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MARTIN GROVE'S HOLLYWOOD REPORT -- DIVERSITY DISCUSSION -- 10/10/16


 
THE BIRTH OF A NATION - NATE PARKER

THE BIRTH OF A NATION - NATE PARKER

THE QUEEN OF KATWE

THE QUEEN OF KATWE

FENCES - DENZEL WASHINGTON AND VIOLA DAVIS

FENCES - DENZEL WASHINGTON AND VIOLA DAVIS

MARTIN GROVE'S HOLLYWOOD REPORT --

DIVERSITY DISCUSSION -- 10/10/16

 

Diversity discussion: After two years of heated criticism of Oscar nominations for lacking diversity, Academy members may finally be able to make amends.

That's because this time around there finally are awards worthy films to consider that could actually resonate with Oscar voters and that are from filmmakers and actors of color.

For the past two years, Academy members had the deck stacked against them because not only were there very few pictures whose stars reflected diversity, but they mostly weren't the type of indie produced, low budget, high-minded, serious dramas that Academy voters get excited about nowadays. Films that aren't critical and boxoffice hits typically have trouble generating Oscar heat no matter where they are on the diversity scale.

This year, however, is different from the last two years. There are a number of awards possibilities from well regarded filmmakers and stars of color that Academy voters can embrace. Here's a quick look at some of the potential contenders that could enable Academy voters to put an end to #OscarsSoWhite.

Last weekend saw the arrival of one of the season's highest profile Oscar hopefuls -- Fox Searchlight Pictures and Mandalay Pictures' R rated pre-Civil War set biographical drama "The Birth of a Nation," from actor-producer-writer-director Nate Parker.

         Parker as Nat Turner plays a literate slave preacher whose financially stressed owner (Armie Hammer) uses Nat's preaching to subdue unruly slaves. After witnessing countless atrocities against himself and other slaves, Nat orchestrates an uprising that he hopes will lead his people to freedom.

"Birth," which has been embroiled in controversy stemming from a 1999 rape case in which Parker was acquitted, arrived quietly at 2,105 theatres in sixth place with $7.1 million ($3,373 per theatre). Hollywood handicappers had speculated in past weeks that it would take a $10 million range opening to maintain its original sure-shot best picture Oscar nomination status. It was clear going into last weekend that $10 million wasn't going to happen, but that $7.5 million looked possible.

         "Birth" has been flying high on the awards radar since January's Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize. Searchlight acquired global distribution rights to "Birth" at Sundance for a record setting $17.5 million.

         "Birth" was perceived then as being the absolutely right film at the right time – a serious historical drama about slavery from a filmmaker of color that could readily be embraced by Academy members hoping to rebalance Oscar's diversity scales.

         The media frenzy that erupted months later with reports of a 17 year old rape accusation case involving Parker and his screenwriting partner, Jean McGianni Celestin, when they were students at Penn State, left Hollywood handicappers speculating about how that might  affect the film's Oscar prospects.

         Although Parker was acquitted of all charges at the time and Celestin's initial conviction was overturned on appeal and was not retried, there was still uncertainty about what this might do to his movie. Adding to the impact of the media coverage were new reports that the woman who claimed to have been raped committed suicide in 2012.

         Although Parker has made some recent television appearances, including CBS's "60 Minutes" and ABC's "Good Morning America," to try to deal with the fallout over those 1999 accusations, his approach to doing so was seen by media analysts as having failed. Parker's been criticized for not showing remorse for the woman and for denying he did anything wrong at the time.

         Recent reports have said that Fox Searchlight hired crisis PR consultants to coach Parker on how to make the most of his TV interviews, but that in the end he didn't take their advice and was adamant about having done nothing wrong based on his having been acquitted. Other reports have said that Oprah Winfrey offered him helpful advice and an opportunity to go on TV with her friend Gayle King, a "CBS This Morning" anchor, but that Parker declined.

         "Birth's" first challenge came last month when it played at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). When it was well received there, that suggested it might not be hurt by the controversy.

         Last weekend's wide release was its next challenge. While it didn't open to great ticket sales, it's too early to draw conclusions about its Oscar potential.

         "Birth's" most important showing last weekend was in Beverly Hills at the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn screening room, which seats about 1,010 people. Reports Monday morning varied in estimating attendance at a disappointing 25 percent to 50 percent of capacity. Since most Academy members bring guests with them to screenings, that would translate into a very low level of Academy voter interest in seeing "Birth" and not an encouraging sign for its Oscar prospects.

         Reports also varied as to how well the film was received, with some saying there was only light applause afterwards while others said the audience reaction was warmer than that.

         There also were reports that some Academy members have said privately they aren't interested in seeing "Birth" either because of the controversy over Parker or their lack of enthusiasm for seeing another slavery driven story after giving 2013's best picture winner Oscar to "12 Years a Slave."

