Will the Oscars boycott have an impact?

Will boycotting the Oscars make a difference? Will it move the diversity needle in Hollywood and promote real change?

For two years in a row, not a single person of color has been nominated for one of the 20 coveted acting Academy Awards. Igniting the recent #OscarsSoWhite controversy, several prominent Hollywood celebrities are calling for a boycott of this year's Academy Awards.

The controversy is already having an impact.

Actor Will Smith attends the premiere of Warner Bros. Pictures' 'Focus' at TCL Chinese Theatre on February 24, 2015 in Hollywood, California.
Getty Images

With pressure coming from Hollywood royalty like George Clooney to Will Smith, the academy quickly responded with action — announcing new initiatives to diversify its voting membership, including adding seats to its board as well as launching a global campaign to recruit more diverse members. It is not widely known what the current academy demographic is but a Los Angeles Times study found that academy voters were 94 percent Caucasian and 77 percent male.

The real work, however, is in causing a shift where it really counts — not with prizes but with the major film studios where the big decisions are made.

A recent study by the USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, reported by the Los Angeles Times, found that women, minorities and gay/lesbian/transgender people were underrepresented at all levels of the industry, concluding that there is an "epidemic of invisibility."

From a strategic perspective, the only way to lead people to water and make them drink is if you siphon off their cash flow. Why did the bus boycotts work during the civil-rights movement? It was not because everyone started believing equality was the righteous path for our democracy. The direct economic impact pushed companies toward bankruptcy. Then, the bus companies responded to this pressure with change.

Money talks when people walk. Whenever we buy something, we vote with our dollars. Companies respond by supplying what consumers demand. If people stopped watching certain films, we would see change.

Studio executives at companies like 20th Century Fox, Walt Disney Pictures, and Warner Brothers Pictures, who select what gets made, need to be held accountable for being more inclusive. This is about going beyond addressing the symptoms and, instead, creating a cure. This is about hiring and creating opportunities for more minorities and women.

Not until the industry's leadership changes will we have more films with diverse talent to even pick from for awards like the Oscars. When the people in the boardroom start looking like the rest of America, then we will evolve from just having the black director tell the "black" story in Selma to also having a black director or producer make what should be a race-neutral story like James Bond.

This time next year, we will probably see a marginal uptick in diversity with who gets an Oscar nomination. But, change will not happen overnight. It will take time for the academy to expand its voting membership given its strict membership requirements.

The trick is making them want to change. It has to be in their economic best interest. Maybe not through a film boycott, but by consumers showing that they want to see their stories told and reflected on screen. Industry executives should know there is a market for a broader range of stories that generate revenues at the box office.

Commentary by Fatimah Gilliam, the founder and CEO of the Azara Group, which is a leadership-development, negotiation, and strategy consulting business. She started her career on Wall Street as a corporate attorney, worked for one of the top global financial services companies and the United Nations. Follow the company on Twitter @TheAzaraGroup.

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