Chris Rock with the Black Power fist at the Oscars
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Next year’s Oscars will probably be pretty white again

Oscars 2016 is wrapped, and it was a night of surprises (both thrilling and disappointing). Of course, the topic of the night, which host Chris Rock hammered into oblivion, was the lack of diversity shown in the acting categories. In the red carpet interviews before the show, most of the black actors were asked about the issue of diversity. It’s a hot button topic.

And we’re probably going to be talking about it again next year.

Is it too early to start predicting the next Oscars? Not really. We already know what the slate for this year’s movies will be. Many of them have already wrapped filming. We know the films by the most likely suspects, and we can take some educated guesses. One guess that’s pretty solid is that we won’t see a lot of diversity at the awards simply because there won’t be that many movies with non-white lead casts.

There are a number of movies already getting some light Oscar buzz. I’m sure you haven’t heard about them yet, but they are anticipated movies with big name directors, writers, and actors. They are also pretty much all white: Sully, The Founder (Michael Keaton taking another shot at Oscar gold), War Machine, The Light Between Oceans, The BFG, Manchester By the Sea, Nocturnal Animals, La La Land, Passengers, Florence Foster Jenkins (maybe another win for Meryl), and Story of Your Life (although it has a potentially strong African-American role played by Forest Whitaker, it’s most likely not gonna set him up for another Oscar).

There are two films that are getting the most Oscar buzz at this early stage. Martin Scorsese, that giant of film, has Silence coming out this year and it’s already an Oscar favorite. It stars Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield as Jesuit Portuguese Catholic priests looking for their mentor (Liam Neeson) in Japan and spreading the teachings of Christianity along the way, despite being met with violent opposition.

Although the novel the movie is based on was written by a Japanese man (who was Catholic), the lead stars of the film are all white. The “ancillary” cast of Japanese actors are mostly in roles without any character names (“Interpreter”, “Christian Villager”, “Buddhist Priest”, etc.). There’s a good chance this movie will put up a lot of Oscar candidates in multiple categories, but none of them will be Asian.

Still shot from Silence

Still shot from Silence

Oscar winner Ang Lee will have a chance to add to his collection with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a dramedy about an infantryman who recounts the final hours before he and his fellow soldiers return to Iraq. It stars Vin Diesel, taking a shot at a more serious role. Vin identifies as a person of color. His (white) mom says that through his bio-dad he has “connections to many different cultures” so…I guess we can claim him if he gets nominated? But that nomination might prove tricky; we’ve yet to see if Mr. Diesel can act at the Oscar level.

But, besides Ang Lee (who has been the lone standard bearer for Asians at the Oscars for a while) and a movie that takes place in Japan but won’t feature any prominent Japanese roles, East Asians won’t have much visibility in Oscar type films this year.

But we might have a shot at an Indian actor nom. Lion stars our Slumdog Millionaire hero Dev Patel. The movie is produced by The Weinstein Co., one of the most powerful forces in Hollywood, and also stars Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara. If Dev can break out and own this movie, it might get him some attention.

How about our Hispanic brothers and sisters? Alejandro Iñárritu has represented Mexico very well for the past couple of years but he doesn’t have a film out this year. Benicio del Toro is in Weightless (another early Oscar fave), a film chock full of white Oscar winners and nominees (Fassbender, Bale, Mara, Blanchett, Portman). But it’s not clear that his role will have any punch in an ensemble cast that noteworthy. Javier Bardem may have an outside chance at a nom with The Last Face but it’s certainly not drumming up Oscar buzz at the moment.

Oscar Isaac (yes, he’s Guatemalan! His real last name is Hernandez) stars with Christian Bale in The Promise which is a historical love triangle written and directed by an Oscar winner. All those factors could add up to Oscar bait, and perhaps the best chance we have of a Latino nomination in the acting category (Oscar is a fantastic actor who is seemingly in everything these days and he should be).

That leaves us with the African American possible nominees. Here, things get a little controversial. The early buzz is going to The Birth of a Nation, a film about the Nat Turner slave uprising. At the Sundance Film Festival, it won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, and Fox Searchlight bought worldwide rights to the film for $17.5 million (a Sundance record).

