Will Hollywood Learn From Hidden Figures’s Success?
Hidden Figures has been the breakout film of 2017 thus far. Starring three African American women (played by Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe, and Octavia Spencer), it focuses on an unheralded piece of American history: the work of black female mathematicians and engineers at NASA in the 1960s. Released to strong reviews, Hidden Figures seems destined for a few Academy Award nominations next week. Since it expanded nationwide, it has spent two weeks at the top of the box office, ahead of big-budget films like Monster Trucks, Patriots Day, Live By Night, and Oscar frontrunner La La Land. Made for a comparatively small $25 million, the film is essentially guaranteed to gross at least $100 million in the United States alone, posting a very healthy profit for its studio, 20th Century Fox. The viewing public’s desire for a film like Hidden Figures is indisputable. So why does Hollywood make so few of them?
In 2015, only 32 of the top 100 films at the box office featured a female lead or co-lead; only three of those leads were women of color, and almost half of them did not feature a black female character in any capacity. After having an all-white slate of acting nominees for two years in a row (spurring the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite), the Academy is trying to diversify its voting body with the hope of rewarding a broader selection of films. But Hollywood at large is showing few traces of change. Last year’s most successful films, largely superhero sequels and animated blockbusters, lack for variety in their storytelling. The slow nature of film production means it can take years to really reflect a shift in studio thinking, but Hidden Figures still feels (disappointingly) like an anomaly rather than a sign of a real transformation.
Hollywood is happy to turn out a handful of small, independent pictures like this but, really, the whole thing is built around larger movies with special effects that will appeal to global audiences. The economics are such that, if they were to shift everything, lay off thousands of special effects people, and try to make movies like this, it would bankrupt the industry faster than it's going bankrupt now.
In short, they want to make movies Chinese teenage boys will want to see, own, and watch repeatedly. They don't want to empower a generation of African-American actors and then start having to pay them what they're worth. The only way they can survive is to keep making superhero films that don't suck. They don't care about filmmaking or art anymore--it's not 1970. The biggest directors are not visionaries--they're successful project managers who can work for months on end and produce content.
Who's the new Robert Altman and why isn't he making movies?
Octavia Spencer alone is one of the greatest actors of her generation. She's not just an actress. She's not just a black actress. She's a fucking actor. They don't treat her like Tom Hardy, Michael Fassbender, or Tom Hanks because they think she's not a movie star. Put her in a movie with five or six other people who can act, make her the lead, and she'll blow the fucking doors off of people. Do you think there's a Hollywood producer out there ready to sell that to a studio? Who's going to give her $10 million to start in a film and have her as the top billed actor?
Nobody. And that's a crying goddamned shame. She's amazing. And she's undervalued and under appreciated.