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Guest Column: Oscars Are Black And White, But Not Brown

Deadline logo Deadline 1/23/2017 Santiago Pozo
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Editors note: Santiago Pozo is founder and CEO of Arenas Entertainment, the oldest Hispanic company in Hollywood. He is also a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and serves on the Public Relations branch executive committee.

Watching last week’s Golden Globe Awards, and noting the number of nominations for Moonlight, as well as seeing awards-season regulars like Denzel Washington, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer (Fences and Hidden Figures) breaking bread with the Goslings, Streeps and Afflecks, one may finally get the sense that last year’s ugly #OscarsSoWhite controversy is well behind us. And, yes, the awards season’s diversity has indeed come a long way…if you’re African-American.

That’s huge. And sorely overdue. It’s a great change for the better, for all of us. But, according to Merriam-Webster, the word diversity means “the inclusion of different types of people (as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization.” One must reasonably extrapolate that “different types of people” doesn’t mean just black or white. So I can’t help but ask, where were the Hispanics, who after all make up 17% of the overall U.S. population and an even higher percentage of frequent filmgoers? Where were the Asians, who Hollywood is more than eager to woo, most notably for China’s expansive box office and investment dollars?

Surely, as Latinos, we ought to have been happy with Sofia Vergara’s notable appearance on the show, despite the over-the-top, slightly racist “anal” joke, not to mention that Hispanics mispronouncing English is humor one would have thought went out with the Eisenhower era. Or we should have been pleased that Diego Luna was able to say a few words in Spanish on national television.

Two foreign-born, Hispanic actors — one who happens to be one of the most popular sitcom stars on television, and the other who happens to be in the biggest movie of the year — were called upon for comic relief and to give out awards, but not receive them. Too bad; apparently, the John Leguizamos, Michael Peñas, and Danny Trejos of our industry would do better if they were to affect stereotypical accents. Otherwise, we still seem to be relegated to the sidelines, if not invisible.

Where were the actual Latino nominees in the fancy dresses and tuxedos? Surely, we can’t be waiting for Alfonso Cuarón or Alejandro González Iñárritu to direct another movie before we dare to nominate a Hispanic filmmaker. Surely, it can’t be that the last Hispanic actor to actually win an Oscar in an acting category was Benicio Del Toro 16 long years ago, in 2001? And surely it can’t be that the last time a Latino actor/actress was even invited to the Oscars as an acting nominee was in 2011, when Demian Bichir received a Best Actor nomination for A Better Life. That was six years ago already. According the MPAA, there is an average of 600 films created in the U.S. every year. You don’t need a calculator to clearly see the imbalance.

Then there are the Asians, or, perhaps better said, then there weren’t. Outside of Dev Patel (an Indian actor, born in Kenya, raised in London), there seemed to be zero other Asians invited to partake of the champagne at the Beverly Hilton this year for the Golden Globes.

But is this lack of true multiculturalism the fault of either the Hollywood Foreign Press or the Academy? No, it’s not. Those institutions reflect what our industry does, and the truth is that opportunities for Hispanics, both in front and behind the camera, are few and far between.

This is an absurd and perilous disconnect given that more than a quarter of U.S. theatrical revenues comes from the Latino audiences. We, the Hispanics, are taken for granted. We are woefully underrepresented in every movie, in every studio, and in every department, even in the marketing departments, regardless of our being the alpha consumers and the key drivers of many genres. Some socially aspiring studios have instituted “multicultural departments.” But the bold fact is that they have very little, if any, power, and historically have proven inefficient at opening doors or access to jobs for other cultures, and appear to be gatekeepers imposing further limitations upon my culture and my people in getting chances in our industry.

It is not good for our film industry’s business to keep ignoring the reality of the consumer. No wonder audiences are migrating to other forms of entertainment, and no wonder we are in a sad, declining and, it pains me to say, decadent moment in our history. It is short-sightedness on the part of our movers and shakers, who may oppose the building of one politically charged wall, that they themselves have built an invisible wall around the industry that denies access to new blood and new sensitivities. This is a terminal illness for our business and for the relevance of the Academy Awards. Check the ratings: Latinos, the alpha consumers of films, don’t care much about watching the Academy Awards.

Our industry, like our country, was built by immigrants for immigrants. Immigrants made the movies and immigrants filled the nickelodeons, a primary source of surging energy that made America, America. Our industry was not born from a privileged and powerful establishment; it came from immigrants, starting with the Jewish immigrants who invented Hollywood, then bolstered by the Italians, the British, the Germans and so on… each of whom helped provide the mother of all sources of energy for our industry: their cultures. Culture is the source of storytelling, and storytelling is the essential element of our art and industry. Culture matters. It is in fact essential to our industry, and by not opening the doors to a true multicultural cinema we are killing that industry. Just look at the constant drop in admissions. (And finding ways to increase revenues by raising the ticket price is bread for today, but hunger for tomorrow.) Denying the decline of our industry is just as myopic and foolhardy as denying climate change.

Hopefully, this Academy’s stated aggressive push to become more diverse (not just black and white, but including all the colors of the racial rainbow) will affect the industry in the future. It has to. How could it not? Hispanics are responsible for more than a quarter of all the U.S. box office revenue. And China is the top market for international box office, with over $6.8 billion in ticket sales in 2015. That’s a whole lot of dollars. So I am optimistic that this change can be made to occur, because the one color that Hollywood unquestionably understands is green.

Open the doors to true multiculturalism, not just black and white, not only the establishment, but for all of us. It will regenerate our decaying business and we will all reap the benefits. If not, we have a rapidly diminishing window of time before going to movies becomes irrelevant to the real world.

As an Academy member since 1993, I would like to be surprised this year with some true multicultural presenters at the Oscars show. Maybe the Academy will give us the opportunity that the industry does not: to be visible. Plant the seeds, my beloved Academy. Start by including the Eugenio Derbezes and Kate del Castillos as presenters, and see a new flowering business for all and some interesting ratings shifts.

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