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Critics point to studios for lack of diversity among Academy Award nominees

The absence of nonwhite acting Oscar nominees for a second straight year has led many to criticize the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for its lack of diversity. But a growing chorus of movie business figures are instead pointing the finger at another culprit: the executive ranks of the major film studios.

Spike Lee, the provocateur director-producer, weighed in on Wednesday. In an interview on "Good Morning America," he said the real problem is with the people who decide which movies get made and released.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Oscar nominees: In the Jan. 21 Business section, an article about the reasons for a lack of diversity in this year's Oscar nominees included a photo caption that identified "Straight Outta Compton" actor Corey Hawkins as his character, Dr. Dre. —
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"This whole academy thing is a misdirection play," said Lee, director of the critically acclaimed independent movie "Chi-Raq" and a longtime critic of the Hollywood establishment. "This goes further than the Academy Awards. It has to go back to the gatekeepers."

Lee's statement echoes his past comments where he said it is easier for an African American to become president of the United States than to become head of a Hollywood studio. Lee said in a social media post on Monday that he would not attend the 2016 Oscars ceremony though he did not call for a boycott, as some activists have done.

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Multiple film business insiders and analysts agreed with Lee that it stems for the top of the biggest film companies, which are mainly headed by white men. They say the Academy needs a more diverse crop of movies to choose from and that depends on the decision-making power of high-level executives. Others, however, suggested that Lee presented an oversimplified view of the greenlighting process which has grown more complicated as the industry has become increasingly international and risk averse.

It's a delicate issue for the industry. Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures declined to comment. Twentieth-Century Fox, Paramount Pictures and the Walt Disney Co. did not respond to requests for interviews.

The dearth of nonwhite nominees is noteworthy given the financial success that movies with diverse casts have enjoyed in recent years, some analysts said. The "Rocky" spinoff "Creed" and the N.W.A. biopic "Straight Outta Compton" both had black leads, and enjoyed impressive box-office returns.

"In a year with huge commercial hits with African-American leads, someone should be noticing the trend enough to respond with more African-American movies, including those with Academy Award potential," said Bill Mechanic, veteran producer and former head of Fox Filmed Entertainment. "More diverse executives will result in more diverse movies."

The dispute has cast a spotlight on greenlighting — Hollywood jargon for studios giving the go-ahead for a movie to be made. It can be an opaque process, with major decisions ultimately made by the studio heads, along with a committee that typically includes presidents of production, marketing and publicity.

At issue is who sits on these committees and whether they represent the diversity of the film audience at large.

"It is the greenlighting process," said Wheeler Winston Dixon, a film studies professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. "They not only need to look at films about minorities, but they cannot keep up this steady drumbeat of blockbuster tent pole films."

Some experts blame the lack of diverse Oscar fare on safe bets made by studio chiefs. Tinseltown has increasingly placed its chips on franchises — known brands that can come with a built in audience and reliably generate sizable ticket sales not just in the U.S. but in other countries. That, analysts say, leaves less room in the studio pipeline for prestigious titles with new talent in front of and behind the camera.

In fairness, Hollywood does release movies with diverse casts, sometimes with spectacular financial results. Last year's "Furious 7" from Universal Pictures had an abundance of nonwhite actors and grossed $1.5 billion worldwide. Movies like "Ride Along" have also proven the financial benefit of appealing to black moviegoers. However, those are not the kinds of films that typically win the Academy's favor.

A studio executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said it's not fair to blame the studios that are not in the business of making art house movies.

"The whole screaming match is off base," the executive said. "Studios are not in the business of making Oscar movies, they are in the business of trying to get a commercial response."

While many agree there's a problem, there may not be an easy fix, industry experts say.

One idea, advocated by Lee, is for the studios to implement a version of the National Football League's "Rooney Rule." Enacted in 2003, that rule required professional football teams to interview at least one nonwhite candidate for head coach jobs.

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It's unclear, however, whether or such a rule could ever fly within the studio system.

Complicating matters is that greenlighting of films has evolved as industry has changed. It's no longer a simple matter of a handful of executives poring over scripts, cast lists and budgets. Hollywood's movies, especially Oscar fare, are now largely financed and produced by multiple outside partners in order to mitigate risk, and they have often have a say in whether the film gets made.

"The Revenant," for example, was released by 20th Century Fox, 2015's fourth highest-grossing studio by market share. But the financial burden for the $135-million production was largely carried by Arnon Milchan's New Regency, as well as other co-financiers including RatPac Entertainment.

And many movies that get Oscar buzz are made outside of the studio system entirely, financed by an amalgamation of production companies and investors around the world before they're sold at festivals to the major studios or small, independent distributors.

Nonetheless, some see signs of hope for an Oscar season that better represents the broader population as Hollywood continues to follow the money as audiences demand more inclusion.

"I think truth be known that the whole industry is making great strides in this area," said Marshall Herskovitz, former president of the Producers Guild of America. "I think we're in a period of transition. They will follow the audience."

ryan.faughnder@latimes.com

Times staff writer Daniel Miller contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 21, 2016, in the Business section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Who to blame for Oscars? - Many are faulting film studios for the lack of diversity among the nominees." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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