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Diversity Spotlight: The case for inclusion in Hollywood

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Diversity Spotlight: The case for inclusion in Hollywood

This is the last installment in a multipart series on how shifting viewer demographics and behaviors are putting increased attention on hiring diverse individuals in the media and telecommunications industries. Earlier articles focused on advertisers, TV operators, programmers and industry data.

Hollywood has a diversity problem, and it is going to take more than one "Wonder Woman" to fix it.

In the wake of sexual harassment scandals involving movie executive Harvey Weinstein and others, more attention has been called to the issue. But the data shows that progress in casting diverse voices both in front of and behind the cameras has been slow, even as films like "Hidden Figures," "Get Out" and "Bad Moms" show that movies with diverse representation can be box office hits.

Each of those films made profit margins near or above 20% on total theatrical revenue below $300 million, according to data from Kagan, a media research unit of S&P Global Market Intelligence. Then "Wonder Woman" broke out this year, smashing records not only as a female-driven superhero movie, but also as the top-grossing live-action film by a female director. The film collected over $1 billion by the time it left theaters, for a 49.8% profit margin.

"There are grand swaths of people that would love to see themselves represented on screen, and there is gold in those hills," Stacy Smith, director of media, diversity and social change at University of Southern California Annenberg, said in an interview. "It makes absolutely no sense that financiers are relying on these very tired tropes of storytelling when there is money to be made in markets that no one is investing in seriously."

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USC's Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative, which produces a comprehensive annual report on representation in film, concluded that not only were minorities underrepresented on film in 2016, but that there had been no "meaningful change" in the on-screen portrayals of all measured minority groups in the past decade. The USC study examines speaking or named characters for gender, race/ethnicity, LGBT and disability across the top 900 fictional films in the U.S. box office. As of 2016, 70.8% of characters in the top 100 highest-grossing movies in the U.S. were white.

Franklin Leonard, film executive and founder of online digital marketplace Black List, a platform that facilitates networking between scriptwriters and buyers, is perplexed by the persistence of the trend, especially considering black and Hispanic audiences see more films per capita than white audiences. According to the Motion Picture Association of America's 2016 Theatrical Market Statistics report, while Caucasians represent about 62% of the total U.S. population, this group bought only 51% of movie tickets sold in 2016. Meanwhile, the data indicated African American, Hispanic and Asian audiences all purchased higher percentages of movie tickets compared to each group's representation in the general population.

"If you're making purely rational economic decisions about what the audience looks like, historically you'd be making more movies with people of color, more movies centered on women," Leonard said in an interview.

Creative Artists Agency, one of the most dominant talent agencies in Los Angeles, in June released a database for diversity research in film. According to its findings, "at every budget level, a cast that is at least 30% non-white outperforms a release that is not" in its opening weekend. Furthermore, of the top 10 grossing movies in 2016, 47% of the opening weekend audience was non-white, and the average opening weekend box office for films with audiences that were between 38% and 70% diverse was $31 million, well above the $12 million average for films with non-diverse audiences.

"Cast diversity is linked to expanded marketing opportunities and impact, which, in effect, invites all audiences," the study concluded.

Leonard, Smith and other experts pointed to the psychological principal that people tend to favor others that have similar appearance and background, tracing the problem of diversity to the investors, studio executives and directors green-lighting and casting films. According to USC's data, only 4.1% of directors at top U.S. films from 2007 to 2016 were female.

"The decisions makers, those who decide what gets made and gets financed, are not representative of the diverse movie-going public," film investor Chuck Bush of Great Road Capital said in an interview.

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Blind auditions helped orchestras reach gender diversity, and Bush and Leonard said the same meritocratic processes should apply to movie making. But the people with the purse strings in Hollywood are notoriously risk averse, Bush said. It is much easier to use proven actors, writers and directors when launching a film project, and those tend to be white males. TV offers more opportunities for trial and error through pilot seasons and lower-budget projects, he noted.

On the other hand, Leonard and Smith said that there was a dearth of in-depth research into the global success of diverse films. Of the studies that had been done, like the CAA report, the data indicates that diverse films perform better. This makes the risk-aversion argument a false premise, they argued.

Bush said that filmmakers should cast actors across a myriad of roles to reflect the diversity of the population as a whole, not just for films like "12 Years a Slave" that deal with diversity issues directly. This sentiment was echoed by Writers Guild of America West Director of Diversity Tery Lopez. As a Latina, movies like "Lords of Dogtown," about the rise of modern skateboarding in Venice, Calif., made a big impression on her. The main characters happened to be Latino, but the film was not focused on "Latino issues."

"For Latinos who saw that film in the United States, you better believe they saw themselves in there," she said. "I think that's what these underrepresented communities want, to just see themselves represented."

Despite lackluster improvement in Hollywood diversity to date, Lopez and Bush said they see reasons for optimism. Film investment firms that prioritize diversity are growing rapidly, Bush said. Lopez noted the number of requests for diverse writers at the WGA are also on the rise.

USC's Smith argued in her report that it is up to studio executives, talent and consumers to effect change in the industry: Executives can enforce inclusion goals. Actors, directors and other talent can press for equitable processes in hiring and casting. And consumers can choose to support diverse content at the box office.