I hear the Oscar news on mass media for the fifth time today: All of the actor nominees for the Academy Awards 2016 are white. And I’m about to go on with my Powerball-losing life as normal, but this thought keeps me up at night. #OscarSoWhite. It disturbs me. It reopens a wound. It reminds me of that dead-end, prohibitive sentence of my 20s, no unsolicited submissions.
I went to film school at UCLA in the early 2000s. I was one of 32 students proudly accepted into a very competitive and prestigious program, The School of Theater, Film and Television at UCLA. At that time, over 1,600 students had applied and only 32 made it in, me included. The class was diverse. A nearly 50/50 split of males and females, racially mixed. UCLA fulfilled my every creative art school fantasy, replete with delirious late-night editing sessions knee-deep in reels of actual film, cavorting through the campus with an Éclair — the Super 16 camera, not the doughnut.
Breaking into the business is tough. I thought getting into UCLA was hard, but once I left, full of I’m-going-to-be-a-director chipperness that I’m sure grated on every person I interned with, I realized I’d barely scratched the surface of the pearly gates into Hollywood. I dove into reality television to pay the bills and dabbled with a short film here and there, submissions to every film festival I could find on Withoutabox, and hacked out a few screenplays. It was fun, but I never got much attention for my work. I did have one break: a five-minute short film that I wrote and directed made it onto a PBS shorts festival a few years back. But that’s it. It’s a difficult pill to swallow, but I moved on to other creative pursuits.
It’s hard for anyone with a creative vision to make it in Hollywood, regardless of race or gender or sexual orientation. There are two elements required for success, a solid product and your network. You must present quality, marketable work, but above all, you must know people hooked into making sales — the dealmakers. Meeting this elite group of people in Hollywood is nearly impossible. Getting your material in front of an agent or executive producer’s eyes is like winning the lottery. And beyond that, you have mere seconds to impress. If you don’t, that opportunity is gone.
This year’s buzz about the lack of diversity in Hollywood has struck a nerve with me, and I can’t help but be reminded about my place swimming as a hopeless bottom-feeder in the proverbial Hollywood food chain. (I can say this with dignity because my priorities are quite different in my 30s than they were in my 20s.)
How does a racial outsider break into an industry that is so difficult to get into in the first place? There are hundreds of talented people with amazing scripts who won’t ever have their material produced, not because they’re shitty people, or have some random thing wrong with their story, its because there simply isn’t enough time and money and resources for all that work to be produced and distributed.
And finally, how do you get an industry to sift through this material to find Oscar-worthy stories about diverse characters, by diverse directors and writers and producers? To ultimately be acted by diverse actors?
I think I know the answer: Agents, producers, studios, I ask, no I beg you to change one simple sentence in your business model. Think about creating a way to make it so that this single, damning sentence can free a group of people who don’t have referrals, connections, or name-brand recognition:
NO UNSOLICITED SUBMISSIONS.
I have few, no, zero expectations from this industry. I’m happy doing the story producing work I do in reality television and the creative writing I do in my free time and between jobs. I’ve let the dream of being a badass big-time director — a female, Asian-American Quentin Tarantino, if you will — shift a little lower down in my list of priorities.
But the disconnect I recall throughout my brief directing career is access. It’s easier for me to pitch a reality show featuring a multi-racial family who sells houses in Compton to immigrants than pitching a multi-racial romantic comedy. I should know, I worked on House Hunters for four years and HGTV does a great job with diversity*. I should also mention HGTV is lucrative and successful, the inclusion of minorities has not harmed their profit margins. When a multi-racial rom-com is produced, leave it to Hollywood to bungle it. Apparently Cameron Crowe couldn’t stomach the idea of casting a mixed Asian actress to play a mixed Asian character in Aloha, instead casting Emma Stone. Fox may take a $65 million loss on that box office bomb**.
Barring the legal issue of idea-theft claims (a real problem, I know), it seems like the fear in the industry is that if access is granted, there will be an unstoppable flood of material coming in, too much to read, too many people to meet, too many short films to watch, too many different points of view to consider, and perhaps not enough time and money to handle any of it. There are boats to sail people! Tesla’s that need to be purchased! Why would any successful white male producer need to care about anyone else’s point of view?
Films begin with an idea, a script. Films are written, budgeted and greenlighted months, even years before an actor steps foot on set. The hashtag #OscarSoWhite demands more than just diverse Academy nominations in the acting category.
#OscarSoWhite demands access. It requires more work to be done by the influencers in Hollywood. It also reflects a potentially unmet need in the marketplace. I’m not an expert, but I get the resistance. These movies cost buckets of money to be made and distributed. But I also have full faith that talented agents and innovative producers can spot moneymaking scripts and nurture moneymaking directors from diverse backgrounds.
It can be done.
The material needs to be written, it needs to be read, and it needs to be considered in the bigger picture of our broad cultural makeup that we can honor together.
Dear agents, dear producers, dear studio executives, and dear Academy, please make it so.
That girl, that young 20-something wannabe directress is gone. But the wound is still there.
Catherine Oyster produces unscripted television for Food Network and writes for her blog detoxwitch.com. Tweet her questions about banishing toxins from your home environment @catherineoyster. Catherine lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their pet box turtle, Dexter.