Editor's Cut: #OscarsSoWhite
That is the hashtag sweeping the…well…anything, to be honest. According to a recent article on Variety.com, the hashtag was used 76,644 times on the day of the Oscar announcements between 8:30am and 5pm (EST). Since the nominees were announced, stars have planned boycotts of the Oscars ceremony, headlines have ripped the lack of diversity across the major category nominees, and renewed demands have emerged for the Academy of Arts and Sciences to take a hard look at the inclusion (or more to the point, the exclusion) of racially diverse actors, directors and producers.
But this note isn’t about race…I’ll leave that important discussion for another date, time and place. Instead, let’s talk disruption—specifically, the disruption taking place in the movie industry that has Oscar voters seemingly taking sides. Here’s a hint: If the Oscar snubs are any indication, tradition is winning for now.
The movie industry is a machine, to be sure. While creativity and artistry evolve on the screen, there are still remnants of an arcane past that refuse to advance when it comes to marketing and promotions. Let’s take the example of the in-theater display. I remember plotting to “acquire” theater promotional pieces for hot blockbuster movies when I was a kid: bus shelter posters, in-theater dimensional displays, etc.—all clearly décor for the room of a high school or college student.
Today, the “innovation” in these costly, massive displays is to encourage social tagging. Case in point: the massive President Snow throne sent to theaters in advance of the final installment of The Hunger Games in the winter of 2015. With instructions to sit in the throne and tag the photos on social networks, the goal was not only to increase in-theater excitement, but also to generate social buzz among fans.
Yeah…looks like it was really working while sitting behind this safety rope in the narrow escalator hallway.
But this is how it’s always been done. These cardboard constructions are part of the checklist. It is what the machine demands.
For me, the Oscar snubs shine a light on another disruption that threatens the machine, specifically around distribution, production and box-office impact. In a Variety article, research from Amobee Brand Intelligence says the top Oscar snub conversation has surrounded Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation, starring Idris Elba.
This is a story made for an Oscar, centered on a child soldier in the grip of an African civil war. It is violent, politically fueled, activist in nature, features humans overcoming horrendous conditions, and includes both an unknown 15-year-old boy from Ghana making his screen debut and a celebrated actor in Elba. Critics used words like “uncompromising,” “relentless” and “a powerful cry from the heart,” referring to Elba’s performance as “a high-powered and shockingly charismatic performance.” If you use Rotten Tomatoes as a guide, Beasts received a 91 percent score among all critics and a 93 percent rating among audience viewers. The Revenant (this year’s Oscar darling) scored 81 percent among all critics and 87 percent among the audience. Even so, the movie failed to get a nomination for Netflix’s freshmen feature.
The issue with Beasts is actually an issue with Netflix and their intention to disrupt a market that is notorious for loathing disruption. When you break down what Netflix did with its acquisition and release of Beasts, it asked the Hollywood institution of movie distribution to stop listening to itself and start listening to the customer. Beasts of No Nation was released in theaters and online on the same day. Needless to say, this did not fly well with theater owners, who largely chose not to carry the film. Beasts played in 31 theaters nationwide. There are more than 5,400 theaters in the U.S. While Netflix has stated that the film attracted some 3 million viewers in its first two weeks of release online, that certainly isn’t the same as E! News saying the film was at the top of the box office.
In the same vein of thinking that TV actors should stay on TV, it would seem that the industry machine wants Netflix content to stay on TV as well. But this is how change happens…someone has to be the first to cross that fine line between disruption and innovation.
Netflix arguably understands three key things: content, how consumers want to consume content, and how not to ruin the customer experience (a lesson they learned the hard way with Qwikster). With Beasts, Netflix took a gamble that customers would also want to consume feature-length content on the device of their choice—from big screens to phones. This could be the future, and the voting members of the Academy could very well be telling us that they aren’t quite ready.
While we, as moviegoers, should (and will) rally behind the movement to advance diversity on screen, we will also have to assume a position on the frontlines of the battle of diversity of screens. Beasts was the opening salvo. And Oscar may learn the Qwikster lesson: adapt or become another Blockbuster.
Until next month!
P.S. To follow me on Twitter—or to tell me you think I am barking mad: @lizkmiller