Why a Diverse Academy Is Just the Start for a More Inclusive Oscars

6fea_academy-pipeline_W- Illustration by Cristina Spanò - H 2020
Cristina Spanò

While shifting who votes is essential, the way marketers, programmers and tastemakers treat those films sets the course to shaking up the Academy Awards.

The Academy has attempted to rectify #OscarsSoWhite by pulling on the only lever at its disposal, but it's not just adjusting the composition of the membership that determines a more inclusive Oscar night. Decisions made earlier in the pipeline — by distributors, marketers, festival programmers, critics and tastemakers — all shape how projects fare with voters.

Since 2015, 98 of the 120 Oscar-nominated performances have come from films that debuted at a festival, with Sundance, Cannes, Toronto and Telluride identifying awards season's key contenders. In 2017, Sundance selected Get Out for its midnight secret screening, and the film's rapturous reception ignited buzz that lasted 14 months, all the way to four Oscar nominations and a win.

"How films are positioned matters," says TIFF artistic director and co-head Cameron Bailey, whose festival is often considered an unofficial opening ceremony for awards season. "It's a way of signaling what we want our audiences to pay the most attention to." Bailey earmarked Hustlers and the death-row drama Just Mercy as gala presentations last fall, signaling that they were films worth a serious look.

Once films clear the hurdle of a festival bow, there is the question of how studios market them more broadly. In 2015, USC's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that male-directed movies that landed distribution deals were more likely to be acquired by mini-majors or studio specialty labels than female-helmed films, which often landed at indies with fewer resources. When marginalized stories go to smaller distributors, there is less money available to help a film reach audiences — including Oscar voters. "To open a movie in general takes a lot of firepower," says awards strategist Michele Robertson. "It's harder for performances in smaller films, like Alfre Woodard in Clemency, to get the buzz to break through."

That's where media coverage becomes key. "If you're talking about a smaller distributor, you really need the press," Robertson continues. Reviews provide a critical first impression that can launch or significantly impede a film's credibility in the eyes of Academy voters, and the industry press' decisions regarding which movies to cover — which filmmakers are invited to roundtables, which actors get magazine covers — go a long way toward legitimizing a project's chances. African American Film Critics Association president Gil Robertson says, "When a lot of the critics leading the discussion are of a certain age and background, the films they flock around tend to reflect stories that speak to their worldview." As such, Time's Up has launched initiative Time's Up Critical to encourage the industry to solicit reviews and coverage from a more diverse array of journalists; festivals like Sundance are reserving press credentials and providing travel stipends for underrepresented journalists.

"It bothers me when people attack the Academy, when really we should be looking at the system at large — access, financing, people of color being in the room deciding whose stories are worthy to be told," says publicist Ivette Rodriguez, who co-chairs A2020's marketing/PR branch. "Until the agencies, managers, studios and initiatives all tackle this problem together, we'll never see change."

This story first appeared in the Feb. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.