How a Lack of Diversity Is Going to Cost the Oscars...Literally

February 22nd 2015

Ashley Nicole Black

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a problem. They need black people to watch The Oscars.

In the past ten years, whether or not black viewers have tuned in has made the difference in whether or not The Oscars get over 40 million viewers. This is because the same number of white and Hispanic viewers tend to watch broadcast every year, so in order to please advertisers, The Academy needs to get black people to watch. And they really need to, because selling commercials to advertisers during the Oscars provides the largest part of the Academy's annual budget

In the past ten years, the Oscars has only had over 40 million viewers five times. And in each of the high viewership years, the nominees were more diverse. The telecast with the highest viewership in the past ten years was in 2005 when Chris Rock hosted, and Don Cheadle, Jamie Foxx, Morgan Freeman, and Sophie Okonedo, as well as the film "Ray" were nominated. The next year, Terrence Howard was the only black person nominated and the audience dropped to 38.9 million. Black viewers accounted for 60 percent of that decline. In general, black people tend to tune in to the telecast more when the nominees are more diverse. 

Black people are not feeling the Oscars this year

As you probably already know, this year's Academy Award nominees are overwhelming white and male. Only two nominees for Best Picture include people of color in lead roles (Selma, and Grand Budapest Hotel- in which 17 year old Tony Revolori has a major role), and only one nominee for best director is non-white (Alejandro G. Iñárritu for Birdman). Otherwise all of the actors and actresses nominated are white, and all of the directors nominated are male. It's really shaping up to be quite the white dude party. And #BlackTwitter has already put out the call for black people to boycott watching the show. 

This is a major problem (of their own creation) for the Academy that they've attempted to solve in the weirdest way. They are running commercials on BET (Black Entertainment Television), and during "black shows" on other networks. I saw a commercial (during Scandal) in which they announced the presenters for the ceremony, who were all black. Um, The Academy should probably actually watch Scandal. Because Olivia Pope would tell them that it's gonna look a little awkward to have all black people give awards to white people all night. And that still won't "handle" their problem of not having nominated more people of color.  

Is it The Academy's fault?

Some say yes. The voting members of The Academy are 94 percent Caucasian and 77 percent male. Only two percent of The Academy is black, and Latinos make up less than two percent. The median age of Oscar voters is 62, and only 14 percent of The Academy is under 50. If The Academy is concerned about staying relevant, they could reach out and include some younger and more diverse members whose votes might be more reflective of the general public's taste in movies. And we know the general public prefers more diverse movies than the Academy does, because movies with more diversity make more money. The "sweet spot," as described by Darnell Hunt (leader of a UCLA study on film and television diversity), is when movies are 30 to 40 percent minority. In other words, movies make the most money at the box office when they are closest to the racial makeup of the country (which is 36.3 percent minority). This is, at least in part, because minorities go to the movies more- making up 44.1 percent of frequent moviegoers.

It is actually a deeper problem?

The UCLA study found that minorities are underrepresented as lead actors in films by more than three to one (meaning they appeared as leads in films one third of the amount that would be expected based on their percentage of the population). And as film directors, minorities are underrepresented by three to one; as writers by five to one. Latinos are the most underrepresented, comprising 17.1 percent of the U.S. population and only 4.9 percent of onscreen characters. Women make up 51 percent of the population and were protagonists in only twelve percent of movies released in 2014.  It doesn't make a ton of sense that Hollywood studios and producers are ignoring the research that says there is more money to be made with more diversity, but it isn't entirely fair to blame the Academy for the nominations when studios and producers aren't making enough diverse movies for them to nominate. 

Or is it an EVEN DEEPER problem?

Presumably movie studios like making money, and making more diverse films makes more money, so why aren't they doing it? Probably because studio execs are overwhelmingly white and male and tend towards making movies that they like and understand. But the UCLA study also suggests that producers may be missing out on opportunities to even consider more diverse acting, writing, and directing talent; and that more diverse talent is being kept away from the studios by the gatekeepers of the industries- agents. Actors, writers, and directors are represented by agents. When producers are looking for talent, they send out requests to agents who then "pitch" their clients, and set up auditions and meetings. Without an agent, it is difficult to get work in Hollywood because talent without representation doesn't have access to information about projects, which means they don't get opportunities to audition. Even if you get an agent, you still may miss out on opportunities if are with one of the smaller agencies. In this way, the big agencies'; choices of who to represent somewhat limit the studios' hiring options. 

The top three agencies represented 70 percent of the directors, and 72 percent of the actors in the movies studied. Only 7 percent of the talent represented by the top three agencies in the study were minorities.  The smaller agencies are somewhat more diverse, but still not reflective of the population. The actors represented by all of the smaller agencies were 19 percent minorities. Of course, this is a vicious cycle. The top agencies sign the talent they think the movie studios want to see- since the majority of movies star white people, they sign majority white clients. Then the movie studios are sent mostly white actors by the agents when they put out a call for actors, and may not get the opportunity to see a more diverse talent base. And the same process is true for writers and directors. And if we wanted to get really deep into it, we'd have to look at the ethnic make up of professional training programs, and programs at universities, and the different level of artistic opportunities offered to students in public schools, and so on and so forth. 

Racism and sexism are systematic, they can never be solely blamed on one show or institution. The Academy has a problem honoring diversity, because Hollywood has a problem honoring diversity, because America has a problem honoring diversity. But one thing is for sure, having a bunch of black presenters at a nearly all-white Oscars is a tiny band-aid over deep wound.