         A q&a session with Parker took place after the screening, but reports said many in the audience did not remain to see it. That might not necessarily relate to them not liking the film, but that they wanted to get home in time to watch Sunday's presidential debate, which aired at 6:00 p.m. on the West Coast. Since the screening began about 3:00 p.m. and the film runs approximately two hours, that would have given people just enough time to get where they had to get since it takes a while to get out of the garages where people park to attend Academy screenings.

         It's also possible that some Academy members may have skipped attending this first screening of "Birth" because of the presidential debate timing, knowing that there will be many more screenings in the coming months and that they will also receive DVD screeners of the movie to view at home.

         Ticket sales overall were down again last weekend, but only to a slight extent (in the South East) because of Hurricane Matthew, which would have done much more boxoffice damage had it charged up the East Coast as earlier weather models said it could. Sunday night's telecast of the highly anticipated second presidential debate was expected to hurt the boxoffice nationally, cutting into late afternoon/early evening moviegoing on the West Coast (6:00 p.m. live) and prime evening moviegoing (9:00 p.m. live) on the East Coast and everywhere else, as well.

         Universal and DreamWorks Pictures' opening of "The Girl on the Train" finished first, but was able to take the top spot with just $24.7 million. All films in the marketplace did about $104 million, down about 13.2 percent from last year's $119.8 million, according to comScore.

         Another weak weekend further eroded the year-to-date lead over last year. It's now just 3.9 percent, per comScore -- $8.78 billion vs. $8.45 billion. A week earlier 2016 was ahead by 4.6 percent and the week before that it was up 5.1 percent. That was down from a 5.4 percent lead the prior weekend and from 5.7 percent the weekend before that.

         As for "Birth," while its opening didn't impress, it remains to be seen how it ends up theatrically. If it holds up well or does better business next weekend, that would suggest it's finding its audience. Distributors always emphasize that adult appeal movies need time to bloom at the boxoffice because adults, unlike teens, don't rush out immediately to see new films they're interested in. They get to them when they're able to find the time to see them, which can take weeks. But that can translate into good boxoffice legs.

         "Birth's" 79 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes is fresh, but its reviews aren't the kind of knock-em-dead raves that really excite Oscar voters. Some reviews and articles have also criticized how some historical issues involving Nat Turner are presented in the slave rebellion drama, which could create even more controversy for Parker to deal with. Biographical dramas frequently run into awards season criticism of how true-to-life they are, so this is not something unique to "Birth."

         There were, by the way, much more enthusiastic reviews for another diversity driven Oscar hopeful now playing in theatres -- Disney's drama "Queen of Katwee" (see below), which has a solid 91 percent fresh rating on RT.

         A good awards reference point for "Birth" is the R rated historical slavery drama "12 Years a Slave," which also opened via Fox Searchlight. When it kicked off Oct. 18, 2013 it was only in limited release at 19 theatres, but did a hefty $923,715 and quickly captured Academy members' attention. It went on to do $56.7 million domestically.

         Oscar had no trouble embracing "Slave." It reflected strong diversity from Academy voters with nine noms and three wins in 2014 – for best picture, supporting actress (Lupita Nyong'o) and adapted screenplay (John Ridley). Other Oscar noms for "Slave" that added to diversity that year were -- lead actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and directing (Steve McQueen).

         That diversity also spilled over to other prime awards races. McQueen was a Directors Guild of America (DGA), British Academy (BAFTA), Critics Choice and Golden Globes nominee. Nyong'o also won Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and Critics Choice supporting actress awards and was a BAFTA and Globes nominee. Ejiofor won BAFTA's best actor and was a SAG and Globes nominee.

         Because Parker wears so many hats, it would be hard to celebrate "Birth" without also celebrating his own multiple contributions. Such noms, of course, would be very helpful in terms of improving the Academy's diversity problems.

         There are, however, quite a few other potential contenders on the horizon this fall and winter that also could help diversity bloom this Oscar season.

         Disney's PG rated biographical drama "Queen of Katwe" is directed by Mira Nair ("Monsoon Wedding") and stars Lupita Nyong'o, David Oyelowo and Madina Nalwanga.

         "Queen" attracted attention when it played at TIFF in September, sparking talk that it's the type of film that could resonate with Academy members and bring diversity to the race.

         "Queen" is playing now at 1,259 theatres after opening in limited release Sept. 23. Last weekend it placed tenth with $1.6 million and a domestic cume of $5.4 million. Its 91 percent fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes should help it get seen by Academy members, which is essential since pictures that don't get seen don't get nominated and the voters don't have nearly enough time to see everything.

         "Queen" is based on the true story of Phiona Mutesi (Nalwanga), a young girl from the slums of Kampala, Uganda who became an international champion chess player through the support and encouragement of her coach (Oyelowo) and her mother (Nyong'o).

