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What does the 12 Years a Slave best-picture win mean?

12 Years a Slave counters Hollywood conventional wisdom that American black films don't sell internationally.

Jaap Buitendijk/AP

The first best picture in Oscar's history directed by a black director, and Hollywood's first serious look at slave history, 12 Years a Slave is a breakthrough. A challenging movie by a maverick director, Steve McQueen, backed by a major Hollywood star, Brad Pitt, it signals a significant shift in the movie world. It's also raised the bar for historical responsibility and proved audiences are open to more serious fare than Hollywood usually offers.

Here are five key lessons to be learned from Sunday night's best-picture win.

The diversity genie is officially out of the bottle

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After a 2012 Los Angeles Times investigation revealed that the 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences were 94 per cent white, the Academy reacted, recruiting more than 200 new members with a focus on diversity. The front-runner status of 12 Years a Slave became a perfect opportunity to show the Academy's changing face, and Sunday's broadcast prominently featured Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Tyler Perry, Viola Davis, Whoopi Goldberg and Sidney Poitier as presenters. The Academy's new president, African-American Cheryl Boone Isaacs, said that with 12 Years' success, "a major door will have been kicked down … I believe very strongly that the entertainment and motion picture business is going to be more open and aware of different voices."

Black films sell internationally

12 Years a Slave counters Hollywood conventional wisdom that American black films don't sell internationally. The Help earned $216-million (U.S.) at the box office, but 80 per cent of that was domestic. 12 Years a Slave was deliberately held back until January in most international markets after it had built up critical momentum. Made for about $22-million, the film has earned $140-million and counting; $90-million of that has been internationally. Not that the box office is dead at home: Fox Searchlight is planning on expanding 12 Years a Slave into 1,000 theatres on March 7, even though it was available on DVD on March 4.

Black history is not confined to the shortest month of the year

Hollywood's history has been defined by the western, a genre that mythologizes the 25-year period between the end of the Civil War and the closing of the frontier, while a drama that consumed America for most of its history has been given short shrift, at least until the Obama presidency. 12 Years a Slave is the crowning achievement of a series of civil-rights themed films released since Barack Obama's 2008 election, including Precious, The Help, Django Unchained, Lincoln, The Butler, Fruitvale Station. As Alfre Woodard, one of the stars of 12 Years, put it: "There's an oil field waiting to be tapped." Now the movies can offer a different lens on American history: The National School Board Association is recommending that U.S. public high schools feature the film in their curriculum.

Handsome is as handsome does

When Steve McQueen said on Sunday that 12 Years a Slave would not have been possible without Brad Pitt, he meant it. While 12 Years was about a 10th the budget of World War Z, the controversy-plagued film Pitt was making at the same time, he gave the film his experience and celebrity clout to help raise funds. A few of his production company's other successes include The Departed, Moneyball, The Tree of Life and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The only star with a comparable track record as a producer is George Clooney, whose credits include The Monuments Men, August: Osage County, Argo, Michael Clayton and Syriana.

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TIFF insists on kingmaker role

The producers of 12 Years a Slave knew that they wanted their premiere in North America since 12 Years is an American story, so they chose Toronto rather than Venice. Fans on King Street screamed for Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender, turning the premiere into a hotly covered media event. When the film won the audience award, it was instantly hailed as the Oscar front-runner. There was one catch: 12 Years, along with another Oscar front-runner, Gravity, actually had their debuts the week before TIFF at the much smaller Telluride Festival, where both films received their first rave reviews. Toronto festival organizers, who had previously downplayed Telluride's importance, changed their strategy and insisted that all films shown on the first four days of the festival must be premieres.

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