Film director Hannah Fidell was already having a good day. She met with a female studio executive who made it clear that hiring women was a main priority.
When the 2007 Indiana University graduate, now based in Los Angeles, left the meeting and checked her phone, her day became unforgettable.
Fidell had been invited to join the academy. That’s the academy — the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization behind the Oscars.
“I was in shock,” Fidell said. “I had no idea that I had been put up for it, even. It was not something on my radar.”
Last week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced it had extended invitations to 683 new members in 2016.
The record number of invitations included 98 Oscar nominees and 28 winners. And notably, people of color comprised 41 percent of the new class, while 46 percent were women. All were deemed by the academy to “have distinguished themselves by their contributions to theatrical motion pictures.”
It was a bold stroke by the academy, a significant response to the #OscarsSoWhite outcry against the 2015 award nominees, the lack of diversity within the organization and its dominance by men.
Fidell said she doesn’t know whether her membership will have a major effect on her career in the short term. “It’s just a wonderful honor,” she said.”It’s definitely thrilling and an honor more than anything.”
Fidell will be in lofty company.
Invited directors include Julie Dash, Tamra Davis, Karyn Kusama and Nate Parker.
New invitees in acting include Adam Beach, Chadwick Boseman, America Ferrera, Vivica A. Fox, Michael B. Jordan, Daniel Dae Kim, Eva Mendes, Freida Pinto and Gabrielle Union.
When asked who she felt the most honored to be joining, Fidell said “Everyone!”
Still, one name stood out to her: Catherine Breillat. The pioneering French filmmaker is known for her version of “The Sleeping Beauty” and her frank approach to sexuality in films such as “Sex Is Comedy.”
“She’s truly one of my film idols,” Fidell said.
Director on the rise
Fidell was raised in Bethesda, Md., and paved her path to Hollywood by way of Bloomington. She earned her undergraduate degree at Indiana University, studying film through the Department of Telecommunications and Department of Communication and Culture in the years before they came together with journalism in The Media School.
When the Oklahoma Arts Institute was looking for young, talented filmmakers to serve as instructors this summer, IU Cinema director Jon Vickers recommended Fidell.
“Hannah is a great example for students of a young IU alumna who is telling the stories she wants to tell and making it in a very competitive indie film world,” Vickers said. “Being nominated to join the academy this year is a great validation for her work and a nice honor for IU and the faculty who guided her.”
Fidell spoke at IU Cinema in 2013 in a joint Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Lecture with another IU-educated independent filmmaker, Eliza Hittman. She returned in fall 2015 for a special screening of her film “6 Years” as part of the cinema’s “Directed by Women” celebration.
The academy’s Class of 2016 also includes several other past guests of IU Cinema: directors Nicolas Winding Refn and Abbas Kiarostami; and documentary filmmakers Douglas Blush, Shola Lynch and Joshua Oppenheimer. Iranian director Kiarostami, a winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, died July 4.
Barbara Ann O’Leary, the creator of the #DirectedbyWomen social media movement to celebrate all the world’s female filmmakers, was thrilled to see Fidell invited to the academy.
The academy’s sweeping effort to include more women resonates deeply with her.
“Invitation is a powerful force for transformation,” O’Leary said.”It’s at the heart of the work I’m doing with the #DirectedbyWomen initiative, so I’m particularly invigorated by the academy’s bold move to use the power of invitation to make a leap into a more inclusive era. It’s a strong step forward on the path to building a robust culture of appreciation within the global film community.”
Fidell is encouraged by what the academy’s step toward greater diversity could mean in Hollywood.
“I think it will mean that the films that get nominated for Oscars hopefully will be more diverse,” she said. “It’s a shift in not only the conversation but in the reality of the business.”
Fidell said that when a film is nominated or wins an Academy Award, the public attention it receives spirals: “It becomes a money-making machine, normally, because of the publicity and prestige.”
That financial boost can trickle down to individual actors. She said actors are generally judged — and paid — according to the amount of money they bring in at the box office.
“So if more diverse people are voting for who gets nominated and who wins, and then more diversity happens within the winners’ circle, that means those winners are worth more money,” Fidell said. “The whole process becomes more diverse.”
When true diversity begins to happen in Hollywood, we can all thank the academy.