But Sundance success doesn’t often lead to Oscar Gold, and the topic of race both helps and hurts this movie. It is at times a violent film and, as a slave uprising, much of that violence is black people killing white people in some war-movie type scenes. Add to that the very purposeful link to the 1915 KKK propaganda film that has the same title, and this is a heavily political film in a heavily political time. Politics aside, there may also be some execution issues. While the movie is enjoying critical acclaim (95% positive on Rotten Tomatoes), even favorable reviews describe it as sometimes “heavy-handed” and “uneven”. Still, with all the hype (both commercial and critical) if this film doesn’t at the very least get a Best Picture nom, things will get ugly.

The 2016 Birth of a Nation will be a hot topic this year.

The 2016 Birth of a Nation will be a hot topic this year.

One wild card is Richard Pryor: Is it Something I Said?: a Richard Pryor biopic directed by Lee Daniels (executive producer of Empire and director of Precious and The Butler). It stars Oprah, Eddie Murphy, Kate Hudson, and….Mike Epps?!? Yes, Epps is taking on the heavy responsibility of bringing Richard Pryor to life in film. Mike is a capable comedian and I don’t want to doubt him, but he’ll have a lot to prove here. If he can do it, he would have earned an Oscar nom.

But it might be more likely that Eddie Murphy outshines him as Richard’s intense father, or even Oprah as Richard’s beloved grandmother. Regardless, Richard Pryor’s off color comedy and his history of abusing everything could make this another controversial film that might be too divisive.

Personally, I’m favoring two films at the other end of the spectrum: Hidden Figures and Queen of Katwe. Hidden Figures tells the true story of a group of African-American women who provided NASA with important mathematical data needed to launch the program’s first successful space missions. It portrays minority women owning math and putting people into space. And it’s true. It happened, but it’s in nobody’s history books. It’s a story I’m dying to see.

Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer are already slated to star, and other big names have been rumored like Viola Davis and, of course, Oprah. The script (adapted from the book of the same name) was written by a woman, and the film has a female cinematographer. It would be an amazing Oscar pick for so many reasons (assuming it’s actually good, which remains to be seen).

But there’s a problem: it’s slated for a January 2017 wide release and hasn’t even finished casting yet, let alone started filming. While the wide release can be solved with a limited release in late December (just like American Sniper pulled off), if there are any production snafus this might get pushed back and miss the Oscar eligibility period.

I also like Queen of Katwe starring Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo. And it’s directed by an Indian woman! (Mira Nair). It tells the (true but Hollywood-ized) story of a young girl from Uganda who trains to become a national chess champion. It is the perfect underdog story and has a talented cast and crew behind it, but it is still a chess movie, and it’ll be difficult to make that interesting (we haven’t had a big chess movie since Searching for Bobby Fischer at the ’94 Oscars for Best Cinematography).

With all that said, these movies aren’t out to general audiences yet (some of them aren’t even finished yet) and their Oscar worthiness is still unknown. But hopefully you’re interested in these movies now, and you’ll look out for them and maybe even watch them, and possibly even like (or love) them and spread the word so that others can find them as well. Oscar movies tend to be small films with tiny marketing budgets so if we really want diversity in that field, we as viewers need to go seek out the films that are out there. History has repeatedly shown that nobody (especially not the Academy) is going to do that work for us.

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A writer’s take on #OscarsSoWhite

Yes, this is one more post about the lack of diversity in the Oscars. But, hopefully, this one will bring some perspective you haven’t considered before.

Last night I engaged in a spirited debate on Reddit about the merits of the #OscarsSoWhite movement. I think I changed a lot of minds, judging by the number of upvotes. So I want to put those thoughts on a broader medium, and hopefully arm others with the points they can use to win their own arguments.

As a writer myself, I create casts of characters that reflect the world at large. Diversity is one of my main themes, because that is the world I see when I go outside and live in the rich metropolis that is LA. But, sadly, many creators here fail to translate these multicultural gifts into their work.

So we know there is a deeply disappointing lack of diversity in the Oscars again. But what’s the cause? How do we fix it? Is this hashtag movement even doing anything?

Let’s try to answer those questions by responding to the most common retorts to the movement.

Don’t blame the Oscar voters; blame the industry

This ignores who the Oscar voters are; they ARE the industry. This isn’t the press or fans voting. These are people who worked (or are currently working) in the industry. Top of their field. The Producers Guild of America (PGA) membership overlaps most with the Academy’s. These are people who have the ability, resources, and influence to help get more minorities into film. They are the exact people you’d want to lobby.

