Film has always been viewed as a window on society – our attitudes and our actions. How things were, how things are, and how things might be. The industry is a powerful vehicle for culture, education, leisure and propaganda. Film makers seek to educate, to entertain, to inform and to activate. But, without diversity amongst the traditional gatekeepers of the industry, the selection of films that got produced and the choice of the accolades and awards, was anything but diverse.
In the last 12 months, however, the zeitgeist has undeniably shifted in Hollywood. Motivated by the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and spearheaded by some of the industry’s most powerful women such as Oprah Winfrey and Meryl Streep, the #Metoo and #TimesUp movements were a signal to the world that misogyny, and a raft of other archaic ideals like racism and discrimination, would not be tolerated.
John Bailey, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and a self-confessed “75-year-old white man”, praised the richness of many of this year’s nominated films at the 90th Oscars ceremony. “The Academy is at a crossroads of change … We are witnessing this motion picture academy reinvent itself in front of our very eyes, and a greater awareness and responsibility in balancing gender, race, ethnicity, and religion.”
This is certainly an idea whose time has come, however, like any movement, there have been important systemic changes that have led to this watershed moment. In 2012, a Los Angeles Times investigation revealed that the academy’s 5,765 voting members were 94% white and 77% male. Their average was 62, and just 14% of members were under 50. That year, the only actors of colour among the nominations were Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer (who won best supporting actress) in The Help. All nine of the nominated best pictures were directed by white men, and they took all five best director slots (The Artist was the big winner that year). By 2015, the situation had become untenable: no actors of colour were nominated for the second year running – inspiring the #OscarsSoWhite movement, boycotts and reams of damaging publicity.
In response, former academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs launched “an ambitious, global campaign to identify and recruit qualified new members who represent greater diversity”. The academy took in 683 new members in 2016 and a further 774 in 2017 – 39% of whom were women, and 30% were people of colour.
The British Film Institute also triggered its own response to the groundswell of public sentiment for greater diversity in both story and characters. Under the leadership of Gaylene Gould, Head of Cinema and Events at the British Film Institute, the BFI has now implemented diversity and inclusion targets for its partners and funding recipients: a 50-50 gender balance, 20% from ethnic minority backgrounds, 9% LGBTQ and 7% film-makers with a disability. In addition, this month, British film, television and games industries signed up to a set of anti-bullying and harassment guidelines. As from next year, British entries to the Bafta film awards will have to comply with them to be eligible for nomination.
The Australian industry has also been rocked by the #metoo movement with high profile male actors named in alleged sexual misconduct with cast members and industry staff. This has prompted major theatre companies, directors and unions to joined together and draft a new code of conduct for harassment in the live performance industry.
One of the most outspoken proponents of this movement has been Journalist Tracey Spicer. Herself a victim of online trolling and sexual misconduct, Spicer has been spearheading the investigations into sexual harassment and sexual assault in the Australian arts, media and entertainment sectors, together with a team of investigative journalists at Fairfax Media and the AB. Speaking at a forum by Women in Film and Television Victoria (WIFT VIC) at Arts Centre Melbourne, Spicer revealed “I’ve been working for a couple of months with wonderful women from Women in Media, Women in Film and Television, Women in Theatre and Screen, to do a similar thing to Times Up America but much broader, with a much longer-term focus.” She is referring to the NOW Australia movement where over 30 high-profile women from the Australian media and entertainment industries – including Tina Arena, Deborah Mailman, Sarah Blasko and Danielle Cormack – are fronting a new national organisation to tackle sexual harassment, abuse and assault in workplaces across Australia.
The organisation also hopes to conduct research, education and lobbying to effect real change in Australian workplace practices and regulations. Sue Maslin, one of Australia’s most successful screen producers, agrees that lasting change will come by addressing the patriarchal system that sets the tone for the industry. “I’m most interested in are in key executive and leadership roles – that is amongst the people who shape screen culture. So looking at the commissioning editors, the distributors, the producers, the directors – overwhelmingly it’s a very male culture. And the key people who sit around tables deciding what goes on our screens and what stories get told overwhelmingly are male.”
The high profile of many involved in the #MeToo movement has grabbed the headlines but sexual harassment has of course not been limited to the creative arts. The campaign encouraged women, celebrity or not, around the world to share their experiences of sexual harassment and assault to demonstrate how widespread the issue is.
How the entertainment industry deals with this change is both a catalyst for modelling change across all workplaces, and a reflection of what is happening in our workplaces and wider society. Behaviour that was acceptable in the past is now not. Businesses around the country are rewriting the rules about relationships in the workplace. Diversity, gender parity, exposing abuse and misconduct are high on the agenda and the 90th Academy Awards sent a clear message – to the 35million people live viewers and the many multiples in the afterwake more across media and social platform – that Times Up.
While Hollywood has always drawn the eyes of the world – now more than ever, its players have gathered centre stage, becoming outspoken on some of the world’s most glaring injustices. Beyond airtime at the Academy Awards ceremony broadcast to millions across the globe, the idea of wielding creativity to offer a new perspective seems to be fuelling art and storytelling now more than ever. In an era of mass information and misinformation, it seems art is having a powerful moment in the spotlight.