Although Hollywood gave full-throated cry at the Academy Awards over the weekend to its aspiration to be much more inclusive, less sexist and racist, some legal matters and hard numbers may belie any premature celebrations of progress in the industry for women and people of color.
Let’s start with a tough data point for a business that lives and dies by what its fans do: The 90th Oscars were the least-watched in at least a decade, with viewership of the prime-time Sunday broadcast dipping 20 percent to 26.5 million viewers. Combine that stat — yes, it was affected by streaming and the academy’s wish to honor not just hugely popular films but also those with distinctive high artistic achievement — with 2017’s box office bad news: U.S. movie ticket sales were the lowest in 25 years, though grosses were buoyed by increased prices.
So, is Hollywood getting the message that many things it’s doing aren’t working? Will movie moguls’ minds be swayed by the economic successes of works like 2018’s Black Panther or that three female-led productions, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast and Wonder Woman made more money than any other movies in 2017?
Or will it be legal measures that push Hollywood forward? Maybe. But the law doesn’t always move as progressives would like, as courts reminded them, just before the Oscars’ many and moving denunciations of racism, and sexism and sexual harassment. (To be sure, at least one information site for seniors noted that the Oscar telecast perpetuated stereotypes about the old and treated older performers with as much ageist ridicule as respect and honor.)
Judge strikes down California law on posting performer ages
In one much-watched case, a federal judge affirmed that IMDb, a website that many in the movie industry consult for easily accessible data on their business, has the First Amendment right to post information on the ages of actors and actresses.
The dispute was sparked by a failed legal battle between the site and Vietnamese actress Junie Hoang, who contended that as an actress, and especially as a woman of color, her struggles to win parts would be set back by biased casting directors judging her not by her capacities but just by visible digits displaying her age.
California lawmakers, responding to pressure from unions (SAG-AFTRA) and actresses’ complaints that such disclosures fosters ageism in Hollywood, had passed Assembly Bill 1678 requiring IMDb to remove performers’ ages from its site, if asked. But U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria struck down that law.
Amazon.com-owned IMDb had sued the state of California two months after Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB1678 into law in 2016. Chhabria in 2017 had granted IMDb’s motion for preliminary injunction preventing enforcement of the law until the Amazon suite could be heard.
IMDb assailed Secretary of State Xavier Becerra and SAG-AFTRA over their contention that AB1678 served a compelling government interest in combating age discrimination in the entertainment industry. Chhabria agreed, ruling that California failed to show its law could withstand strict scrutiny, that is it was not too narrowly tailored but rather both under- and over-inclusive.
The judge also found the law sought to solve the wrong problem, writing, “The defendants describe this as a problem of ‘age discrimination.’ While that may be accurate on some level, at root it is far more a problem of sex discrimination.” The court granted IMDb’s motion for summary judgment, stating that “Regulation of speech must be a last resort.”
Hollywood’s sexism, racism, and ageism
Still, the industry’s woes won’t go away, even as recognition of the scope of its problems grows.
On the same day as Chhabria ruled, USA Today published eye-popping results of its survey of 843 women in the entertainment, with a whopping 94 reporting they had experienced harassment or assault during their Hollywood careers.
Actress Susan Sarandon, as head of the jury at Australia’s short film festival Tropfest, commented in recent days on Hollywood’s future, if it does not deal with racial, gender, and age discrimination. The Hollywood Reporter said Sarandon attributed the industry’s corporate takeover for “why we have so much sexism and racism and ageism in Hollywood.”
As if the cascade of news stories about Harvey Weinstein and women’s claims against him about sexual assault and sexual harrassment weren’t sufficiently sullying, independent academic studies aren’t flattering of corporate Hollywood’s workplace, either.
The USC Annenberg Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative has reported that the scant presence of female speaking characters in films, along with the percentages of black, Hispanic, and Asian characters has stayed unchanged since 2007. Of 100 top action films in 2016, only 34 depicted a female lead or co-lead, and, of those works, three female actors were from underrepresented racial groups and eight were at least 45 or older.
But across the city, UCLA’s annual report on Hollywood diversity has argued that movies with diverse casts and creators pay off of the industry’s bottom line: Black Panther “smashed all of the Hollywood myths…that you can’t have a predominantly black cast and [have] the film do well…. But it’s too early to tell if Black Panther will change business practices or it’s an outlier.”
Women and minorities can’t wait, Frances McDormand, a five-time Oscar nominee and twice a winner of Hollywood’s most coveted award, told a global audience as she accepted her best actress statue. She asked her fellow women at the broadcast ceremony to stand and get more recognition for their Academy nominations or wins, prompting at least some tut-tutting about how badly under-represented these artists were for industry honors.
And McDormand also stirred at least several days worth of intriguing legal discussions by mentioning inclusion riders, a legal maneuver as conceptualized by Stacy L. Smith, associate professor of communication at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
It’s a meritorious contractual option that many will dissect in the days ahead. But it’s also clear that, yet again, Hollywood will ask its few, most gifted, and empowered women and people of color to do the heavy lifting, legally speaking, to help rectify a situation that dollars and cents and a rapidly changing world outside already should force industry leaders to address.