Rebecca Keegan has a smart piece up at Vanity Fair where she walks through some of the ways Hollywood is still dealing with the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that erupted a few years ago. She covers how a slate of films could lead to a much more diverse list of nominees this year and how changing demographics are forcing studios to make adjustments in their campaign tactics.
I can’t help but view that in light of the recent news AMPAS was meeting in part to decide what constituted a “real” movie that qualified for awards consideration. With Amazon winning more accolades for its original or acquired films and Netflix becoming a distribution powerhouse, attracting major talent, AMPAS wants to make sure not just any film can compete on the Oscars level with those from a major studio. The issue is one of distribution playing a key role in the definition, which is a mindset that’s soon (if it isn’t already) going to horribly outdated.
Providing a new focus are comments made by Mudbound director Dee Rees, who said those major studios seemed skeptical, if not afraid, of the movie, which deals with racial issues in the Jim Crow-dominated world of post-WWII Mississippi. It’s not the first time Rees has talked about how tentative studios were to tackle the material for a number of reasons, including the current political climate, the recent box-office failure of The Birth of A Nation and more.
Put that all together and you arrive at the following conclusion:
Distribution will play a key role in on-screen representation
It’s not just that Netflix, Amazon and others are playing the same role the wave of indie studios in the early 1990s did by opening up opportunities to filmmakers who would have otherwise been cut off. It’s that by doing so they’re also opening up more opportunities to a more inclusive and diverse group of voices. Because these distributors aren’t reliant on selling tickets at locations that are only available to a select group (often well-off white people), they can offer a platform to more non-white, non-male stars, writers and directors who can find an audience not dependent on location.
While AMPAS works to decide if movies financed or acquired by streaming platforms are “legitimate” enough or if such status is only for those films released primarily to theaters, its members need to consider how new distribution platforms play a role in defining diversity both onscreen and behind the scenes.
Not every Netflix or Amazon original film deserves an Academy Award. But neither does every film released in theaters. By using distribution as a criteria, though, it would go too far. Innovations in distribution are not only creating the technological future but they have the potential to create a social future as well, with bigger audiences exposed to stories involving and made people who look and think like them. On the other hand, it brings movies that would have slipped past people because they’re *not* meant to speak to them to their attention, allowing them to enjoy a new point of view. That’s sorely needed on many fronts.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.