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Neither #OscarsSoWhite Nor #OscarsSoMale — What A Difference A Pandemic Makes

Clockwise from top left: Audra Day in <em>United States Vs. Billie Holiday, </em>Yuh-Jung Youn in<em> Minari, </em>Daniel Kaluuya in<em> Judas and the Black Messiah, Nomadland </em>director Chloé Zhao with Frances McDormand.
Clockwise from top left: Audra Day in <em>United States Vs. Billie Holiday, </em>Yuh-Jung Youn in<em> Minari, </em>Daniel Kaluuya in<em> Judas and the Black Messiah, Nomadland </em>director Chloé Zhao with Frances McDormand.

This past year of masks, lockdowns and capacity restrictions has been the most catastrophic 12 months in the history of movie theaters. It has also been a banner year for diversity at the Oscars.

Odd as this might seem, I suspect those two things are related — a matter of industry imperatives meeting cold hard cash. And as salutary as the diversity part is, it's going to take some work to make it permanent. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awards the Oscars, has signaled a willingness to do that work with inclusion standards for best picture nominees. It will start phasing them in next year.

This year, it got lucky.

One thing you don't want, if you're in charge of the Oscars, is a hashtag — especially something such as #OscarsSoWhite — as telecast host Chris Rock acknowledged in 2016 when that one went viral. "It's the 88th Academy Awards," he said then to applause, "which means this whole no black nominees thing has happened at least 71 other times."

The situation didn't change much in the next few years. Last year's Oscars were again among the least diverse in recent memory; only one of 20 acting nominees was nonwhite.

But this year, nine of the 20 – almost half the acting nominees — are nonwhite.

Another telecast, another hashtag: 2018 was the year of #OscarsSoMale, which Frances McDormand riffed on in her best actress acceptance speech by asking to have "all the female nominees in every category stand with me in this room tonight."

Dozens of women stood as the crowd cheered, but again, it didn't initially have much effect. Last year, just as in 86 of the 91 previous years, not a single woman director was nominated, even though McDormand had closed out this speech urging her colleagues to insist on women behind the camera by adding a clause to their contracts called an "inclusion rider."

But McDormand took her own advice, and this year, what a difference a pandemic makes. She produced as well as starred in Nomadland, a film based on a book by a woman, featuring the stories of quite a few women, and scripted, edited and directed by Chloé Zhao, who, for the first time in Hollywood history, is a woman competing with a second woman in the directing category — Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman.

As for the unprecedented number of actors of color among the nominees, it represents a remarkable moment of recognition.

There were the nominations for vibrant performances in the true stories of celebrated African American figures: Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield, each a best supporting actor nominee as, respectively, Black Panther Fred Hampton and the informant who set him up for assassination in Judas and the Black Messiah; Andra Day as best actress for playing blues legend "Lady Day" in The United States vs. Billie Holiday; and Leslie Odom Jr. for best supporting actor as Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami.

And there were nominations for acting in fictionalized stories, too: Roles as a trumpet player and a real-life blues singer in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom earned the late Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis nods for best actor and actress. Yuh-Jung Youn received a supporting actress nomination as a feisty grandmother modeled on the filmmaker's grandmother in Minari, the story of Korean immigrants in Arkansas. And Riz Ahmed became the first Muslim best actor nominee playing a heavy metal drummer who suffers hearing loss in Sound of Metal.

All are eye-opening performances that, taken together, are a clear sign this is a year of inclusion for the academy.

But not necessarily because Tinseltown has awakened to the virtues of diversity. These are the films that studios decided to open in the middle of a pandemic, a decision that they were well aware would have financial consequences.

Films usually get an Oscar bounce from being nominated — a bump in ticket sales that, in a normal year, can amount to many millions of dollars and also give a film far more reach.

Last year's best picture winner, Parasite, is a case in point. The film was playing in 300 theaters before it was nominated. Following the award, its run in the U.S. expanded to five times as many theaters.

But this year, with cinemas mostly closed, and audiences skittish about crowds, that box-office bounce doesn't exist. If you take all eight of the best picture nominees and combine their earnings, the total comes to barely $35 million worldwide. That would be an unimpressive number for just one nominee in a normal year.

So to compete for an Oscar in 2020, a filmmaker had to make an almost Faustian bargain: Come out mid-pandemic for awards consideration and lose your shirt, or sell your soul for bigger box office after the pandemic and lose your shot.

Many of the films regarded as Oscar shoo-ins decided to wait. A new version of the musical West Side Story, for instance, with a script by Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner, directed by Oscar winner Steven Spielberg. Also the star-studded costume epic The Last Duel from Gladiator director Ridley Scott. And The French Dispatch, the latest weirdness from Wes Anderson, director of The Grand Budapest Hotel.

These films were all shot, edited and ready to go in plenty of time for Oscar consideration, but their studios opted to wait. And from a financial perspective, it's easy to see why. Until a couple of weeks ago, New York and Los Angeles — the two markets that make or break prestige pictures — were still not allowing theaters to open.

Almost as bad, the theaters elsewhere that were open were reducing attendance to as little as 25% of capacity. That scared off even the commercial crowd, from 007, to Marvel superheroes, to the Fast & Furious crew.

If they weren't willing to brave the crippling economics at cinemas in a pandemic year, why should Oscar hopefuls?

So when filmmakers had the clout to say, "Let's wait," they did. And who had that clout? The same mostly male, mostly white stars, producers and studio heads who've always had it.

Who apparently didn't have that clout? Well, start with the women who made Nomadland and Promising Young Woman. Or the Korean American director of the low-budget indie Minari.

Or even the well-connected folks behind Judas and the Black Messiah who are the first all-Black producing team ever nominated for best picture. They told The Hollywood Reporter they'd originally thought their film would perform about as well as Straight Outta Compton, which earned $200 million worldwide.

The pandemic lowered that estimate, and Warner's decision to stream all its films the same day they hit theaters lowered it further. Left with no choice but to go along, the producers watched as their film stalled at the box office. Instead of $200 million, Judas and the Black Messiah has made less than $6 million.

It's not easy to imagine a Spielberg being put in that position.

Is this another way of saying Hollywood's power and privilege still resides mostly with white men? The power to maximize box office, the privilege of making event pictures so expensive they can't be treated as loss leaders for streaming services.

Well, sure. But while dollars are important, for filmmakers who have traditionally been marginalized, they are not all-important.

This pandemic year will go down in history as the year without blockbusters — not one, single, billion-dollar superhero epic or action-adventure.

But it will also be remembered as a watershed for inclusion. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has already made history by nominating the most diverse slate of actors ever as well as a record number of women. Had studios thrown their weight behind the usual big-budget spectacles, that might not have happened.

By letting less expensive, more socially conscious films lead the way back to cinemas, studios have — possibly inadvertently — ended up championing work that speaks to this moment.

Next year, the blockbusters will return, and with them, no doubt, a lot of inequities that seem wedded to the cash they generate. But in the meantime, audiences get to celebrate artists for whom the recognition brought by awards may just have greater value than dollars.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: April 16, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story referred to fictionalized stories up for Oscars without noting that the title character in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was a real blues singer.
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