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The Moving Target

by larrydachslager on February 20th, 2016

 

Imagine you’re standing on a stage. The house lights come up and you can see the individual audience members clearly. Picture their faces.

Now imagine the outside of a movie theater. There is a long line of eager patrons waiting to purchase tickets. Again, picture their excited expressions. Remember those faces. I’ll come back to them later.

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It’s no surprise that I love old movies. Yet I watch them with full realization that, for better and worse, they reflect the times in which they were made. It is sad and astonishing that diversity in mainstream American films is a hotly discussed topic in 2016. Surely by this point we should all be rolling our eyes at how politically and socially unenlightened movies and moviemaking once were, rather than still being frustrated at how bereft of diversity they still are, onscreen and off.

As we all know, the catalyst for the most recent firestorm was the recent Oscar nominations, prompting many to accuse the Academy’s members of being racist and exclusive. (Those who know me already know how I feel about the Oscars and other award shows, so I’ll refrain from a digressive rant on the subject.) Other protesters immediately recognized that the Oscars’ all-white nominee roster is indicative of a much larger problem – mainstream Hollywood producers’ stubborn unwillingness to adapt to changing times and provide equal opportunities to a more diverse community of artists and behind-the-scenes moguls.

Throughout the discussions about and between various groups of filmmakers, executives, Academy voters, etc., I have heard very little mention of the most vital group of all – the audience. What about the ticket-buying public for whom the films are made? This brings me back to my initial request. When you imagined the audience gazing at you and the faces of those standing in the movie line, did you picture a diverse group? Or did the faces all look pretty much the same?

I suggest that, for all the advanced technology that currently goes into American filmmaking, Hollywood executives show woefully little imagination when considering the demographic of the audience consuming their product. They seem to think that, with limited exceptions, only white people go to the movies. They therefore aim the films’ content and casting at that crowd. Notice the trailers that accompany the films we see. They typically match the genre, style, and yes… ethnicity prominent in the main feature. It appears that Hollywood producers and distributors have trouble imagining a single culturally diverse group of people as an audience, but rather suppose that we only go to the movies with people who look like we do.

Of course, aiming movie content at a predominantly white audience has been an unfortunate aspect of Hollywood history for generations. This is why older films are rife with negative images and xenophobic portrayals of non-whites as the servile or demonized “other.” Of course, back in those days, there were irrefutable financial reasons behind these stereotyped portrayals. For example, if a film depicted an African American character as someone other than a servant or as having some humanity or integrity, it would be boycotted by a substantial portion of the country, losing equally substantial box office revenue. Sadly, such “artistic” decisions were a matter of financial necessity if the films were to make money. Today, Hollywood has no such excuse.

The thing that makes the current mainstream film industry seem all the more prehistoric in terms of its limited representation of variety in American culture is that other media (advertising, TV, the internet) and smaller independent films have deftly and successfully embraced the concept of audience diversity and are continuing to move forward.

If you want to see social progress, watch today’s commercials. During its first two decades, the television industry suffered from the same malady as Hollywood – the false perception that the entire consumer population of “TV land” was white. This is most plainly demonstrated by the 50s-era Band-Aid commercial that proudly touts the product as being “almost invisible” by virtue of its being “flesh-colored,” suggesting that every person watching the ad has skin that matches the hue of generic Band-Aids.

By the early 1970s, however, advertisers caught on to the fact that TV viewership was socially varied and that all kinds of people make up consumerism. This was memorably and influentially demonstrated by Coca-Cola’s iconic ad from 1971.

Today, the scope of diversity in TV commercials is widening by the day, most recently including inter-racial families and the LGBT community among the target audience. Unlike the fiscally sycophantic approach Hollywood took to Southern politics in decades past, today’s advertisers see protests and threatened product boycotts as healthy publicity, placing the needs and of a progressive society over those of bigots.

I started watching TV again fairly recently after a twenty-year respite.  Clearly, television and internet-based programming are also stretching the reach of their embrace to be more all-inclusive and respectful of its multi-faceted audience.

It’s 2016. Hollywood decision-makers need to reconsider their definition of a “target audience.” Of course, this will be easiest and most effective when they themselves become diverse and culturally inclusive. Since advertising and small screen programming have made such great strides, Hollywood (and the rest of us) would surely benefit from not allowing technology to be the only way in which theatrical movies are making advancements. It’s time for the mainstream film industry to take a deep breath and rip off the old-fashioned monochromatic Band-Aid that is neither invisible nor “flesh-colored.” As we learned when we were children, it hurts more when you remove it slowly.

3 Comments
  1. Without question, the best and most succinct article I’ve read on this subject.

  2. mira permalink

    This couldn’t ring truer. I have not watched an award show in many years and probably never will.

  3. larrydachslager permalink

    Many thanks, Cheryl and Mira, for your comments. The speed at which I’m learning about computers is still mind-bendingly slow and I wasn’t aware of your kind words until just now. Thank you for reading!

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