Monday, February 15, 2016

"Looking For Trouble"

Sometimes I write stuff I am better off leaving alone.  This may be one of those times. 

Some primarily African-American actors are protesting the Motion Picture Academy for what they claim is an injustice in the nominating process, resulting in, this year, only white actors being in the running for Oscars.  To me, this is like holding the mirror accountable for its reflection.

I understand why they have adopted this strategy.  You want attention for your cause, you exploit an already organized assemblage.  Remember the bicycle salesman in Butch Cassidy who jumped in to take advantage of the crowd the town marshal was vainly trying to recruit to join a posse?  That’s this. 

The thing is, the protesters are railing against the wrong target.  Because, as a journalist I read accurately observed,

“The ‘Academy’ does not make movies.”

Meaning, you cannot blame the Motion Picture Academy for the dearth of leading roles for minorities because the Academy did not make any movies not to put them in.  (There is the issue of homogeneity in the Oscars nominating panels but they too are not responsible for the limited opportunities for minority actors.  Although even with a more diversely populated voting pool, one would hope they would still vote for the most worthy contender.  Which, to me at least, is undeterminable unless all the actors attempted the same role.)    

It seems entirely fair and appropriate in this regard to take a step back in the process, focusing on the people who decide which movies actually get made.

Where, truth be told, you find homogeneity once again. 

Here, however, is where it gets tricky.  (Opening me to charges of racial insensitivity {in general and} concerning the hiring process, for both actors and studio executives.) 

Okay.  Here’s me, “on the record.” 

Is there at least implicit racism in (America and in) that hiring process leading to a disproportionately low number of minorities and women in both arenas?  Anyone who can count must say unequivocally that there is.  Please remember I said that when you adjudge my underlying intentions.

You pitch your movie (or TV series) idea.  They – understanding that the “they” may not externally resemble you or have shared your personal experiences – say “Yes” to your idea, or they say “No”.  Giving these “Green Lighters” – whose approval allows a project to go forward – the racial benefit of the doubt, they say “Yes” or they say “No” to your pitch for basically one reason:

They say “Yes” because they believe your idea has a chance of making a profit.  (Hopefully, an enormous profit.)  They say “No” because they believe it does not.

“Green Lighters” are business people.  Their decisions – notwithstanding centuries of isolation, ignorance and prejudice because they are undeniably part of the process – are fundamentally business decisions. 

If there were more “Green Lighters of Color” – or women of any hue or ethnicity – those decisions, grounded first and foremost in profitability, would be, I am arguing, not dissimilar to the decisions that are currently being made. 

“Green Lighters” are required to generate revenue for their employers.  Their futures as “Green Lighters” depend on it.  I mean, what do you expect them to do?

“I’m a Mongolian-American movie executive and I say – because if I don’t say it who will? – “Let’s go with this 300 million dollar Mongolian-themed blockbuster!” 


Time to take yet another step back.  If the Motion Picture Academy nominations derive exclusively from the movies that get made, and the “Green Lighters’” decisions concerning what movie gets made rest, in the final analysis, on the project’s commercial marketability, we arrive finally at the determining authority in this curious process:

The people who buy the tickets.  (Or watch the TV shows.)

Or don’t.

Turns out, it’s a democracy.  The populace runs the entire process.  (Keeping in mind – especially if Donald Trump is elected president – that the populace is not always correct.)

Conclusion:  All aspirants deserve – and have a right to – an equal chance at participation.  (Assuming a recognizable level of capability.)  But equality also requires everyone being held to an identical standard.  And in the enterprise in question – and virtually all enterprises I can currently think of – that inescapable standard is invariably…

The “Bottom Line.”

Everyone passionately wants their projects to get made.  I sure did.  But, unless you are super-wealthy and can bankroll them yourself, the decision as to whether that project will ultimately see the light of day lies in the hands of others, those “others” being people – because it’s their job – who make “best possible guess” assessments as to whether your beloved project is something the moviegoing (or TV-watching) audience will want, in requisite numbers, to see.  (William Goldman observed “Nobody knows anything.”  These folks have to pretend at least that he’s wrong.)

Call me no “Naysayer”, however.  I am not telling you to abandon ideas you are intensely committed to because they do not neatly conform to an “audience friendly” template.  (Because they are “off the wall”, or “a downer”, or they attack acceptable social norms, or they are too culturally specific or excessively violent.)

What I am saying is,

Stay true to what you believe in.  But,

Before going into a meeting….

Or putting your faith in a boycott – although if you think it will change things, go for it…

Think, in hardheadedly practical terms,

About the business you have selected,

And your best shot at ultimate success.

1 comment:

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Here's the thing. You can only buy tickets to things that have gotten made. Which comes first, the ticket-buyer or the greenlighter? Modern greenlighters prefer to greenlight things that have been successful in the past - so we get a lot of stuff that's formulaic. They don't take risks.

There's a reason so much talent is fleeing to venues like Netflix, Amazon, et al. and why network ratings continue to drop. William Goldman also talked about the increasing dearth of movies for grown-ups. While he was writing that book, Alan Alda's THE FOUR SEASONS, indubitably aimed at grown-ups, was released and became a big success. The way the Hollywood moguls explained that to Goldman? "It's a non-recurring phenomenon."

George Bernard Shaw observed that "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself." My sense is that you're a reasonable man. There's value in that. But there's also great value in being unreasonable enough to demand change.