Wanted: A New, Diverse A-List Amid Foreign Money
Illustration by Isabel Espanol

Wanted: A New, Diverse A-List Amid Foreign Money

In the wake of #OscarsSoWhite there is an increasing mandate for indie films to include women and people of color to attract a global audience. (Sponsored by AG Capital)

The Hollywood Reporter and AG Capital partnered on this special report with the goal of opening opportunities for a rising generation of actors in an increasingly global and multicultural film market.

Hollywood has begun to get the message, but what about the rest of the world?

Diversity has become a hot buzzword. Fans and critics blasted the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in January when, for a second straight year, performers of color received no Oscar acting nominations. Loud objections were raised when roles that might have gone to diverse actors in such films as Cameron Crowe's Aloha and the swords-and-sandals fantasy Gods of Egypt were handed to white performers. The major studios are listening — and, what's more, they have come to realize there is money to be made in assembling racially mixed casts that reflect the worldwide audiences they court.

The runaway success of 2015's Furious 7, which grossed more than $1.5 billion globally, underscored that point. As he rebooted Star Wars for a new generation, director J.J. Abrams recruited a multiethnic force, with a young woman, Daisy Ridley, front and center, flanked by John Boyega, a rising British star with Nigerian parents, and American Oscar Isaac, whose heritage is Cuban and Guatemalan. And when Spider-Man returns to the screen in 2017, Tom Holland, the new Peter Parker, will be surrounded by such fresh — and non-Anglo — faces as Zendaya and Tony Revolori.

From left: Boyega, Ridley and Isaac, the new faces of 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens,' at a fan gathering in 2015.

But when it comes to independent films, which rely on advance sales to foreign territories to help raise financing, it can be a different story. "There is a lag between the independent market and studio arena when it comes to breaking new faces and new talent of whatever ethnicity," says Stuart Ford, CEO of finance, production and sales company IM Global. "That's the fundamental challenge independent companies have — it's harder to take that leap. But because the major studios have woken up to not just the possibility but the necessity of making movies for a multicultural audience, there is broader global audience awareness of African-American, Latin and Asian casts. So to some extent there is a trickle-down effect into the independent market, which benefits all of us."

Still, foreign buyers are a pragmatic lot. They want the reassurance of tried-and-true marquee names with proven box-office appeal. Their wish lists are a roundup of the usual suspects: Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Liam Neeson, Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts and Leonardo DiCaprio are among the most wanted, and though the top tier of bankable stars includes Denzel Washington and Will Smith, it's by and large a monochromatic array.

Of course, to the dismay of buyers who will descend on Cannes when the festival's market officially opens May 11, "this top elite is almost never available in the indie market. They are all locked up in studio productions," says Dirk Schweitzer, head of acquisitions at Splendid Film, which distributes in Germany and Belgium. That has opened the door for a new group taking advantage of opportunities — like Alicia Vikander, who scored the role of Lara Croft in the new version of Tomb Raider after her Oscar win for The Danish Girl. Newly minted stars viewed as increasingly bankable include Channing Tatum, Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Chris Pratt, Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch. "Benedict Cumberbatch is really bankable right now in Hong Kong," says Golden Scene's Felix Tsang. "He's the most popular actor at the moment." When it comes to diversity, though, there is plenty of room for improvement. And that leads to the question of what the next crop of actors must do to break through.

Ironically, the studios' current efforts to cast tentpoles in more rainbow hues — from Star Wars to superhero franchises — do not automatically help the actors involved with their currency abroad because, many buyers argue, moviegoers are flocking to these films' familiar titles and storylines rather than the individual stars. "Star Wars is a brand," says Gianluca Chakra, head of pan-Middle East distributor Front Row Filmed Entertainment. "Oscar Isaac and John Boyega got noticed but are not yet recognizable as stars — though I think Oscar Isaac is going to be the new Al Pacino. But the real star is Daisy Ridley because I think she stole the show, and that could eventually trigger a major sale for her."

But appearing in a big-budget franchise doesn't hurt. Says Schweitzer: "Even a small role in a big blockbuster puts these actors on our radar. The audience loves familiar faces — if you don't have a name, you at least need a face — and if you have a fan base from films like Star Wars, you have some value. It's not a guarantee, but it will make us take a look at a project."

The InterContinental Carlton Cannes hotel during the 2015 festival, where 'Mad Max: Fury Road' stars Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron were promoted on two-story-tall banners — while, on the hotel’s Carlton Terrace, buyers and sellers placed bets on emerging future stars.

The ideal path is the one Jennifer Lawrence took during her meteoric rise: a critically acclaimed role in the indie film Winter's Bone; star turns in such popular franchises as X-Men: First Class and The Hunger Games; and collaborations with auteur David O. Russell in such awards-level films as Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle — all assisted by an accessible offscreen presence that captured fans' imaginations. Says Tsang: "She was unknown when she did the first Hunger Games, but she displayed her personality — a big personality — in the film and offscreen, and people like her. Actors and actresses have to think of a way to break out of the mold, to make themselves shine, either through their acting or through their personality." Advises another buyer: "A young star should focus on getting the best project. It's becoming more and more important for us to work with established producers and directors who we know can deliver a strong film and, hopefully then, make the actors in it the stars of tomorrow."

If they are looking to build their offscreen brand, young actors also could take their cues from such established stars as Cruise and Smith, who are masters of working the room, never missing an opportunity to court local media as they travel the world. And it doesn't hurt to follow the example of an old pro like George Clooney, who dropped by February's Berlin Film Festival — where his Hail, Caesar! was the opening night film — and the simultaneous European Film Market to talk up his upcoming Suburbicon to foreign distributors. Says one, "After the [disappointing] results of Hail, Caesar!, buyers needed some sort of reassurance."

But even as opportunities open for women and diverse talent, there is no denying obstacles remain. "It's not overt, but there is covert discrimination," admits Tsang. "Unless you're Will Smith, the Hong Kong audience — as does the audience around the world — prefers to see a white leading man. It's a painful truth." Schweitzer puts it another way: "For new stars, the audience more easily warms to people they can identify with. That can make it hard for ethnic minorities, especially ones like Latinos, who aren't represented in large numbers in Germany." And Chakra explains that movies such as Ice Cube's Friday and Barbershop series haven't performed well in the Middle East because their concerns and vernacular simply are too American — but, proving everyone loves a winner, he adds that after the rousing Creed, "I'd buy a film with Michael B. Jordan."

"To some extent the traditional orthodoxy that African-American actors don't have traction internationally has been sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy: The studios tended not to push their own African-American movies internationally," argues Ford. However, citing the success of movies like Lee Daniels' The Butler, he adds, "In the more upscale arena, audiences are responding to what's good and has a must-see factor, and that broadens the audience for all of us from a cultural perspective."

This story first appeared in the May 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.