Proper Gander At The Movies: Red Carpet Campaigning
Over the years, film awards have become ever more politicised. It used to be that the occasional comment on an issue like the Iraq War would slip in to acceptance speeches, but recently, Golden Globe and Academy Awards ceremonies have been used as platforms for whole campaigns, focused more inwardly on the film and awards industries themselves.
When nominations for the 88th Academy Awards were announced in early 2016, there was some criticism that for the second consecutive year all twenty nominees in the acting categories were white. Social media buzzed with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite and several prominent film-makers called for the event to be boycotted. The following year, a record number of black actors were nominated. For 2018’s awards season, the issue of ethnic diversity was overshadowed by the sexual abuse scandal which broke last autumn. Over 80 women have come forward to accuse film producer Harvey Weinstein of abuse dating back to the 1970s. Weinstein denied any allegations of non-consensual sex, said he had gone into therapy, and hired a Public Relations firm which specialises in crisis management. At January’s Golden Globe Awards, many attendees showed solidarity with women suffering abuse by wearing black, and the hashtags #MeToo (used by people to say they have experienced sexual harassment) and #TimesUp (a campaign against sexual abuse and for gender parity) trended on social media. These campaigns were at the start of an explosion of abuse allegations, not only in the entertainment industry, but also in journalism, charities and parliament. There’s a widespread, strong feeling that abuse won’t be tolerated any longer, which the campaigners have the challenge of translating into cultural change.
Those who dared to dispute how the abuse scandal is being played out have faced a backlash in mainstream and social media. Actress Catherine Deneuve was the most prominent signatory of a French counter-campaign which criticised the current wave for conflating allegations of rape with clumsy attempts to seduce. She later apologised for causing any offence to abuse victims. Germaine Greer said that hashtag campaigns won’t work ‘because all the powerful men who are now in all sorts of trouble are already briefing their lawyers’ (1). Greer has hinted at an important point. While these campaigns might lead to some important measures, such as abuse survivors getting support and a sense of justice, they can’t change the power structures which led to perpetrators being in the position to manipulate and abuse others in the first place.
These structures are also the root cause of the other issues highlighted through recent awards ceremonies’ associated campaigns. While 2016 and 2017’s award seasons focused on ethnic diversity, 2018 also highlighted the lack of prominent women in the film industry. A study by San Diego State University of the staff behind last year’s 250 most popular films found that women comprised just 18% of senior behind-the-scenes roles (2). At the Academy Awards ceremony, Frances McDormand used her acceptance speech for the best actress gong to suggest increasing diversity with ‘inclusion riders’. A ‘rider’ is part of a contract in which someone can specify their own demands on a project, so an ‘inclusion rider’ would involve only agreeing to work on a project with a diverse talent pool. It’s yet to be seen how many film-makers will either attempt this or be influential enough to get what they want. The lack of female film-makers was reflected in the awards given; only six went to women, the lowest amount since 2012.
Decisions about who wins an Oscar are made by the 6,000-or-so members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. To become a member, you need to have been nominated for an award or be ‘sponsored’ by two existing members. In 2016, 683 newcomers joined, nearly half of whom were women and not white. Overall, Academy members were still largely white (89%) and male (73%), and the term ‘steak eaters’ has been used for the rump of white males with traditional values who have a heavy influence when films get nominated (3). Each November, the nominations process starts with what’s known as ‘the race’, when studios, distributors and publicists push their films to Academy members. The canniest distributors will have just released their movies, as most nominations go to films which come out in the last three months of the year. Members in each ‘branch’ of the industry vote for who they want nominated within their own trade, so costume designers vote for other costume designers, for example. This system means that decisions are made either by those with specialist skills best able to judge, or by a closed set of people who like back-slapping each other, depending on how you look at it. Many members would have a vested interest in films they or their pals have contributed to, whether practically or financially. Shortlists for each category are drawn up after the nominations are mysteriously weighted by auditors, then all members can vote for the winners in each category. So, whatever the identity of the Academy’s members, deciding who gets an Oscar is still a bit incestuous, with financial concerns never far away.
Challenging the disproportionately high number of white men in both the Academy and in senior roles in the film industry (among others) has been largely through the prism of identity politics. This is the approach where identity is seen as the key issue in how institutions function, rather than economic forces. The surface argument is that non-white, non-male talent has been held back by industry inertia weighted in favour of white males. Not enough discussion has centred on how this inertia is linked to profitability more than identity. Films produced by ‘steak eaters’ with a casting couch, whatever their faults, were profitable, and that’s what the studios’ owners are most interested in. Films with diverse casts and crew will flourish only if they can make a profit. Investors can be reassured by figures showing that Oscar-nominated films with a woman in the lead role are around 33% more profitable than those starring men. This is partly driven by American box office returns being 7% higher for female-led films, but more so because they tend to have lower budgets and therefore smaller overheads to eat into profits (4).
So, there probably will be greater diversity among film-makers in future, as the economic conditions are right. And of course it’s a good thing if more people have the opportunity to make movies, without expecting harassment or abuse. But they’ll be working in the same old profit-driven institutions, the same old power structures which enable discrimination and exploitation.