Films With Diverse Casts Are Moneymakers, But Diversity Survey Shows Hollywood Still Isn't Fully Cashing In
When Everything Everywhere All at Once swept the Oscars earlier this month, the show business tutorial was clear: Movies with diverse casts can generate a lot of awards.
The less obvious lesson, and now confirmed in a new study of Hollywood hiring practices: movies with diverse casts can generate a lot of profits, too.
Countless examinations of representation in film and television have revealed marginal gains for under-represented talent both in front of and behind the camera. But the latest deep dive into casting trends from UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report further demonstrates that movies with an inclusive range of performers make more money than those without.
Yet even with that financial incentive, meaningful change continues to be elusive, the UCLA researchers concluded: The industry not only fails to mirror the nation’s demographics, but also is losing ground in some key sectors.
Methodology and key findings
Now in its 10th year, the Hollywood Diversity Report examined the composition of performers and off-screen employees in the 200 English-language films with the highest global ticket sales last year, as well as the 100 English-language films with 2022’s biggest streaming ratings.
On an absolute basis, the report found several areas of improvement, even if on a relative basis (compared to the U.S. population) Hollywood still has much room for improvement.
Most telling, theatrical movies that cast people of color in 31% to 40% of the roles recorded the highest median box office grosses, while movies with cast that were less than 11% people of color did the worst. The performance for diverse movies on streaming platforms was similar, the report said.
What’s more, non-white moviegoers were largely responsible for Hollywood’s biggest opening weekends; people of color bought the majority of opening weekend tickets for six of 2022’s top 10 theatrical releases.
“Our research shows that diversity in the movies is just good business,” Ana-Christina Ramón, the director of UCLA’s Entertainment and Media Research Initiative, which produces the annual diversity report, said in a statement.
Driven by a wide swath of moviegoers (including older and younger patrons), Everything Everywhere All at Once was the best-performing art house title of last year, with ticket sales of more than $76 million.
“People of color saved the theatrical industry during the pandemic, and they are key to bringing the theatrical business back to its pre-pandemic levels,” Ramón said.
Our research shows that diversity in the movies is just good business.
Where Hollywood still comes up short
People of color received fewer than 22% of leading roles in 2022’s top 200 movie releases, despite constituting about twice that percentage of the nation’s population, down from more than 27% from the previous year’s UCLA inquiry. Still, the share of non-white leading roles has more than doubled since UCLA began its inquiry with 2011’s releases.
Among the top streaming releases from last year, people of color were cast in lead roles much more frequently than in theatrical releases, capturing a third of the top roles.
UCLA’s researchers for the first time evaluated how often actors with disabilities were cast, and the numbers were abysmal.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about one out of four Americans has a disability (predominantly for mobility and cognition), but Hollywood hasn’t noticed: people with disabilities claim barely 9% of theatrical lead roles, and barely 6% of streaming lead roles. Most of those disabilities are tied to mental health or learning issues; actors with physical disabilities are “rarely represented” at all, the UCLA report concluded.
Behind the camera, the gains were illusory. Last year, only 16.8% of the top 200 theatrical films were directed by a person of color, which is even down from 10 years ago. Women filmmakers accounted for just 14.6% of all directors of those 200 titles. Such homogenous hiring practices lead to homogenous casting, too: White male directors tend to have the least-diverse acting ensembles, UCLA’s researchers found.
Most screenwriters are white men, too — outside of one Asian female screenwriter, women of color “were nonexistent” among the authors of the top theatrical films in 2022, the report said.
“The idea that diversity on the big screen is somehow an inherently ‘riskier’ business proposition — which this report series debunked years ago — seemed to rear its ugly head again in 2022,” the report concluded. After a few years of steady, if nevertheless lethargic, progress, Hollywood has resorted to its old ways, the report said.
“In an era of economic uncertainty intensified by the pandemic, studios pushed for theatrical ‘surefire hits’ that relied on nostalgia and previous intellectual property,” the report said. “Instead of forging ahead with more inclusivity and new narratives, studios seemed to limit their theatrical offerings in 2022, which also limited the opportunities for certain filmmakers.”
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