The full, hour-plus video of The Hollywood Reporter’s annual director roundtable went up yesterday, a bit later than usual, but you’ve basically seen it before. It’s not just that the panel of “the year’s most notable directors” (their words, not ours) was so homogenous – entirely male, and almost entirely white – though we’ll get to that. It’s the sheer sense of déjà vu in the group, a monotonous return of the same damn voices saying the same damn things. But it’s appropriate, as a symbol of both Hollywood in general and awards season in particular.
But first, let’s take a look at the panel: Quentin Tarantino (The Hateful Eight), Ridley Scott (The Martian), Alejandro González Iñárritu (The Revenant), Danny Boyle (Steve Jobs), Tom Hooper (The Danish Girl), and David O. Russell (Joy). If you think you’ve seen most of these guys doing one of these THR panels before, you’re right; Boyle did one (in 2008), Tarantino and Hooper did two each (Tarantino in 2009 and 2012, Hooper in 2010 and 2012), and this is somehow Russell’s fourth (2010, 2012, 2013). Exactly what earth-shaking insight did the THR people think Russell was going to add this year that he didn’t offer up in his three previous talks?
Done right, the director roundtable is a valuable resource, a fine opportunity for hearing intelligent filmmakers engage in thoughtful “shop talk.” And it occasionally results in memorable interactions, or, at the very least, indispensable GIFs:
But in recent years, the people at THR who select the participants have jettisoned their occasional out-of-the box picks (Lisa Cholodenko and Derek Cianfrance in 2010, Mike Mills in 2011) for their best guesses at the Oscar frontrunners, to the extent that the director roundtable has become something like an annual sitcom (who will roll their eyes at Tarantino in this year’s wacky episode?). The problem, of course, is that in order to coordinate the photo shoots and panel taping and layout and rollout and all the other details, they have to make those selections in early September – in many cases, well before anyone with any particular critical judgment has seen the films they’re being prematurely all-but-nominated for. So, contrary to their assertion, the roundtable isn’t “the year’s most notable directors”; it’s “the most notable directors of previous years, who have new movies coming out that may or may not be any good.”
So if, for example, anyone had actually seen Russell’s Joy, they might’ve know that this was perhaps the year to let him smugly opine elsewhere, and conversely, if anyone had actually seen Creed, they might’ve invited the exciting young writer/director of one of the year’s best movies instead (and made the panel a touch less blindingly white to boot). And if anyone had actually seen Hooper’s The Danish Girl, they might’ve known it was a mediocre movie that no one cared about, and invited Todd Haynes or John Crowley or George Miller or Diary of a Teenage Girl’s Marielle Heller (a woman, even!) in his place.
But this happens all the time. For God’s sake, Ben Stiller was on the 2013 panel for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (yes, they really tried to make that happen); back in 2012, Gus Van Sant (an alum of 2008, for Milk) was included for Promised Land, a movie I legitimately forgot even existed, and I’ll bet you did too. And last year, Angelina Jolie was on the panel for the horrid Unbroken; if the point of that was to include a Lady Director, any reasonable human would’ve invited Selma’s Ava DuVernay. Alas, that film committed the unpardonable offense of not coming out until the very end of the year – a sin for which it paid dearly – and while no one saw Unbroken (and, thus, how lousy Unbroken was) until December either, that didn’t keep it from the benefits of looking like an awards contender. And all fall long, movies like that or Joy or any number of others will show up on early predictions lists and polls at the many Oscar blogs and verticals, in spite of the fact that no one’s actually seen them. And thus these filmmakers will enjoy the “buzz” of an awards-worthy movie, without actually making one.
What, ultimately, does all of this matter? Simple: this is a town of illusion and perception, and when a periodical of THR’s power and influence proclaims these to be our filmmakers of note, it sticks. It’s not unlike the recent hullabaloo over THR’s lily-white actress cover, and their weak attempt to explain it away. “[As] we prepared for this cover, we discovered precisely zero actresses of color in the Oscar conversation,” shrugged editor Stephen Galloway, as though his own publication weren’t a prominent, tone-setting voice in that very “conversation.” But the logic at work when this publication selects the year’s notable filmmakers is the same logic responsible for our current, depressing lack of diversity in the director’s chair: go with the directors you know, go with the directors we know, and above all, go with the directors who look like you.