And, unfortunately, they are overwhelmingly white (94%), old (62 and up), and male (74%).

Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being an old white guy. The world needs old white guys. But when such an important body that is supposedly curating the best film contributions of all groups is overwhelmingly comprised of just one group, it leads to a lack of diverse perspective that can appreciate a film or script or actor outside the Oscar “norm”.

There weren’t enough “black” movies out there that warranted nomination

Putting aside the problem with designating a movie as “black” or “white”, this statement just isn’t true.

Just a few of the critically lauded films with majority black casts that were eligible for Oscar noms:

  • Dope
  • Tangerine
  • Chi-raq
  • Girlhood – French film, critically acclaimed (96% on RottenTomatoes), yet never made it to the conversation for best foreign language film (because France submitted Mustang, a similarly reviewed film about pale Turkish girls, unlike Girlhood which is all dark black girls. Just sayin’).

And it’s not just “black” movies here. It doesn’t have to be black movies. Latinos and Asians do make movies too.

Me, Earl, and the Dying girl – diverse cast, won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize AND the Sundance Audience Award, directed by a Latino. No Oscar love.

Yeah, but those movies you mentioned didn’t make a lot of money. Nobody saw them

I hear this argument often, and it’s somewhat valid for the industry as a whole, however when it comes to the Oscars it falls apart for one simple reason:

It’s only very recently that many Oscar nominated movies did well at the box office, and even today, a lot of them don’t.

Take Birdman for instance. It was far, far from a box office smash. The only reason it did as well as it did was BECAUSE of the Oscar buzz. It was one of the lowest-grossing Best Picture winners ever.

The Artist grossed less than 50 mil in box office but it beat out The Help for Best Picture (which did very well, grossing 177.5 million, proving that black women can indeed bring in both money and award recognition if you cast them)

Children of Men? Nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, and Editing. Ho hum at the box office (widely considered a commercial flop).

The Hurt Locker hadn’t even cleared 15 million at the box office until the Oscar buzz started.

So it’s safe to say a lot of people didn’t see a lot of Oscar movies, or were even aware of them until they started getting Oscar buzz. And that’s okay; the Oscars aren’t supposed to be about who made the most money.

But a big part of the discrepancy that is very important in the spirit of #OscarsSoWhite is that movies without majority white casts aren’t getting the “Oscar bump” that pulls them out of obscurity, like so many other movies got (including last year’s best picture winner Birdman).

Yeah but black movies specifically don’t make money unless they’re stupid comedies and that’s why the industry doesn’t make them

Oh really?

  • Creed: 181 million box
  • Straight Outta Compton: 200 Million Box office
  • 42: 97 million
  • The Butler: 116 million domestic alone

I could go on.

Okay, so what’s the deal? Why aren’t more minorities getting roles in these movies

This is the most important question, and there are many theories. Here’s mine.

I live in LA (I can actually go outside, look up, and see the Hollywood sign), and I am dipping my toe into the screenwriting businesses. There is a strong culture of “default white”. Meaning that UNLESS you very specifically make a character a certain ethnicity, the producers and casting directors will just default to white.

And it’s not just me saying this. The ScriptNotes podcast (led by screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin) is arguably the most famous and influential podcast on Hollywood filmmaking. They covered this very problem in their 180th episode where they had guest Aline Brosh Mckenna (who wrote The Devil Wears Prada).

Quote from the transcript:

John: And I want to go back to something you said earlier. If you don’t stipulate that a person is a certain — is not white –

Aline: Yes.

John: That person will be white. And that’s the thing I sort of found again and again as you sort of go through the casting. So I do that thing what you talk about where I will deliberately give a person, you know, a Chinese last name so that they will look at Chinese actors for that part, because if you don’t do that, the default just tends to become white.

That doesn’t mean that casting directors are racist. In fact a lot of them are quite nice, open-minded people. But they’re working in a world that has been traditionally white, largely because it was allowed to be that way for so long. Every art looks to what came before for inspiration, but in the case of Hollywood cinema the past was lily white because nobody else was allowed to play.

Additionally, a lot of these people grew up in WASPy environments with not a lot of diversity. So they stick to what they know, and everything ends up default white, until you challenge them on it.

Perhaps the best example I can think of here is the casting of Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon. Marion Dougherty, legendary casting director who blazed trails in her own right as a woman, read the Lethal Weapon script and talked with director Richard Donner. And the convo went something like this:

Marion: “What about Danny Glover?”

