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I am the first person to have shown a completed film from New York Film Academy. In essence, that makes me the first graduate of that school. The year was 1992, when I wrote, storyboarded, cast, shot, edited and screened my film, "Somebody's Fool," at Robert De Niro's Tribeca Film Center, the location that NYFA occupied in its first couple of years, before moving to their own building, the former Tammany Hall on Union Square in 1994.

Since my class was the very first class, concessions were made. Tuition was a fraction of what it is today, but so was the curriculum: we had thirteen weeks from start to finish. Neither faculty nor students knew exactly how things were going to progress. And we all understood that going in. But the positive was that everyone in that inaugural class was offered the basics of how a film comes together and we all worked collectively as each other's support, from gaffers to actors. Why we didn't try to team up and create a production house of our own is one of many sad questions I will never be able to answer.


Of course, we were shooting on actual film stock in those long ago days, not digital, and we were editing on Steenbeck tables, literally cutting our footage! So, maybe our education wouldn't be quite so useful, now. But the point is, we were filmmakers, and we created some pretty interesting movies.

Making film is an expensive process. Yes, it's more affordable now with HD digital that can be transferred to standard 35MM film, or can even be shown as is, saving on developing and printing costs, but making a motion picture is a lot more than just the cost of equipment, props, costumes and actors.

You have to get a distribution deal: In order for your film to be seen, it has to play somewhere. That's why Hollywood studios matter so much. They have a pipeline to get their material on screens. In the olden days, the studios all owned theaters in various cities: You might have gone to the RKO theater to see "Citizen Kane," or you went to the Paramount to catch "Sunset Boulevard," for example. Today, there is a direct connection, a relationship between the movie houses like Regal, AMC, Cinemark and other large chains and Disney, Warner and yes, Sony among the studios cranking out the work.

Even if you make your film and you get your distribution deal, you have to promote that film. That means PR. Posters and billboards, trailers and commercials. The lead actors turning up on talk shows and doing press junkets. You have to generate interest so that people will attend the first weekend it plays, and your movie will "open." There have been some films where the budget for promotion equals or surpasses the cost of production! So, yeah. This can get extremely expensive.

But again, a studio film has support built in. They have the budget to promote. If a studio picks up your film, it will back it and you will get that attention through the system that works to support the product.

And that finally brings us to the title of this thinkpost.

A couple of people asked me what I thought about this year's Oscar Nominations. There was some controversy in that all of the 20 acting nominees were white (first time since 1998 that no minority actors were nominated). And the other issue was that several high profile women could have been nominated for Best Director, but they too, were overlooked. My first thought was to Chris Rock's commentary in The Hollywood Reporter, which appeared in the December 12, 2014 issue.

In the middle of the essay, Rock states: "It's a white industry just as the NBA is a black industry. I'm not even saying it's a bad thing. It just is."

But in thinking about that statement, I remembered that, at one time, the NBA was a white industry too. Minorities weren't allowed to play sports with whites for many years, basically because the owners of these teams has a "Gentlemen's Agreement" to not permit it. Then came Branch Rickey, the President and GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Jackie Robinson, baseball player extraordinaire, who broke that color barrier, 18 years before the Civil Rights Act became law and several years before the National Basketball Association did so.

But, let's face it. Rickey knew talent when he saw it. Yes this was a breakthrough moment for blacks, but it was also a profitable moment for sports. Jackie Robinson wasn't just a player, he was a great player, winning Rookie of the Year in the face of severe hatred from fans in foreign cities. And Rickey surely knew that fans would be in full attendance to see Robinson play, whether they liked him or not. There was money to be made, and that sealed the deal.

Hollywood could take a lesson here, because in order to find great filmmakers, you have to go searching for them. But this comes back to the overarching problem (no St. Louis pun intended), that is still firmly in place: racism.

To be a filmmaker you still need money, but you also need time. You need the ability be able to sit down and write a story, to plot the shots, to get a cast, to book an editing suite, to support the work. Even on a shoestring, this is not easy, and working on a shoestring typically isn't going to be enough to get the attention of the people who could lift you to that place where you can achieve your goals. Yes you can attend a film school. But that costs about as much as the price of making a first film anyhow. Where is this money coming from?

The one advantage minorities have in sports that doesn't seem to be readily available in Hollywood is having a minor league system. Yes, there are "Student Academy Awards," but again, you have to be a student to get there. If you knew you could be a great filmmaker but had no money to support that, you were nowhere near New York or Los Angeles, the entertainment capitals, you had to make your rent and you have no time for being able to even consider making film, what hope is there?

Obviously, there have been some successes and people have to fight like crazy to get their projects completed. But is it fair that some people have to bend over backwards while others just stroll in, standing up? The point is even a known and respected director like Spike Lee has to release his latest work ("Da Sweet Blood of Jesus") digitally while Woody Allen will have a theatrical release for his newest picture, the story of a College professor having a liaison with his student.

Despite the current climate, I don't think the vast majority of people in 2015 would make a statement like: "I don't want to follow the Seattle Seahawks. They have a black quarterback, so I don't want to watch them play." And yet, that's the basic story many execs at the studios are trotting out for why more films with minority leads aren't getting greenlighted. If blacks are in the film, then race has to be germane to the storyline, and white audiences won't want to pay to see it, or so we're told.

With so few examples of black directors out there, it's difficult to know just what stories might get turned into screenplays by them, or really, by all of the people who haven't had that chance yet. But racism and the elements of racism are blocking so many stories that we will never see, hear or be moved by, it makes you wonder. Why isn't Hollywood fighting to open the doors to a new group of faces and voices, a new understanding of filmmaking? Surely anyone even taking a casual glance could see how that can help lead to less racism in our society, and better quality work on both the big and small screens for audiences everywhere!

The answer that Hollywood generally trots out on the issue of minorities and women is a standard Status Quo: it's just how things are. And there is no interest in changing because the system as it is continues to provide the money to allow the people running that system to continue to operate as they have been. As is always the case, when some among us are not being fairly represented, this needs to change.

Though the issues of racism are still firmly entrenched, we can still do things to improve Hollywood's stance. And it's not all punitive. People always discuss the concept of "boycotting" films or studios to make a statement. That might be appropriate in specific cases, but what needs to happen most is encouragement.

We need to encourage even more corporations and studios to seek out and find more filmmakers of all sorts, not just more of the same. We need to help support films we want to see by attending them, viewing them on demand or on TV when they air and adding them to our collections when possible. We need to help promote filmmakers we see in every way possible. We should like their videos and subscribe to their YouTube channels. Leave positive comments and link their work so more people can see it, all small steps in overcoming a great gulf.

Movies tell the stories we want to leave as a legacy for those that come after us. We should want those future generations to see all of the stories that help to tell that history, not just the ones some studio chief thought would have the biggest opening. Not every film is going to make 100 million dollars its first weekend and win Academy Awards in 11 categories. But that doesn't mean those other films don't deserve to be seen and appreciated, maybe even more than some of the ones that got all the accolades.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
stevegreen
Jan. 18th, 2015 12:52 am (UTC)
Why we didn't try to team up and create a production house of our own is one of many sad questions I will never be able to answer.

Two of the biggest words in the universe, Dean: "What if..?"
penpusher
Jan. 18th, 2015 02:30 am (UTC)
I wanted to get it going, as is usually the case. I'm the one trying to get the teamwork to work. I did stay friends with my cinematographer on my film for a couple of years. But even he headed on his own way eventually.

This happened with my classmates from Clown College, from Voice Over Workshops, from NYFA... clearly, I don't have what it takes to motivate and inspire a group to work together.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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