The diversity issue within the context of the Oscars nominations is a hot button topic that has caught the country’s imagination over the past week. The passionate discussion has made some impact with the Academy recently announcing a new diversity initiative to help address this glaring issue. The focus of the conversation has extended from the habits and demographics of the voting members of the Academy to the sharp insight from Wesley Morris who astutely points out the institutional racism found in studio campaigns for their Oscars contenders. I agree with and support these assessments, but there is a far more fundamental issue that both exists as a cause for these Oscars missteps and greatly reflects the prevailing attitude towards Black film in America. That issue is lack of access to capital.
I immediately acknowledge that securing funding for a film for many filmmakers across the board is an incredibly tough task. This process is even more difficult for filmmakers who reside outside of the mainstream, which for the purpose of this post is defined as white, heterosexual males. And to be clear, this is not meant to bash or pile on mainstream filmmakers. The intent is to discuss why there isn’t more of a representative balance of stories that are being made, supported and marketed to the American public.
If you look at the the roster of Black films that have been at Sundance over the last few years you will notice a theme. None of these films have significant budgets. In fact, the majority, if not all, are made for under a million dollars. Some of these films are graduate school thesis films. If you look at the web series world, successful projects like Money and Violence are made on the cheap, but boast huge loyal audiences. The inane idea that there isn’t enough talent that can create strong films and engage audiences is simply not true. These projects are maximizing their potential with limited resources. So why don’t these filmmakers and others have the opportunity to secure larger budgets?
A lot of it comes down to the idea of the niche film. Many Black films aren’t viewed as a part of the everyday American experience. They aren’t viewed by some investors and studios as a common human experience. They’re viewed as the “other.” And when you are viewed as the “other” your marketing strategy is narrow, sales projections (domestic and especially international) are depressed and your perceived ability to make profit is limited. And if this is the prevailing perception of your film’s potential the chances of getting investments are slim. This is where the social and ethnic prejudice truly comes in. Instead of being treated as an expansion of the American storytelling canon, these films are placed in a box where an investor can say nobody wants to see them. As a result, many films don’t get the funding to be made and lose a chance to make an impact. The opportunity to go on a successful festival run, box office run or even an Oscars run is eliminated.
If the filmmaking community at large is truly interested in diversifying then we need to focus on ways to increase financial investments in diverse stories. This demands a fundamental shift in perception of non mainstream narratives. The talent is certainly there. When will the money be there?
P.S. Feel free to replace Black film with Latino film, Asian film, LGBT film, etc.