Hollywood needs diversity not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because people of color are the key to the movie industry’s economic survival, according to the latest edition of the Hollywood Diversity Report, released Thursday.
The annual series of reports, led by UCLA researchers Darnell Hunt and Ana-Christina Ramón, has consistently shown how diversity is essential to Hollywood’s bottom line. In other words, not prioritizing diversity means leaving money on the table.
People of color continue to make up the lion’s share of moviegoers for the most popular movies, both in theaters and at home via streaming services. In addition, movies with diverse casts tend to perform better at the box office and generate more engagement on social media than movies with predominantly white casts. On multiple fronts, people of color hold immense power in ensuring Hollywood’s economic future.
2021, the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, marked a gradual and uneven return to the movies for many Americans. But consistent with the researchers’ previous findings, this year’s report concluded that people of color drove movie ticket sales in the U.S., making up the majority of opening-weekend moviegoers for six of the year’s top 10 films based on global box office earnings.
People of color have similar power on major streaming platforms. With the pandemic accelerating the trend of big movies launching on streaming in 2021, households of color dominated the viewing audiences for each of the year’s top 10 streaming films.
Another pattern that the UCLA team has consistently documented is how much audiences want to see movies that reflect the diversity of the U.S. population. Once again in 2021, the researchers found that films with casts that were fairly diverse — composed of at least 21% to 30% people of color — delivered the highest median global box office earnings. In addition, eight of the top 10 highest-earning movies in 2021 featured casts that consisted of more than 30% people of color.
Further cementing the importance of diversity for Hollywood’s bottom line: Movies with the least diverse casts (consisting of fewer than 11% people of color) performed the poorest at the box office.
While they consistently show up to the movies, people of color are still underrepresented relative to their proportion of the U.S. population. Most glaringly, Latinx people, who make up nearly 20% of the U.S. population, remain extremely underrepresented both in front of and behind the camera. They make up just 7.1% of leads in popular movies, 7.7% of the movies’ overall casts, 5.6% of writers and 7.1% of directors, according to the report.
Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) audiences are also severely underrepresented, making up just 1.1% of top movies’ overall casts, 2.8% of writers, 1.6% of directors, and none of the lead actors. Native Americans are “virtually invisible” in the year’s top films, both in front of and behind the camera, the researchers found.
Behind the camera, movies directed by women and people of color still tend to be undervalued, according to the report. The researchers warn that some of their findings “raise the question of whether the industry may be relegating women directors and directors of color” to movies where their identities are a primary theme or primary driver of the plot.
When comparing budgets, women and people of color were more likely to direct a lower-budget movie than white male directors. In both 2020 and 2021, films with female leads tended to have smaller budgets than those with male leads, according to the report. However, in perhaps an encouraging sign, films with leads of color in 2021 tended to have budgets similar to those starring white actors, which was an improvement from 2020.
Awards like the Oscars remain influential in getting audiences to notice movies that may have otherwise gone unseen, as well as influencing what movies get made in the future. For the first time in the nine years of the study, the majority of the Oscar-winning films at last year’s Oscars were directed by people of color (“Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Minari,” “Nomadland,” and “Soul”). In addition, a majority also featured leads of color (“Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Minari,” “Soul,” “Sound of Metal,” and “Tenet”).
This year’s Oscars, on Sunday, are not likely to match last year’s landmark wins, showing that progress is a long process. Similarly, the researchers caution that it’s hard to tell whether some of the progress made over the last two years was a product of the pandemic or evidence of true, sustainable change.
Whatever happens, the report, as well as similar findings from other researchers, offers incontrovertible evidence that diversity is vital to Hollywood’s bottom line. The research and data should dispel any remaining Hollywood myths that prioritizing diversity both in front of and behind the camera is a gamble and “doesn’t sell,” or that the default moviegoer is white, or that a massively popular movie by and about people of color is simply a fluke.
For Hollywood, an often risk-averse industry fueled by economic decisions, diversity should not only be a moral imperative, but as the researchers wrote, “a first-order business imperative for the film industry.”