to win awards. The money is also paying for upgraded equipment and sound stages at the film school, which will help attract more students.

CSUN can be a model for the future of a more diverse film industry,” Thomas says. USC is the number one film program in the world but also ranks lowest in diversity. 

Diversity in the Academy Awards: Yes, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association believes in diversity, but it’s a small group of 80-90 people. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences -the people behind the Academy Awards-, however, is around 800,000 to 900,000 people and most of the members who vote (for the academy awards) are white men older than 60.

Following this year’s #OscarsSoWhite backlash, the governing body of the Academy Awards swiftly released a plan to double female and minority members by 2020. It will also include ten-year limits on the voting abilities of new members of the Academy.

Thomas doesn’t have much hope the New Academy Award voting rules will help. “Even with these new rules, it’s going to be difficult as a person of color to get into the academy. The rules need to be amended to make it easier for people of color to get into the voting process.”

Thomas remembers hearing about the lack of diversity in Hollywood since he was in film school in the 80s. He says he’s been talking about diversity in the Academy Awards since Cuba Gooding Jr. won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1997 for Jerry McGuire.

You can blame the Motion Picture Academy all you want, but in reality we don’t have enough diversity of product. There aren’t enough “Straight Out of Comptons” and “Fruitvale Stations” being made, Thomas said. “Only seven of the 400 films considered for this year’s Academy Awards can be considered diverse films.”

The answer is more diverse filmmakers, but more importantly, more people of color giving in positions of power.

“I don't think there's one person of color in Hollywood who can greenlight a film," Guy Aoki of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans recently said.

The Martin Luther King Jr. film “Selma,” that was snubbed at last year’s Oscars, took nearly a decade to get the greenlight in Hollywood. And that was with Oprah Winfrey’s star power behind it as a producer. Oprah is also credited for getting “The Butler” made in 2013.

Thomas doesn’t expect the Oscars to change anytime soon. “Not until you hit them in the pocketbooks,” Thomas said. “If Hollywood studios started losing money like the Montgomery bus system did during the civil rights movement, we might see change.”

This issue is becoming global. Nate did a presentation with Seoul Institute of the Arts and Korean filmmakers asked him about diversity in American film making. They wondered why all Asians were depicted as martial arts experts in Hollywood films. That same issue came up when he was lecturing in China too.

Another solution for diversifying Hollywood: mentorships.

When Thomas went to USC in the late 80’s there were a lot of students whose parents were famous actors and these people had no problem finding jobs. It was a different story for people of color who don’t have high profile name attached to them.

He, like many other film students who go on to become successful, got a break from someone in the industry. 

“I don’t know how I feel about this now, but Bill Cosby is credited with giving a lot of people of color their breaks into the film industry,” Thomas said. 

Cosby gave Thomas his break in the 1980’s and recently helped CSUN students break into the industry. In 2013, Cosby hired students from Thomas’ film program to help with his Comedy Central special. 

It’s about getting more people of color into the film industry at every level. More screenwriters, more showrunners, more directors, more crew members, more executives, etc. The idea is that once more people of color get into the industry they can help bring people of color into the industry through mentorships.

These people of color are also making more films about people of color. Black USC grads John Singleton (“The Boys in the Hood”) and Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station,” “Creed”) are two examples. But there are only so many Singletons, Cooglers and Cosbys.  

 filmmovies

James Morrison

Former Producer, Insight

James Morrison began his career at Capital Public Radio in 2007 as a news intern, first for All Things Considered then Morning Edition. In January 2011, Morrison was hired as part-time news producer and general assignment reporter.   Read Full Bio 

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