Donner: “But he’s black!”

Marion: “So what, he’s black. He can act. The script doesn’t say anything about Murtaugh’s race.”

To his credit, Donner had an epiphany, questioned his own prejudices, and cast Glover (and became good friends with him). Donner talks about this in a speech he gave awarding Glover some award (I can’t find it now, but it’s in the great movie Casting By).

Moral of the story: nothing changes if we don’t call it out consistently and vocally. Many times people aren’t even really aware of what they’re doing, or they’re working off of outdated beliefs about what can work in the industry.

As long as we keep calling the industry out on it, things will change. We need more Marion Dougherty’s.

*header image courtesy of Lee and Low books (blog.leeandlow.com)

Ida
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Movie Review: Ida

One of the Oscar categories that Americans routinely do not “get” is the Foreign Language film. Mainstream audiences typically hate subtitles, and they really hate stories they can’t relate to. The cinema sensibilities of Europe, South America, and Asia don’t always cleanly translate to those of us used to Hollywood structure, and Ida is sadly just the latest film fitting the trend. Ida is black and white, slow, takes place in Poland, and has very little music. For all those reasons, it was destined to be a movie not many people saw. But it is a beautiful film nonetheless, and one worth watching mainly because of its cinematography.

To be honest, I found it a little hard to watch Ida all the way through. At one hour and 22 minutes run-time it’s not even a long movie, but its slow pace makes it feel like it’s dragging along. Much of that is due to the film’s remarkable lack of sound. There’s little dialogue, and hardly any music. But this is not the kind of movie you watch for thrills and excitement.

Where Ida really shines is in its visual storytelling, but it doesn’t use expensive CGI or rich colorful landscapes. Director Pawel Pawlikowski pulls off the amazing feat of making the ordinary look stunning. He takes simple, drab settings that most of us would not pay any attention to and he puts them in a different perspective that finds astonishing beauty in mundane surroundings.

Ida GIF

I like directors who try to make their movies so beautiful that each shot is a work of art, and Ida is that kind of movie. From beginning to end, you can take a random moment in the film, print it, stick on the wall of an art exhibit, and pass it off as the work of a master photographer. That’s what makes this film truly special. The story isn’t much, and it’s certainly not going to leave you with any good feelings when the end credits roll, but you will definitely remember the images which tell a story far behind the sparse words in the script.

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This post is part of my Oscars 2015 series, where I review/discuss movies up for that coveted golden trophy. Check out the first post in the series, my review of Birdman

Birdman screencap
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Movie Review: Birdman

I finally somehow created the time to see Birdman at an odd time on a weekday. I can see why it’s getting so much recent award love. The first hour gave me a revealing and intimate perspective on the craft of acting that I haven’t seen before. The second hour focuses on flawed people trying to deal with reality; an ironic tale of what’s it like to try to have a real life when you’re a professional pretender. I can see why some critics wouldn’t be great fans of it, but I can also see why people in “the biz” love it. To really understand why the movie is suddenly gaining Oscar momentum for the coveted Best Picture award, you have to understand the interesting, insular town where all this voting is done.

I recently moved from the west side of LA to Hollywood, just a couple blocks away from the Dolby Theater where the Oscars will be held. Even before I made the move, there was a feeling that you just can’t escape the movie business here. It permeates everything. Several true stories from my time here in LA:

  • Ran into Jamie Lee Curtis at the grocery store
  • Went to my mom’s place and there was a film crew setting up shop outside
  • Overhead the manager at the Chipotle off Hollywood and Vine saying he actually went to (and finished) film school
  • Was walking home and a guy was on his cell phone encouraging the person on the other end of the line that yes, they really did have what it takes to be a showrunner

The last 3 items happened just in the past three days. This city breathes and bleeds the performing arts, and the basic building blocks of film and theater are the actors/actresses who make it all look like magic when it’s actually often incredibly difficult and draining.

Although Birdman is set in New York’s theater scene, the story has many Hollywood connections (the lead character is a former Hollywood star trying his hand at “important” work in theater, and trying to get other Hollywood actors on board but they’re too busy). Actors are actors whether they’re on a stage or a set. And the people who live and work with the actors are just as much a part of the process even though you never see them. Birdman is a genuine look at not only the process of professional make believe, but also the people who get ground up in the gears of the acting machine either directly or indirectly. Those voters at the Screen Actors Guild and Producers Guild and “The Academy” are all in “the biz”. When they see this movie they probably see a part of their own lives, and sometimes it’s in an unflattering light but it’s always genuine.

