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Study Says Diversity In Movie Casting And Plot Can Mean Bigger Profits

The late Chadwick Boseman at the 2018 L.A. premiere of Black Panther at the Dolby Theatre. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)
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Hollywood’s moral compass may often stray far off course, but there’s one direction the industry will invariably follow: towards money.

Now, according to a new study, there’s proof the movie business can be principled and profitable at the same time, as long as there’s an understanding of what authentic inclusion looks like.

UCLA’s Center for Scholars & Storytellers examined more than 100 prominent movies released between 2016 and 2019, essentially comparing a production’s diversity to its return on investment. The investigation concluded, thanks to releases such as “Black Panther,” “Coco” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” that “movies with racially diverse cast members perform better at the box office.”

What sets the study apart from other research — and advances the new diversity rules for films contending for the best picture Academy Award — is how inclusion itself is defined, beyond a numerical hiring scorecard.

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The UCLA researchers came up with the phrase Authentically Inclusive Representation (AIR), which aims to redefine how true diversity can be measured. According to the AIR standards, a film not only has to include diverse talent in front of and behind the camera, but also must tell a culturally relevant story without stereotypes.

The study cited the performance of two recent Star Wars movies to demonstrate the potential benefits of a good AIR score, which derive from an analysis at the ratings site Mediaverity.

“Solo: A Star Wars Story,” which the report said failed to meaningfully integrate diversity, grossed a comparatively anemic $392 million worldwide in 2018 (costing the Walt Disney Co. tens of millions of dollars in losses). With a better AIR score for multiple non-white actors in leading roles, 2016’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” grossed nearly $1.1 billion worldwide.

Of course, one of those films was much better-reviewed than the other, but the UCLA researchers said such an AIR comparison is nevertheless relevant.

The report admitted that its sample size was comparatively small, given that hundreds of movies are released every year. What’s more, not every film has a reported production budget, and Mediaverity similarly doesn’t give every release an AIR score.

“However, we believe that our sample of 109 films captured most of the significant small to wide releases in the last three years,” the researchers said. “Moreover, the sample was large enough to statistically determine that receiving a [low] rating for AIR leaves money on the table.”

The study cautioned that quantitative hiring tallies are less important than qualitative development of underrepresented voices.

“While increasing numerical representation behind and in front of the camera is critical,” the study concluded, “truly empowering people from diverse backgrounds is the key component.”

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