Oyelowo, a potential lead actor nominee for "Queen," received a best actor Golden Globe nom in 2015 for playing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in "Selma." The Academy's failure to nominate him in its best actor race generated major media coverage at the time about Oscar's lack of diversity. On the other hand, "Selma" did get a best picture Oscar nom and also was nominated for best original song and won in that category.

Nyong'o, a potential supporting actress nominee for "Queen,"  won the supporting actress Oscar in 2014 for her performance in "12 Years a Slave."

"Queen" is Nalwanga's first feature film and could put her in Oscar's supporting actress race. Whether she can connect as a first-timer with a lead actress nom can't be ruled out, but it certainly would be difficult to pull off.

A24 and Plan B Entertainment's R rated drama "Moonlight" is another film that could bring diversity to the Oscars. Written and directed by Barry Jenkins ("Medicine for Melancholy"), it began generating an awards sleeper hit buzz earlier this fall at film festivals in Telluride and Toronto. To keep that festival momentum going for "Moonlight," A24 was smart to set it as the opening night selection (Oct. 13) at the 11th annual Rome Film Festival.

The film, which begins exclusive engagements in the U.S. Oct. 21, is based on "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue," an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who has story credit on the movie.

It's the story of a 16 year journey of self-discovery by Chiron, a young black gay man growing up over those years in a tough Miami neighborhood while struggling to find his place in the world.

"Moonlight's" ensemble cast includes: Mahershala Ali, Shariff Earp, Duan 'Sandy' Sanderson, Alex R. Hibbert, Janelle Monae, Naomie Harris, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Trevante Rhodes and André Holland.

A24 did very well in last year's Oscar race with the drama "Room," which landed noms for best picture, directing (Lenny Abrahamson) and adapted screenplay (Emma Donoghue) and a Best Actress win for Brie Larson. Moreover, Larson also won lead actress awards from BAFTA, SAG and the Globes.

The New York Film Festival's opening night selection on Sept. 30 was the world premiere of another movie that should resonate strongly with Academy voters who want to embrace diversity. That film was Netflix's documentary "The 13th," directed and co-written (with Spencer Averick) by Ava DuVernay, a Golden Globe and Critics Choice nominee in 2015 for directing "Selma." It opens this Friday (Oct. 7) on Netflix and in limited theatrical release.

DuVernay didn't get into the Oscar race for directing "Selma," a biographical drama about the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., although the movie, itself, landed a best picture Oscar nod.

In "13th," DuVernay focuses on the history of racial inequality and conflict in the U.S., which could propel her film into Oscar's documentary feature race. The movie's title refers to the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. That loophole exception is seen in the film as having inspired the incarceration of African-Americans in the South, making it possible to force them to work although technically no longer as "slaves."

With Academy interest in diversity greater than ever right now, Oscar's mostly male and mostly white directors' branch and the equally mostly male and mostly white DGA membership could give DuVernay serious consideration as a high profile female director of color.

Focus Features and Big Beach Films' PG-13 rated biographical drama "Loving" is directed by Jeff Nichols ("Midnight Special") and stars Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton and Will Dalton. It opens with exclusive engagements Nov. 4 and expands Nov. 11.

"Loving" was a Palme d'Or nominee last May at the Cannes Film Festival, where it received good reviews and got an awards buzz going for Negga, who is a native of Ethiopia.

It's the true life story of Richard and Mildred Loving, whose interracial marriage in 1958 Virginia leads to them being sent to prison.

Paramount and Scott Rudin Productions' drama "Fences" is one of the highest profile Oscar contenders on the horizon.

Directed by Denzel Washington ("Antwone Fisher"), who also stars in it opposite Viola Davis and Mykelti Williamson, it opens exclusive engagements Dec. 16 and goes wide Dec. 25.

Washington plays a father struggling in the 1950s with race relations in America as he tries to raise his family and deal with how his life has gone.

"Fences" comes into the Oscar race with a truly enviable awards pedigree that could put into a wide range of categories. It's based on the stage play by August Wilson, who also wrote its screenplay. He won the Pulitzer Prize for "Fences" (1987) and "The Piano Lesson" (1990) and won the New York Drama Critics Circle Awards for "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," "Fences," "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," "The Piano Lesson," "Two Trains Running" and "Seven Guitars."

In 2010, Washington starred on Broadway opposite Davis in a revival of "Fences," for which they both won Tony awards.

Washington is a two time Oscar winner – in 1990 for supporting actor in "Glory;" and in 2002 for lead actor in "Training Day."

Davis is a two time Oscar nominee – in 2009 for supporting actress in "Doubt;" and in 2012 for lead actress in "The Help."

