Hollywood's Casting Blitz: It's All About Diversity in the Wake of #OscarsSoWhite
"The Oscars controversy was a wake-up call," says J.J. Abrams as directors and studios push color-blind castings and storylines from 'The Birth of a Nation' to Barack Obama.
This story first appeared in the March 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
The biggest star to take the stage during the Academy Awards arguably was the #OscarsSoWhite controversy as Chris Rock hammered home Hollywood's diversity issues during the three-plus-hour telecast. But now that the curtain has closed, the question becomes how the industry will avoid a repeat.
The wheels already might be in motion: Since the Oscar nominations were announced Jan. 14, a slew of diverse stories and color-blind castings have gained momentum. Newly announced projects include the young Barack Obama movie Barry and Disney's immigrant story Dr. Q. (Those come on the heels of the record-breaking $17.5 million Sundance deal for Nate Parker's slave drama The Birth of a Nation).
"There's definitely a big conversation taking place right now in our business," says Management 360 partner Darin Friedman. "From both the filmmaker side and the buyer side, there's a push for more diverse stories. It's happening in a genuine way: an understanding that the cast or the directors who get hired should reflect the way the world looks."
Plus, it pays to be inclusive. A Feb. 25 UCLA study revealed that films and TV shows that reflect the diversity of America on average draw higher ratings and the highest median global box-office receipts.
TV has been far more progressive than film when it comes to diverse stories and castings, but the latest pilot season reflects even higher demand with color-blind castings (like Persian-American actress Sarah Shahi as the star of CBS' Nancy Drew series, Drew). And after the success of Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, there are more family comedies in the works, including ABC's The Fluffy Shop, based on the life of Hispanic comedian Gabriel Iglesias, and NBC's Marlon, starring Marlon Wayans.
Now the film industry is following suit. J.J. Abrams' production company Bad Robot has teamed with its agency, CAA, and studio partners to require that women and people of color are submitted for writing, directing and acting jobs in proportion to their representation in the U.S. population.
"The Oscars controversy was a wake-up call to examine our role in expanding opportunities internally at Bad Robot and externally with our content and partners," says Abrams, who produces the Star Wars and Star Trek movie franchises along with the TV series Person of Interest and Hulu's miniseries 11.22.63. "It's good for audiences, and it's good for the bottom line."
The Zero Dark Thirty team of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal next will make a film set during the 1967 Detroit riot that will cast several actors of color. And Fox 2000 and Chernin are developing Hidden Figures, a movie about the African-American women who helped NASA launch its first space missions (Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer recently were cast).
"I was actively out there looking for this kind of material that serves the markets — specifically women and African-Americans — that I think nobody pays attention to in Hollywood," says producer Donna Gigliotti, who optioned Hidden Figures off a book by Margot Lee Shetterly. When Gigliotti began showing the script to agencies to find a director, she says they clamored to get it to their black actress clients.
Black filmmaker Ava DuVernay (Selma) has signed on for two big studio projects during recent weeks: Disney's A Wrinkle in Time and Universal's sci-fi film Intelligent Life, starring Lupita Nyong'o. Life also is a big get for Oscar winner Nyong'o: Sources say the lead character in Life, with a script by Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly, was not written with a certain ethnicity in mind but rather a "unique" look.
Several other actors of color have nabbed high-profile roles in recent weeks: Idris Elba is in talks to star in Fox's romantic drama The Mountain Between Us in a lead role that originally was written for a white actor (Charlie Hunnam was in talks at one point); Hamilton star Lin-Manuel Miranda will star in Disney's Mary Poppins sequel as a character similar to that played by Dick Van Dyke in the original; and Michael B. Jordan will star in MGM's remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, playing a role previously inhabited by Steve McQueen and Pierce Brosnan.
MGM Motion Picture Group president Jonathan Glickman says the studio was looking to reteam with its Creed star. "We weren't thinking, 'What if we got someone who's African-American?' " he says. "We are gigantic fans of Michael. He's one of the most exciting, intelligent and charismatic actors working today. The discussion of race never came up."
However, Jordan (who has said he wants roles not specifically written for a black actor, like playing Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four) and Elba already are considered two of the most in-demand actors in Hollywood. Executives and agents believe color-blind casting must trickle down to up-and-coming stars to create more opportunities for minority actors. "In film, as opposed to TV, you're chasing names a lot," says one producer. "We need to create more names now."
Change in the film business never has been swift, and many expect it to take years. But Glickman agrees that diversity is essential if movies are to thrive.
"The notion that the movie audience is one group of people is wrong," he says. "In order to get people out of the house and into the theater, which is already hard, you have to make movies that reflect the total audience."