For a more diverse Oscars, Hollywood must go back to high school
2017/02/28 Leave a comment
Despite the major improvement in the diversity of those awarded Sunday night, a needed and good initiative for the next generation of film makers:
Over the last two years, much of the talk around Oscar season has been about the lack of diversity. The American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, now headed by an African-American woman, has made several high-profile moves to increase the number of diverse Academy members. But to truly transform the industry, Mowat says, Hollywood has to go back to high school.The program at Washington Prep helped the now 19-year-old Mariah Green land an internship at CBS, where she shadowed sitcom writers. Without the mentorship from Mowat and the other professionals, she says there’s almost no way she would be at Cal State Northridge, where she has founded a student production company.
“Most communities don’t have to feel discouraged, feeling like I don’t have time to pursue this because I could lose my life tomorrow,” Green says.
The problem, Mowat says, is that mentoring programs are surprisingly rare. The one that brings him to Washington Prep is organized and funded by the British film academy BAFTA; he says neither the American nor Canadian academies have anything comparable.
“Canada and the US … seems to be a lack of ability to train or willingness to mentor,” Mowat says. “Not everyone can go to school and go to those three- and four-year programs.”Rachel Miller, a partner at the L.A. production company Haven Entertainment, is the founder of a year-old mentorship program called Film2Future that gives high school students the chance to make a short film with real pros. She says when it comes to diversity, the industry talks a good game, but often isn’t willing to fund initiatives that would actually address the problem.
Talk easier than action
“I think there’s a lot of inertia,” Miller says. “I think that it’s easy to talk about something than to do something. Doing something is hard. It’s tough.”
And it’s short-sighted, according to Franklin Leonard. He founded the Black List, a highly regarded yearly collection of top scripts that haven’t been made into films.“These communities are historically being shut out of opportunities that would allow them to prove their talent,” Franklin says.
Bringing students from diverse backgrounds into the pipeline at a young age isn’t just good for their individual futures, it’s good for the industry as a whole, Franklin says, referring to a recent UCS study that suggests movies with diverse casts make more money at the box office.
“It’s good for the bottom line, and I think that when you look at Hidden Figures being the top box office grosser of the Best Picture nominees and you look at the extraordinary success of Moonlight, I think it’s really hard to argue,” Leonard says. “The least expensive and most significant thing that the industry could do to change its economics in a radical fashion is to embrace diversity wholeheartedly.”
But when many young students from poor backgrounds can’t access university arts programs, Miller says there’s a very limited window to really effect change.
“We really have to address the pipeline issue and the only way to do that is to start in high school; if we’re waiting until college, it’s just way too late,” Miller says. “People have either dropped out of high school or gone into more traditional fields. While I was at NYU I taught a public school in Manhattan, and the lack of resources are shocking. So I think this idea in Hollywood that we’re suddenly going to find diverse kids that go into Harvard or NYU or USC is a bit crazy. We have to start in ninth grade and help kids who are going to public schools who don’t have computers or don’t have Wi-Fi, who don’t have art programs to help them be competitive, help them find their way through, and help them find the spark.”Just ask Elgin James. Not many directors in Hollywood come from as troubled a background as he. In his youth, he ended up homeless. In 2009, he served a year in prison for gang-related activities. But he found his escape in movies and, as an adult, moved to Hollywood where the 45-year-old has written and directed for television and film.
“I would have killed to have this program when I was a kid,” James says. “To know that there’s another way to be seen and to be heard in the world rather than just causing damage and havoc or just disappearing. So if there’s anything that I can give it’s that if I can do this, anybody can do this.”