Representation has been a conversation at the centre of the global film industry for months, years now even. A year ago now, #MeToo happened, taking down a number of power players of the industry, including mogul and kingmaker Harvey Weinstein, and effectively ending the career of actor Kevin Spacey, who are now waiting for the due process of judicial procedures initiated against them.
#MeToo has also morphed into #TimesUp, the resolve that harassment behaviour should and will no longer be tolerated in the creative industries. This wave is an unprecedented change in the business. This has also been included as part of broader conversations about the film industry that have been ongoing for a few years now. #BlackLivesMatter gave us the wonderful independent film Dear White People. What films will #MeToo and #TimesUp give us? Hopefully the 9 to 5 sequel, and many others.
Corporations as agents of change?
Independent films have been, by definition, freer and more prompt to address social issues such as those. They could have a voice, loud and clear, rising above the noise. This is why independent film is and remains the most nurturing haven for filmmakers seeking to create original, uncompromising work. Yet the conglomerates that rule the film industry seem to start to realise that the wind is changing directions. Could it be that there is hope for the film industry to change after all?
Corporations, in the entertainment industry or elsewhere, are defined by a number of invariable traits. The most salient ones are an aversion to risk, and a fondness for easy public relations moves. The latter has also included a number of announcements in the field of corporate social responsibility, i.e. easy ways to not make substantial changes while seeming woke. It’s basically what makes Unilever sell “woke” Ben and Jerry’s ice cream while also selling skin-bleaching creams in India.
Change in the film industry
As far as the film industry is concerned, the point is not that they should stop making money on films, is that they should make money for films that broaden everybody’s horizons. They seemed to hear it —and inevitably, they applied it wrong. This is how the Walt Disney Corporation, owner of both Walt Disney Studios (i.e. Marvel and Lucasfilm) and ABC (broadcaster of the Oscars every year), in a bid to make its Oscars broadcast more appealing to the masses that they cater to through their film studios (that’s the gutsiest vertical integration move ever) decided to create the popular film category, to recognise films defined quite loosely. That did not end well. Trying to do a superficial public relations move without actually moving because you are so risk-averse was not going to pass. Change will not come so easily and should not be so blatantly self-serving.
The point is not that film studios should stop making money. The message is that the money should be earned for films that broaden everyone’s horizons. In that respect, Steve McQueen’s Widows seems to be a landmark movie for the reasons explained best by the lead of the ensemble, Viola Davis:
A broader way to look at CSR
Corporate social responsibility has been a catchword for some time for companies of any size. It basically announcements about being green, enforcing recycling, limiting the number of paper cups they use. If they want to go the extra mile, and they hire a lot of millennials, they may hire a CHO, a Chief Happiness Officer.
A number of corporations, especially conglomerate-sized ones, may think like economist Milton Friedman: “The social responsibility of business,” he once said, “is to increase its profits.” However, it is no longer wholly so. Companies have taken on more responsibilities, health care and child care being some of them. One new hire may just mean a change of staff for HR, but it means a change of life for the new hire. Companies have taken on that fact.
By all accounts, working for large studios can be really satisfactory on that front. But the products that those companies put out does not have the same impact as that of another corporation: entertainment, culture, and art have implications that go far beyond the simple consumption of the product. For instance, if you buy a bottle of shampoo, it’s pretty much just a bottle of shampoo and once it is empty, you just throw it out. Books, films, television shows and so on, affect the way that people live. A film, at its best, will have an impact on someone for much longer than the 120 minutes that it lasts. After all, isn’t that why Disney bought Star Wars in the first place?
Franchises are taking over the world. They are easy intellectual properties to turn into movies, novelisations, and toys sold at Christmastime. They acknowledge that a film is not just a film. So why aren’t they acknowledging it when it is less politically convenient?
Walking the walk
To be fair, Disney have been making pushes for some diversity in their franchises. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy had a terrific message, and the Star Wars reboot has made a push for inclusion and given way to a spectacular backlash. The backlash doesn’t seem to have hindered box office intake.
It is time for those behemoths to understand that people are willing to put their money where their mouths are. Illegal downloading is a problem, but may become less of a problem if a cinema ticket wasn’t worth nearly £20. If a movie makes a conscious effort to represent them when it’s not politically convenient, people will turn up. Independent films that have done that, especially LGBT-focused films, have fared well. (If you want to argue in favour of 20th Century Fox release Bohemian Rhapsody, please read this first.) As ever, indie filmmakers are changing the world, and it’s time the rest of the industry caught up.