As the awards season draws to a close we have heard from many film stars, clutching their statues, about the lack of diversity in the film industry. This topic bears huge significance and so this post will deal solely with ethnic diversity, exploring the business reasons behind the lack of it in casting.
The potential value of an unmade film (and for film also read high end TV) is a product of what it’s about, and who’s in it. When the finished product hits your screen this will decide if you choose to watch it. This then leads producers to pay high fees to stars to attract them to their projects. A film’s budget has below the line costs, i.e. what it costs to make, -and above the line costs, i.e. what the talent costs. This talent includes a few star directors; Coppola, Scott, Scorsese, Tarantino etc. but mainly this is reserved for star acting talent. Fees can be as high as 50% of a film’s budget. In a $10million picture, it could have cost $5million to make and $5million in fees to actors. Increase that budget to $100million and with more at stake producers will pay commensurately more. It was William Goldman who put this most succinctly: ‘A star may not guarantee you profit – but they will absolutely hedge against disaster. A star ensures, even if a movie is a stiff, the movie will open.’ .
In putting a project together producers are therefore out to attract the most high profile cast. On the basis of this cast, studios, distributors and financiers will calculate their sales estimates. And the better the cast, the better those estimates, the more the star can be paid. It has been this way since the 1930s and James Cagney’s famous bust up with Jack Warner, then head of Warner Bros. Up till then, Studios were the boss and they determined their stars’ salaries. Cagney's repeated salary demands resulted in him being the first star to successfully sue a major studio and the balance of power shifted, and has remained there since.
To understand the lack of diversity we only need look at the most ‘bankable’ stars i.e. the stars with the most audience pull, and therefore commanding the largest fees. Of the top 34 male stars, only four (12%) could tick any box other than 'white, Caucasian'. Similarly, of the top 34 female stars, only five (15 %). There then is the ethnic diversity issue. There are notable exceptions: Dwayne Johnson, Will Smith, but the vast majority of bankable film stars are white. And who determines if they are bankable? Well, the predominately white, English speaking audience for whom these films are made.
What to do about this? If we reverse engineer this problem, and speaking from personal experience, say you have a film that requires ethnic leads, then sales agents and distributors will be looking for a star, usually a white actor, to bolster the sales figures. And you see this play out in projects where a higher earning star than the leads takes third or fourth billing below the ethnic cast. This produces some unlikely, and, from a creative standpoint, unsatisfactory casting choices. Probably not the ironic portrayal by Robert Downey Jr in ‘Tropic Thunder’ but we are on that road.
But since many stars spoke on this at award ceremonies, for them one of the easiest fixes is for them to get behind ethnically diverse projects. So Joaquin Phoenix goes out and seeks ethnically diverse films to add his name. Even an executive producer role (i.e. not acting in but putting his name on) could help a project get made. This is of course bad business. Both, since those stars will not be remunerated in line with their usual fees, so we are talking charity when we should be talking sustainability and, because this relies on a few white stars shining their light on ethnically diverse projects. That love won’t go very far. In short, bad business doesn’t make for good policy.
A more economically driven fix is already underway; the destruction of the theatrical film model. The stranglehold by theatrical distributors forcing big names to be attached to get big box office returns is still prevalent with big budget blockbusters, but under threat everywhere else. In the online world, the star is far less important. The film does not have to ‘open’, i.e. generate returns in its all important theatrical run, because there isn’t one. And conversely in the online subscription model diversity is important, because diversity is good business. You can sell product all around the world, not just in the English speaking world.
This has seen Netflix set up shop in many countries, most recently France, with its Paris office, to make films and TV in local languages using local cast. A massive hit in this area has been the TV series ‘La Casa de Papel’ (Money Heist) in Spanish. This then is true diversity; film and TV made by people in those countries for the audience in those countries and sold internationally. Presumably this will lead to bankable stars emerging from those countries. Those stars will be able to get bigger and bigger projects greenlit, and perhaps get themselves into the top 34 bankable stars worldwide. Some examples of this already exist, outside the top 34, with the likes of Antonio Banderas, Selma Hayek, and Priyanka Chopra. But they are the exception.
So that is the future. But what of the present? This leads us back to the recent award ceremonies. A film can only win an Oscar or BAFTA if it receives a theatrical release. This extends to Cannes and the Palme D’Or, which saw Netflix pull out of 2018 Cannes Film Festival after Cannes insisted films had to have French theatrical distribution. This then is reinforcing the non-diverse, crowd-pulling, aforementioned, star cast component. It is even more important now with dropping audience attendance figures and the insistence on the theatrical ‘event’ movie, which leads to potentially quick fix. Allow online films into the all the awards.
There is resistance to this idea in two areas. First, from theatrical distributors. Fair enough. But, while I own a record player by choice, and buy vinyl, I listen to most of my music on digital. And so will it be with film; cinema will be an audience choice for those who want that cinema experience. Most of us are already more frequently watching film at home, on the train, or on the plane. A second major area of resistance is star directors being vocal about their films being designed for theatrical release. But, without wishing to offend, home entertainment is light years on. And, should you wish, you can achieve picture and sound quality in the comfort of your living room far in excess of a cinema even five years ago.
Of course, opening the online floodgates would result in enormous numbers of entrants to all the awards. Perhaps they could be filtered by audience figures. Something online distributors are understandably reticent to disclose. I leave that to others to work out. But not only does this seem inevitable, it would immediately increase the ethnic diversity of all the awards. After all, BAFTA changed the category of ‘Best Foreign Film’ to ‘Best Film not in the English Language’ in 1990. Oscars did it this year with ‘Best International Feature Film’ not ‘Best Foreign Language Film.’ And ‘Parasite’ won both this and ‘Best Picture’ category. The fact is, there were undoubtedly many more non-English language contenders out there which weren’t eligible due to the high theatrical bar to entry.
. ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’ - William Goldman