Hollywood chases diversity as ticket to financial reward

September 21, 2018

It looks like Hollywood might be putting its money where its mouth is with regard to diversity.

A spate of films featuring women and minorities in front of and behind the camera are set for release in coming months after the success of diverse box office hits such as “Wonder Woman,” “Black Panther” and the current smash “Crazy Rich Asians.”

“Nothing grabs the attention of Hollywood movers and shakers like financial success,” said Gitesh Pandya, editor of BoxOfficeGuru.com. “I see [‘Crazy Rich Asians’] ending up in the $175 [million]-$200 million range at the U.S. box office, about six times its budget.”

Of course, features scheduled for release this fall and early next year were in production long before the above-mentioned films upended Hollywood’s conventional wisdom that women- and minority-led films don’t sell. But the upcoming features reflect the counterconventional drive of those films as they try to build on their success.

Diverse features this fall include:

⦁ “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”: Actress/director Marielle Heller directs Oscar-winning comedian Melissa McCarthy (“Bridesmaids”) in a dramatic biopic about the late writer/forger Lee Israel, whose 2008 memoir gives the film its title.

⦁ “The Hate U Give”: Producer/director George Tillman Jr. directs a predominantly black-led cast in a dramatic story about a fatal police shooting.

⦁ “If Beale Street Could Talk”: This adaptation of the James Baldwin novel is directed by Oscar winner Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”) and stars KiKi Layne, Stephan James and Regina King.

Next year’s offers include:

⦁ “What Men Want”: This gender-reversal remake of the 2000 Mel Gibson rom-com “What Women Want” features Taraji P. Henson in the starring role.

⦁ “Captain Marvel”: Oscar winner Brie Larson (“Room”) stars in Marvel Studios’ first female superhero feature, as well as “Avengers 4” later in the year.

⦁ “Aladdin”: The live-action version of the animated Disney favorite stars Will Smith as the Genie, Mena Massoud as Aladdin, Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine and Marwan Kenzari as Jafar.

⦁ “Charlie’s Angels”: In this reboot of the action comedy, Naomi Scott and Kristen Stewart star with Elizabeth Banks, who also directs and shares a screenwriting credit.

⦁ “Shaft”: An action comedy remake of the 1971 crime drama features three generations of Shafts, starring Richard Roundtree, Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie Usher, Alexandra Shipp and Regina Hall.

⦁ “The Lion King”: A live-action/CGI version of animated Disney musical features the voices of Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, Beyonce, Alfre Woodard, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Eric Andre.

In addition, sequels to “Black Panther,” “Wonder Woman” and “Crazy Rich Asians” are in the works.

Mr. Pandya said the success of diverse fare such as “Crazy Rich Asians,” Hollywood’s first feature with a predominantly Asian cast since 1993′s “Joy Luck Club” doesn’t necessarily mean that industry leaders have shaken free of outdated groupthink.

“I don’t see ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ causing a tectonic shift in Hollywood, but I do see it opening more eyes to the reality that moviegoers want to see themselves on the big screen,” he said. “Many power people in the film industry don’t quite get that.”

Nonetheless, “Crazy Rich Asians” in particular could jump-start a number of film careers for Asian actors, given the movie’s large cast, said Biola University sociology professor Nancy Yuen.

The Singapore-set romantic comedy had a three-week run as the top moneymaker in the nation, each week holding a massive percentage of its initial audience.

“Asians” co-stars such as Gemma Chan, Awkwafina and newcomer Henry Golding have better chances of avoiding stereotypical Asian roles as a result of the film’s nuanced storytelling, Ms. Yuen said. The film’s female stars may land more romantic or comedic parts and avoid being “exoticized” or cast as the “dragon lady” villain. Mr. Golding already is starring with Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick in “A Simple Favor,” which opened Sept. 14.

Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute, noted that diverse Hollywood products offer more than entertaining blockbusters.

“Fuller representation enriches culture, and I’m thrilled to see such an undeniable business case made for intentionally representative stories and their tellers,” Ms. Putnam said.

But Kirsten Schaffer, executive director of Women In Film, Los Angeles, cautioned that the industry’s ingrained biases toward men and white people run deep, so change isn’t guaranteed despite impressive box office receipts of diverse-laden films. Hollywood’s reputation for fear-based decision-making is well-earned. It will take more than a few hits and hashtag campaigns to impact Hollywood’s diversity problem.

Ms. Yuen name-checks Hollywood’s conventional wisdom that “black films” can’t do well overseas. The Sony Pictures email hack imbroglio four years ago revealed how executives were worried that Denzel Washington, despite his talent and stateside star power, wouldn’t command enough foreign ticket sales because of his race, she said.

Ms. Yuen noted that this year’s “Black Panther,” with a primarily black cast, ended up making more money overseas than other Marvel Studios blockbusters including “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Ant Man and the Wasp.”

“A lot of societies abroad are very diverse,” she said, noting that Chinese pop culture worships American NBA stars.

Mr. Pandya pointed to another film franchise’s success as a model for what Hollywood could bring.

“The multibillion-dollar ‘Fast Furious’ franchise has had diversity at its core from the very beginning when it launched 17 years ago. ... Plus seven of the eight films were directed by people of color,” Mr. Pandya said. “I do think that moving forward, more Hollywood movies will broaden their representation on screen.”

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