One of the most buzzed-about movies at this year's Sundance Film Festival is Dope, a coming-of-age story about three outcasts in the inner city.
Written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa and featuring a diverse cast of actors, the film spawned a bidding war before domestic and international distributions rights were snapped up late Monday.
But when Famuyiwa and his producing partners, including Forest Whitaker and Pharrell Williams, initially shopped the film around to Hollywood studios, no one bit.
"I don't know if there's a recognition on the part of those who make these decisions that we're living in a world that doesn't look like what's being reflected on screen," Famuyiwa said.
Two years ago, a similar bidding battle broke out over another film that premiered at the festival, Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler's dramatization of the killing of Oscar Grant by police in Oakland, Calif. A year before that, Selma director Ava DuVernay was named best director at Sundance for her debut feature, Middle of Nowhere, about a woman whose husband is sentenced to eight years in prison.
But while films by and about black people fare well at the independent festival, that success rarely translates to the Hollywood mainstream. Whiplash won the audience and jury awards at Sundance last year, and now it's up for a best-picture Oscar. Fruitvale Station, however, won the same two prizes at Sundance, but didn't get any Oscar attention.
Studios will have to start paying attention – not only because of the backlash against the all-white Oscar nominations and snub of Selma director Ava DuVernay and star David Oyelowo, but because it's just good business, Famuyiwa and others said.
"It could be why it's getting harder and harder to get people into the cinemas and multiplexes," Famuyiwa said, "because we're just seeing a world that doesn't reflect reality."
Sacha Jenkins, whose documentary about hip-hop fashion, Fresh Dressed, premiered at Sundance last week, suggests that Hollywood needs more executives of colour, and they need to be granted the same room to fail and succeed as other studio honchos.
"Like, just because I'm black or Latino or whatever, it doesn't mean I'm the go-to guy for all things black and Latino," he said. "Folks also need the opportunity to go beyond the box that you expect them to be in."
The chief executives at the five biggest Hollywood studios are white men.
Even with executives in place who are receptive to more diverse stories and storytellers, Hollywood studios still treat such stories as more the exception than rule, Famuyiwa said.
"They're stuck in ... old ways of thinking that the country and many other industries and businesses have already recognized and moved beyond," Famuyiwa said. "I think there's a sense sometimes when studios make these films that they're doing favours or that it's sort of a charity case – we're doing it because it's the right thing to do – but it's just good business at this point."
Diverse voices and stories are an inherent part of an independent festival, said Sundance founder Robert Redford.
"We believe in diversity and freedom of expression is very much fundamental to us," he said. "You see films here that are going to upset other people, but that's okay. We will do everything in our power to keep [diversity] alive here."
The Sundance Institute intentionally seeks voices outside the mainstream with unique stories to tell. And its own research confirms that as the stakes go up – bigger budgets, bigger distributors – diversity goes down.
"The pipeline of young talent interested in telling stories is there, but somewhere along the way, they fall out of the business equation, of getting that work made," said Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute. "So as money comes into the equation, diversity – whether it's gender or racial and ethnic diversity – seems to step out."
Multiplex movie going is also an issue, said Shaun Kosta, who released his first film, The Republic of Two, about a twentysomething co-habitating couple facing the challenges of love, over the summer. As multiplexes replace independent theatres and moviegoing becomes more of an event, both exhibitors and ticket buyers are less likely to take chances on unproven stories and storytellers.
"It comes down to proximity and what's available," he said.
That's where cinemas may be short-sighted. Famuyiwa cites some of today's popular TV shows: Orange Is the New Black, Empire, How to Get Away With Murder – all of which feature diverse casts.
"There's a hunger our there for different types of stories, and I think there's an audience that's waiting and primed to accept a vision of America that looks like what they see when they walk out of the door each day," Famuyiwa said. "We're a country of many different cultures, and that's always what has made this country stand out.
"It almost feels like making diverse movies is the most American thing you can do."