Mind the Gap: Can Hollywood Do More to Support Underrepresented Filmmakers?

photo: a katz/shutterstock

photo: a katz/shutterstock

The saga of the Academy Foundation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' FilmCraft and FilmWatch grant programs provides an instructive look into how funders are working to boost diversity in a film space—and how much work still needs to be done.

Last month, the foundation announced 2018's winners, with grants ranging from $5,000-$15,000. I imagine none of the winners are complaining. But as is the case with most grant programs—and especially those in the historically underfunded film sector—some additional context is in order.

The folks who bring you the Oscars established FilmCraft and FilmWatch grants to "identify and empower future filmmakers from nontraditional backgrounds, cultivate new and diverse talent, promote motion pictures as an art form, and provide a platform for underrepresented artists."

In 2014, the academy temporary shelved the grants, plus its Film Scholar Fund, in order to properly determine which grants were most effective and how those grants tied in with the academy's focus on diversity, education, outreach, and mission. 

While it's fairly common for an organization to reevaluate the efficacy its grant offerings, the academy's suspension did not sit well with the larger film community. The Hollywood Reporter cited one film scholar who complained that the academy spent "more money on flower arrangements at the Governors Ball" (the academy's Oscars after-party) than on these important programs.

Defending the suspension, the academy’s Randy Haberkamp, managing director, preservation and foundation programs, said, "one of the insights from the (reevaluation process) is that the academy needed to communicate with itself better. We are responsible for the programs and we needed to ask ourselves, 'What is the cost?' It's more than just cutting a check."

Haberkamp considered the pause "a very smart decision to stand back. We have limited resources, and it was a good time to use those resources."

In 2015, the academy reinstituted the programs.

However, any positive PR the academy enjoyed thanks to the resumption was short-lived. The same year, people quickly realized that the 2015 Oscar nominees were mostly white. The #OscarsSoWhite campaign was born.

Fortunately, other funders have been more than willing to pick up the slack.

In 2015, George Lucas and his partner Mellody Hobson made a $10 million gift to support the "recruitment of talented USC School of Cinematic Arts students from communities that are underrepresented in the entertainment industry." Two years later, the couple donated another $10 million to the same program.

Other active funders concerned with supporting underrepresented filmmakers include the Adrienne Shelly Foundation, the Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation, New York Women in Film & Television, and the Sundance Institute.

Another important effort here has been the Color of Change's Hollywood Culture Project, which was launched in 2015 with the goal of "ensuring accurate, diverse, empathetic, and human portrayals of Black people on television and throughout the media landscape."

Fast forward to the present day. The list of 2018 Oscar nominees, which was far more diverse when compared to previous years, suggests that the efforts of advocates and funders have started to pay dividends. Still, as Color of Change executive director Rasheed Robinson said in March 2018:

While it’s been a remarkable year for Black people in film and television, we’ll know that Hollywood has achieved meaningful progress towards inclusion when it’s no longer noteworthy to see the Academy honor women of color or studios greenlight Black or brown-centered films... Real inclusion of Black people in Hollywood will require significant investments from decision makers across the industry to create new incentive systems for greater inclusion and representation of Black people. 

Of course, much the same thing could be said about women in Hollywood. The cold, hard metrics suggests there's still a long way to go on this front, too. 

A study from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that in 2017, women comprised 18 percent of directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and cinematographers working on the top 250 grossing films. This represents an increase of 1 percentage point from 17 percent in 2016, and is virtually even with the number achieved in 1998. 

If one can consider this "progress," it's frustratingly incremental at best.

I explored this reality in greater detail after USC refused Harvey Weinstein's $5 million pledge for its School of Cinematic Arts in the wake of his sexual assault allegations. The school—and the larger cinematic arts world—could have really used that money.

If anything, Weinstein's aborted pledge had the unintended effect of underscoring the striking disconnect between Hollywood's robust revenues and its relatively meager grant outlays for boosting diversity.

Earlier this year, the Walt Disney Company said it would donate $1 million of the proceeds from the hit movie Black Panther to STEM programs at the Boys & Girls Clubs of America "in a nod to one of the movie's key themes: how technology can empower young people from marginalized communities."

At the time of the announcement, the movie's total box office net stood just shy of $1 billion, prompting journalist Gene Debby to call the grant amount "a rounding error."

Disney's "rounding error" is even more perplexing once you consider that the company generated roughly $9 billion in net income in 2017. Meanwhile, the worldwide theatrical market had a box office of $38.6 billion in 2016, with revenues expected to increase to nearly $50 billion in 2020.

Bottom line? Hollywood is sitting on mountains of cash, yet just a few years ago, Randy Haberkamp, who works for the organizational embodiment of the U.S. film industry, cited "limited resources" while defending the temporary suspension of its grant program supporting underrepresented filmmakers.

Being the objective blogger that I am, I still wanted to give the academy the benefit of the doubt, so I attempted to corroborate the claim mentioned earlier that the academy spent more on flowers for its Oscars post-party than on grants boosting diversity.

While I couldn't find the line item budget for the actual flower arrangement, the Guardian pegged the total cost of the Governors Ball at $1.8 million. The price tag for the entire Oscars production was a cool $44 million.

According to the academy, it awarded a total of $500,000 in grants for the 2018-2019 funding year.