Will more Hispanics go to the movies if more Hispanics star in movies? That seems to be the assertion of a recent article that identifies the ongoing discrepancy between Hispanic movie buyers (there are a lot of them) vs. the amount of Hispanic representation in movies (there isn't). Author Sonali Kohli's key stats are:
Hispanics buy a quarter of the movie tickets sold in the US and Canada, but are cast in less than 5 percent of speaking roles in American films. The representation on screen hasn't changed much since 2007, fluctuating between 2.8 percent and 4.9 percent, even as Hispanic movie audiences have been growing.
As with any single variable analysis, in this case ethnicity, it is limited. X percent of the population should translate into x percent of fill in the blank (employee population, voting population, movie actors) is the underlying formula, which doesn't account for a few things. For example:
- Using Kohli's own stats, why are Hispanics currently overindexing in movie attendance when there is a dearth of Latino stars? Her examples of successfully supported blockbusters include Iron Man, The Hangover and Despicable Me. Is the argument that these films would see more success with Hispanic characters/casting?
- Why do Latino starring movies, like the recently released (and straight to airplane) movie Chef not fare well (note: I kinda liked it)? Is Robert Rodriguez (director of El Mariachi, Machete) the exception or a precursor of what is needed?
- What is the range of actors/actresses to choose from in order to 1.) appropriately cast the role and 2.) provide a "bankable" actor?
It's not that simple of a formula, particularly in today's movie-making world where a major production can make (e.g. Harry Potter) or break (e.g. The Lone Ranger) a public company's stock price. The blockbuster model limits risk-taking on newer actors. Oscar winner Edward James Olmos is a noted critic of the lack of Hispanic actors in major films, and specifically calls out Ben Affleck's casting himself as Hispanic character Tony Mendez in Argo (a disputed point). The counter-argument to Olmos is the producers of Argo would have to decide between a more authentic actor for the role (from an ethnic perspective) vs. a more "bankable" actor. What do you tell your financial backers?
Kohli offers evidence that diverse casts positively impact movie ticket sales. This makes sense as more and more of society itself is more diverse. And overall, the point of her article is well taken as certainly Hollywood can and should evolve from what Grey's Anatomy's showrunner/writer Shonda Rhimes calls a "default white" casting model. The solution is a bit more nuanced, I believe, than the "proportion of the audience vs. proportion of the actors" argument that is so often used in diversity conversations.