A False Choice: How Films Can And Should Have Both Talent And Diversity

Carter Pilcher Chief Executive, ShortsTV
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Hollywood bigwigs are under an uncomfortably bright, very white spotlight.

The Academy of Motion Pictures has responded quickly, but speaking realistically, not much can be done in the short term. Organizations that give awards have little control over the flow of feature-length, awards-worthy films. Rather, that flow depends on who finances and makes the movies.

That is not to say that the Academy has no role in recognizing a more diverse array of performers and creators. It does. But it also involves a broader embrace of talent by the studios, film festivals and other awards groups. And we will begin to see a difference if these organizations can give more equal treatment to short film.

As Oscar-winning writer/producer John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”) put it recently in receiving a Humanitas Kieser Award: “We have got to do better.”

“Try to imagine being my father, taking me to ‘Star Wars’ when the only person of color on screen is the bad guy dressed in black,” Ridley said. “Now, imagine what it’s like for my wife and I when we’re taking our son to ‘Star Wars,’ and the good guy is black.”

Producing a feature film is one of the riskiest businesses out there. Audiences are fickle. A hit-driven economic model demands big budgets and big names. And when a media company guesses wrong, tens of millions of dollars are lost.

The enormous hurdles and risks associated with feature films make breaking in difficult. Most who make it have more than just talent, they have good educations, deep connections and, importantly, access to resources. Not so for many less-advantaged groups, particularly those just starting a film career.

Conversely, short film as its own art form is providing opportunities right now for a much more diverse group of talent.

In 2015, more women were nominated for short-film Oscars than have been nominated for feature-length films, combined, across the awards’ 86-year history. This year, female nominees comprise 27 percent of the total. 

Once again this year, the Oscar-nominated short-film categories include the Academy’s most diverse and representative group of filmmakers. The shorts categories come from U.S. filmmakers, including an Indian-American, but also others from Germany, Great Britain, Palestine, Pakistan, Russia and Chile.

Shorts are a proven route to feature success, as clever filmmakers know. Disney animation chief John Lasseter, whose career took off with an Oscar-winning Pixar short, has institutionalized the medium across both companies. With that short-film talent pipeline, it’s no surprise Disney and Pixar are consistent box-office and awards champs.

Prominent short-film creators include the much-honored Latino trio of Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, who continue to make short films alongside their features (between them, Iñarritu and Cuaron have won the past three Best Director Oscars). And then there’s the indefatigable Spike Lee, honored atSunday’s ceremony for his directorial achievements. Lee has made two short films in the past two years, in between several feature-length film, documentary and TV projects.

If the movie business really wants to embrace emerging talent, new stories and new types of storytelling, they should nurture more short-film creators. Low barriers to entry and a sea of talent are just waiting for increased opportunity and recognition. With small changes, we can open the floodgates to a broader flow of bankable stars and filmmakers.  Here are some suggestions to help:

  • We in the movie business should follow the Pixar/Disney Animation lead and invest routinely in short films, especially targeting filmmakers from overlooked and neglected communities.
  • ShortsTV, the cable channel that I run, will do its part to nurture diverse talent. We have pledged to increase significantly the share of urban and Hispanic-originated short movies among the 5,000 shorts we show yearly.
  • For talent to blossom, it also needs industry recognition as it grows. Festivals and awards programs of many kinds should reconsider rules that prevent some groups of filmmakers from competing, which in turn prevents them from qualifying for major awards consideration. Language rules stymie some filmmakers. For instance, is an American filmmaker’s project really a “foreign-language” film just because it’s in Spanish? Animated short ‘Bear Story,’ the first film from Chile to win an Oscar, wouldn’t even have been eligible this year if ShortsTV hadn’t helped get the film qualified under Academy rules. What other great films and filmmakers are being lost because of sometimes arbitrary rules? That’s why ShortsTV is partnering with the Hispanic Heritage Foundation to begin removing these artificial barriers, so more Hispanic filmmakers may be considered for the broadest array of awards. 
  • There is no reason to consign makers and stars of short films to a separate awards “ghetto.” This change would not even be new.  In 1957, the original screenplay Oscar went to “The Red Balloon,” a 34-minute film. Feature performances as brief as 2 minutes and 19 seconds have received Oscar nominations, and even won. If we can adjust our biases against shorter works, more diverse talent could compete for top awards and win the recognition they need to drive their careers.

Will these approaches obviate another #OscarsSoWhite controversy? Maybe not right away. But they can powerfully shift the conversation and allow many new voices to take part. We’ll all win when that happens.

Carter Pilcher is Chief Executive and Founder of ShortsTV, a cable and satellite channel that specializes in short movies. He is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. His company also distributes theatrically the annual compilation of Oscar®-nominated live-action, animated and documentary short films.