Scott Rudin, who produced "Fences" with Washington and Todd Black ("Antwone Fisher"), was a producer of the 2008 Oscar winning best picture "No Country For Old Men." He received six other best picture Oscar nods, including: "The Hours" (2003), "True Grit" (2011), "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" (2012), "Captain Phillips" (2014) and "The Grand Budapest Hotel" (2015).

The film also boasts behind-the-camera contributions from some of Hollywood's most successful award winning filmmakers of color.

Film editor Hughes Winborne won the film editing Oscar in 2006 for "Crash."

Production designer David Gropman is a two time Oscar nominee – in 2000 for set decoration for "The Cider House Rules;" and in 2013 for production design for "The Life of Pi."

Costume designer Sharen Davis is a two time Oscar nominee – in 2005 for "Ray" and in 2007 for "Dreamgirls." Besides her proven talents, she's especially well positioned as a woman of color for Oscar consideration now.

There also are two other films on the horizon with strong diversity appeal that aren't yet scheduled for release this year, but that could be given qualifying Oscar runs.

In late June, the Academy announced new rules governing eligibility runs for theatrical features, specifying that, "to be eligible for 2016 Academy Awards consideration in most categories, a feature-length film will still need to complete a Los Angeles qualifying run of at least seven consecutive days, but screenings during this period must now occur at least three times daily, with at least one screening beginning between 6 and 10 PM daily."

 20th Century Fox, Fox 2000 Pictures and Chernin Entertainment's drama "Hidden Figures" is scheduled to open wide Jan. 13 for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. Directed by Theodore Melfi ("St. Vincent"), it stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe.

Fox showed some scenes from "Hidden" Sept. 30 at TIFF that immediately sparked an enthusiastic Oscar buzz. Hollywood handicappers have speculated since then that Fox might qualify "Hidden" for Oscar consideration this year if the studio feels it needs another title to put in front of Academy members. That decision would relate to how well "Birth" holds up in the face of controversy.

"Hidden" also has an encouraging Oscar pedigree. Spencer won the supporting actress Oscar, BAFTA, Critics Choice, SAG Award and Globe in 2012 for "The Help." Henson was a supporting actress Oscar and SAG nominee in 2009 for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." 

Monáe doesn't have any high profile awards under her belt yet, but she could attract Academy consideration for "Hidden" since she's also starring in another Oscar contender -- "Moonlight," opening Oct. 21.

Melfi as a director of color with a well regarded film to his credit is also well positioned to receive serious consideration from Oscar's directors branch as well as from DGA members.

In addition to "Birth," Fox Searchlight has a strong diversity driven potential Oscar contender in the true-life romantic drama "A United Kingdom" that's scheduled to open next Feb. 17. It could easily be given a qualifying run that would put it in this year's competition to make sure Searchlight has a strong horse in the race.

"Kingdom's" got the additional diversity advantage of being directed by a woman of color, Amma Asante ("Belle"), who's also an actress and screenwriter. The film stars Rosamund Pike, Tom Felton and David Oyelowo.

Oyelowo as Botswanian prince Seretse Khamaprompts an international controversy in the late 1940s by marrying a white British woman (Pike).

Oyelowo, who's also a potential lead actor nominee for "Queen of Katwe" (see above), was a best actor Golden Globe nominee in 2015 for playing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in "Selma," but was snubbed by Academy voters. With diversity now very much on Oscar's mind, they could right that wrong by nominating him this year for "Queen" or for "Kingdom," if it gets a qualifying run.

Bottom line: Despite their widespread enthusiasm for making Oscar noms that reflect diversity, Academy members also want to honor the kind of films they believe present Hollywood's best face – i.e., best "serious" face – to the world. Typically, that view works against mainstream movies, comedies, action adventures, horror thrillers and superhero epics, no matter how well made they are or who's in them.

Last year that movie genre prejudice was said to have worked against the biographical drama "Concussion" and its star Will Smith, who played a neuropathologist dealing with the dangers of football-related brain trauma. Academy watchers speculated at the time that the picture was just too mainstream to resonate with high-minded Oscar voters.

Smith will have another shot at a best actor Oscar nod this year for Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures' "Collateral Beauty," opening wide Dec. 16, but it's also a mainstream appeal drama. Directed by David Frankel ("The Devil Wears Prada"), it also stars Keira Knightley and Kate Winslet.

Smith plays a New York advertising executive who's withdrawn from life after a personal tragedy. To try to push him to deal with his grief, his colleagues put together a drastic plan.

Smith is a two-time lead actor Oscar nominee – in 2002 for "Ali" and in 2007 for "The Pursuit of Happyness."

While Smith is "Beauty's" potential diversity nom, the film could also surface in other acting categories.

Winslet won the lead actress Oscar in 2009 for "The Reader" and has another six Oscar acting noms to her credit.

Knightley is a two-time Oscar nominee – in 2006 for lead actress in "Pride & Prejudice" and in 2015 for supporting actress in "The Imitation Game."