Of course, Birdman has many other things going for it. The actors are fantastic. The script is punchy and surprising. The direction is outstanding and incredibly detailed. The approach of doing the film all in one big “single shot” sequence also makes the film seem simultaneously real and also surreal. And the driving drum beat in the background of the major scenes, while jarring at first, keeps the viewer alert and in the moment.

It is a skillfully crafted film, but its greatest strength in this award season is that it is a skillfully crafted film about the craft that all the voters have committed their lives to supporting in one way or another.

2014: The Year in Stories
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2014: The year in storytelling

I’m a writer. I tell stories. So, much of my perspective of the world is through a lens focused on how we mere human beings reach for the divine through our fiction, the stories we tell of what might be instead of what is. While a popular thing to do this week is lament all the political and social strife that have left their mark on our minds and hearts, I want to take a moment to be a bit contrarian and talk about how 2014 was a great year for the art of storytelling.

Movies fell in love with science, and scientists

Interstellar, The Theory of Everything, and The Imitation Game sold audiences on hard science and engineering, and the very human stories behind the people who make it all happen. In a time when so many people feel that America is falling into an age of anti-intellectualism, this was a huge and welcome trend.

Comic book stories on the big and small screens aren’t as much about superheroes; un-super heroes shone too

The comic book industry has long provided a treasure trove for the movie industry, but this year so a little departure from focus on the guys with crazy powers and focused on the heroes who can’t fly, don’t have super strength, and don’t have healing factors. Gotham took Batman out of the Batman story and mostly focused on the crazy but fascinating crime drama of Gotham city, sticking to a simple formula of cops vs. robbers. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D Season 2 mostly did away with the superhero stories from season 1 and focused on the human team and how they had to use tech, smarts, and guts to win the day. And the blockbuster comic movie of the year, Guardians of the Galaxy, stars a guy who is pretty much your average bro (despite being half alien).

The book industry didn’t change much, which is maybe a good thing

Although we did see some big battles among publishers over digital distribution, and there were some experiments that may change the future of how people pay for books and how authors get paid, for the most part the year in fiction books was pretty similar to previous years, with young adult stories selling well but also big names like King, Grisham, and Murakami topping the charts. And we also saw the continuation of a trend that should surprise no one: movies sell books more than anything else.

As Variety notes:

Nine of the 10 top selling books of the year were tied into a film adaptation or film franchise of some kind, with various publications of John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” first published in 2012, occupying three of the 10 slots. The success of Green’s novel and its film adaptation, which earned more than $300 million in global box office this year, propelled his 2007 title “Looking for Alaska” into the tenth spot, marking the only standalone, non-film-related novel on the book list.

2014 saw some changes in the storytelling industry, and trends are starting to shift. But most important of all is the recognition that we DO still have a thriving storytelling industry that uses fiction to help us gain perspective on reality.

Epic Fantasy ebook collection
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Fantasy eBook sale – 14 books for a buck

It’s the holidays, and that means publishers and authors (including me) are offering all kinds of crazy deals to get their books into brand new ereaders. Indie author Lindsay Buroker posted on her blog an epic fantasy ebook bundle sale that includes FOURTEEN fantasy novels. I just bought it myself, and it’s a great way to discover a number of new authors and new books in one shot for a great price. You can find the bundle at the above link, and get it for Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and Apple

Dance Central 3 keeps the hits coming

I love the Dance Central franchise. The dance video game genre has given console gaming an extra boost and built upon the casual gaming trend that the Wii started, but the cream of the crop is Dance Central 3. It’s still the best showcase for the technology in the Kinect, and now it’s also the latest platform for Usher to showcase his dance moves.

That’s right, Usher wasn’t satisfied with merely having his songs in the previous versions of Dance Central, he had to take it to the next level and actually be IN the game. As executive producer, he lent his voice to the games tutorial feature, added real choreography directly from his videos, and even jumped into the motion capture suit and imported his signature moves into the game. The result, along with all the lessons the development team learned from the previous two games, is a polished package that gets the sweat dripping and is without a doubt THE party game of this holiday season.

Also, it has the best video game commercial of the year: