Why The Oscars Are Less White This Year

Hidden figures poster

The Oscar nominations were announced this week and for the first time in a few years, they didn’t look quite so monochromatic. Much has been made of the fact that the Oscars don’t tend to reflect the populace, and what that says about both the Academy and the film industry itself. The #OscarsSoWhite campaign helped light a fire under the Academy in 2016, encouraging them to look for solutions and make adjustments to membership. Now, in the first year of the new, more diverse voter base, the slate of nominees looks noticeably more diverse as well.

Before going further in this piece, it should be noted that #OscarsSoWhite isn’t over simply because this year’s nominee slate looks less monochromatic than usual. It's nice that there were a record number of six Black actors nominated (Denzel Washington, Mahershala Ali, Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis, Naomie Harris, Ruth Negga) to go along with Dev Patel’s Supporting Actor nomination (the seventh Asian actor ever to be nominated), Bradford Young (second Black person to be nominated in Cinematography), Joi McMillan (first African American editor) and four films focused on non-white protagonists in Best Picture.

However, as the hashtag’s creator April Reign mentioned in a recent interview with the LA Times, these stats just make the Oscars blacker, and there’s room for more representation among other demographics, like the Latino community, LGBTQA, and disabled actors. And of course, one year alone is not indicative of a trend; next year, the Oscar nominations could be right back to the way they were beforehand.

So, how then did the Academy produce its unusually inclusive nominees this year? There are four main factors.

More Films in Contention

Fences (2016) - Denzel Washington and Viola Davis

Perhaps the biggest key to the Oscars having a more diverse, by Academy standards, lineup of critically acclaimed films compared to years past. Even though the new film year has started and Sundance 2017 is currently in full swing in Park City, Utah, it wasn’t so long ago that The Birth of a Nation was selling for $21 million in last year’s festival, setting the stage that at least one film that majorly driven by a minority would be in contention.

As 2016 went on, the Oscar race saw films like Moonlight, Hidden Figures, Fences, Loving, Lion, 20th Century Women, and Jackie all make their case for inclusion. The field this year was more interesting on the diversity front and as such, allows more films to be in contention.

Taking a peek back at last year, by the end only Straight Outta Compton and Creed had a chance to “diversify” the Oscars. The year before that it was pretty much just Selma. On law of averages alone, this year should have, and did yield more nominees because of the amount of films in the mix. Even with The Birth of a Nation falling by the wayside before it even opened, it didn’t have the weight of being the sole film to battle the #OscarsSoWhite bias.

Bona Fide Hits

Hidden Figures Movie

Hollywood is a business first and foremost, and there’s no more sure way to land a Best Picture nomination than to be a hit film that’s in Oscar’s wheelhouse. That last part is important because despite making billions of dollars, superhero films are nowhere near cracking the Best Picture lineup (they will show up in the tech categories like when Doctor Strange picked up VFX). However, where critical acclaim and commerce align, you will most certainly find your nominees.

The likelihood of a film like Cleopatra, which lost a ton of money, making it into a Best Picture lineup these days is slim to none. In fact, in the past 10 years, the Oscars have awarded Best Picture to films that have made $450 million (The King’s Speech) and $406 million (Slumdog Millionaire).

No film nominated for Best Picture this year has made over $100 million yet, so there’s no blockbuster to be had, but almost all of these nominees have decent to great return on investments. The diverse films that made this year’s lineup include Hidden Figures, which has so far grossed $83.7 million on a $24 million production budget, and Fences, which has doubled its production budget so far. Thos

At the rate Hidden Figures is going, it will probably cross $100 million sometime next week, especially given the extra buzz that is usually generated by one or more Oscar nominations. That film used the American Sniper method of success by opening in NY/LA for the required weak and positioning itself as a good movie amongst the frozen tundra of January releases.

Moonlight’s, meanwhile, grossed just short of $16 million - a number that might look small, but is in the top 50 of dollars-per-screen average of all time. Moreover, neither Moonlight nor Lion (which has so far grossed $16.5 million) have gone wide in a traditional sense. Both were released in fewer than 650 theaters, as compared to Hidden Figures which is in 3,417 theaters across the country. However, all of these films have made their budgets back, which is a crucial element for strong Oscar consideration, and Moonlight and Lion may yet see a wider release (Arrival, another big hit among the nominees is getting a theatrical re-release).

Critical Acclaim and Guild Support

Moonlight - Alex Hibbert and Mahershala Ali

If one were to take a guess as to which film racked up the most critical awards this year, La La Land would probably be the first title to come to mind. In actuality, however, Moonlight leads the way with over 90 critics groups and precursor wins. The extent to with which critics can affect an Oscar race varies each year, but there might be a shifting in the tide after the critic hype started the ball rolling to get Mad Max: Fury Road in last year.

Critics had a major impact on the documentary race, as well as their advocacy of movies like I Am Not Your Negro, and the argument that O.J.: Made in America belonged in the film race rather than TV one. Diverse films such as Moonlight rely even more so on critical word of mouth to establish themselves as being as extraordinary as the other films, regardless of who the protagonists are or what they look like.

Furthermore, just like the other films in the race, these films established themselves as contenders with strong guild support. In the Oscar race, following the guilds is the best way to predict and figure out what the Oscars will go with as their broad tastes, overlapping voting bodies, and - in the case of the Producers Guild Awards - a similar preferential ballot to the Oscars all help to sort through the tea leaves. All of this year’s Best Picture nominees were nominated for a PGA award, so it’s not surprising to see Moonlight, Hidden Figures, Lion, and Fences doing well with the Academy.

Riding the Wave of a Great Year

Mahershala Ali Cottonmouth Luke Cage

All of the above were factors that would enable films to be in contention, but performances are a different beast. Actors need the narrative as much as they need the objective view of their performance being good.

If you’ve been following the Oscar race, at least tangentially, you'll know that Viola Davis has been in contention this whole year. Taking a closer look at how that nomination came about and it’s the perfect marriage of performance and narrative. She’s great in the film and has been nominated as a debatable lead in a supporting category (similar to Dev Patel in Lion). Viola Davis has also just become the most-nominated African-American actress ever with this, her third nomination (and all but locked win).

To put this into perspective, Jennifer Lawrence had four nominations and a win before she turned 25, and was the fast ever to four nominations. There's nothing wrong with Lawrence being rewarded for good work but she does have more nominations than any Black actress in history. These type of storylines really aid in a campaign.

Also, it’s very hard for the Oscars to ignore you when you’ve had a great year as an actor. There are few actors who had a better year in 2016 than Mahershala Ali, with his great understated work in Moonlight coming on the heels of his brilliant turns in Luke Cage, House of Cards and his appearance in Hidden Figures. Each of those performances helped propel him forward to his nomination, and have him sitting very pretty to win the Supporting Actor Oscar.

These four factors are what can be pointed to as how the Oscar nominations shaped up this year. Next year might be a different story, but for now the nominees are refreshingly diverse.

The 89th Academy Awards ceremony will take place on February 26th, 2017.

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