'Black Panther,' 'Crazy Rich Asians' Success Changing Diversity Story, Berlin Panel Says

Courtesy of Marvel Studios
'Black Panther'

Industry players discussing diverse movies pointed to incremental improvements, but said obstacles remain.

Movies with diverse casts deliver bigger box office from receptive audiences, but Hollywood has a ways to go before it does what's needed to greenlight the next Black Panther or Crazy Rich Asians.

That was the consensus of a panel on diverse films held on Saturday at the Berlin Film Festival. Misan Sagay, a former doctor and the screenwriter for the 2013 film Belle, said incremental gains had been made for diversity for writers and directors, but more needs to be done to ensure opportunities for minority and female talent.

"There's been a huge change in the last year and a half, in terms of the films I'm offered. There's a willingness to look at the kind of subject matter that maybe [studio execs] wouldn't have five years ago," Sagay, who is also an Academy member, told Saturday's "EFM Horizon" panel moderated by Scott Roxborough of The Hollywood Reporter.

The panel agreed that movies with diverse casts are making strides with one-off hits like Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight. However, that box office success needs to be seen by studio heads and international distributors as no longer exceptional, but the result of pent-up demand from global audiences embracing diverse films.

"That's a necessity relating to consumers and how they consume their content, as they need to enjoy the content and see themselves on screen," said Syrinthia Studer, executive vp worldwide acquisitions at Paramount Pictures.

The Berlin panel also heard that the lack of diversity on the big screen is due to traditional attitudes still held at Hollywood agencies, guilds and studios. "There is an audience [for diverse films]. That audience is not well served," Sagay insisted. "And the people with outdated thoughts used to make decisions, something has to give to get those people out of the way, because the audience is ahead of us."

Kana Koido, a Japanese film distributor with The Klockworx, said movie-going audiences in Japan are also changing as they embrace movies with diverse casts. "If it's a movie with black talent and there's a good story, they (Japanese) want to watch it," she said.

Paramount's Studer argued diverse filmmakers need to be given the same opportunities enjoyed by white and male directors, which includes to make their second, third and fourth movies to sustain their Hollywood careers.

"The only way it's going to change is the diversity conversation has to not only be in front of the camera, but behind the camera, in the greenlight meetings. So that there's as much, if not more, work to be done," Studer said.

The Berlin Film Festival continues through Feb. 17.