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SXSW Panel: "The Future of Film Criticism: Diversify or Die"

RogerEbert.com publisher Chaz Ebert headed the South by Southwest panel “The Future of Film Criticism: Diversify or Die,"  which examined the divide between audiences and Hollywood decision makers, and suggested how film critics can help to bridge that gap. She was joined by  Justin Chang (chief film critic at Variety), Matt Zoller Seitz (editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com) and Rebecca Theodore-Vachon (an RE.com contributor)

Chaz said there are “so many different kinds of diversity in the world today," citing “physical abilities, gender and sexual orientation.” She then presented a clip of Roger Ebert berating another critic at Sundance for his “offensive and condescending” statement that Justin Lin’s “Better Luck Tomorrow” was “empty and amoral” in its depiction of Asian-Americans. Roger countered by saying “Asian-American characters have the right to be whoever they want to be” and not be forced into somehow representing an entire race. Chaz, a former civil rights attorney, stressed the need for films to find a way to “put you right in the shoes of someone” and to create “empathy in audiences.”

Rebecca Theodore-Vachon presented statistic culled from a 2012 study by Dr. Darnell Hunt of the University of California Los Angeles. Among other things, it said that 94% of all film studio heads were white men (with the departure of Amy Pascal at Sony, the percentage rises to 100). The study found that people of color, who make of 40% of the US population, were underrepresented by a factor of 2-to-1 at talent agencies. Film leads and directors were underrepresented by a 2-to-1 ratio, writers by 3-to-1. The study also found that while women comprise 50.8% of the US population and buy 52% of tickets sold in this country, they are underrepresented in screenwriting credits by a factor of 4-to-1, directors by 8-to-1.

Variety's Chang said he was disappointed that Ava DuVernay didn't get an Academy award nomination as best director for “Selma.” (DuVernay had been a SXSW keynote speaker earlier that day.) “Film critics did 'Selma' justice,” Chang said, adding that the movie put “black protagonists front and center, and [gave] them agency over their own narrative and their own destiny.”

Seitz said that when he started writing television criticism in the late '90s, it was a grim fact within the industry that shows which dealt with black themes or black casts were often “ghettoized” to the WB or the UPN, minor networks that later merged to form The CW. Television executives “could have qualified for the U.S. Gymnastics team the way they jumped and rolled and did back-flips around this question,” Seitz said, which led to an even more telling quote from one such exec. “I myself am not racist, but we are not running shows of color because the audience is racist.” Chaz warned that pandering to the prejudices of viewers was not the answer to economic worries, because “if you think you’re going to broaden your audience, you will narrow it.”

Theodore-Vachon said she was tired of hearing how “it should be the best person for the job” when it comes to casting decisions, when actors like Jared Leto and Eddie Redmayne are given precedence over actual transgendered actors. “People who are the gatekeepers and the decision makers are more comfortable opening the door for people who look like them," she said, adding that it's not necessarily racism or sexism driving such a mindset, but that it's “just easier to let in a college buddy or someone they know, while people of color and women don’t have that same sort of buddy system.” Seitz said that critics should "share in the responsibility in these casting decisions," and joked about actors being singled out for their “bravery” when playing transgendered or disabled characters: "How condescending is that?" 

The panelists agreed that it was good to have a diverse critical body analyzing films of all cultures. Seitz spoke of critics writing in other venues helped him get outside of his perspective as a white man. He quoted the opening to Roger’s review of Spike Lee’s “School Daze,” which described it as “the first movie in a long time where the black characters seem to be relating to one another, instead of to a hypothetical white audience.” Chaz said that when Roger started his website in 2002, he noticed that 30% of its readership came from outside of the U.S., which inspired him to create the Far-Flung Correspondents, a pool of international contributors.

An audience member involved with independent cinema brought up a dilemma related to foreign distribution:  when filmmakers want to fill major roles with actors of color, international funding sources often balk, citing statistics which show that nonwhite American have worse box office track records overseas than white stars.  In 2014, Denzel Washington in “The Equalizer” brought in the most overseas revenue for a studio film headlined by an African-American with $90.8 million. The highest grossing film in the U.S. the same year featuring black leads was “Ride Along,” which grossed $134.9 million here but only $19.8 million overseas. A number of African-American themed studio films don't even get overseas distribution.

Chaz speculated on where the international resistance might be coming from, saying that perhaps the the "images" of nonwhite characters that American filmmakers "exported were so negative that people didn’t want to see it. As people get more used to them and comfortable, it will bring them around and solve the problem.” She reminded the audience that the panel was not there to make them feel guilty; she said the discussion was simply an offshoot of thinking about diversity. “I was married to one of the most evolved human beings on Earth," she said. "That was the way he was made.”

Photo credit: Natalia Oberti Noguera

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