Diversity and representation are both a moral imperative and, according to a new study, an economic necessity for Hollywood. In 2020, movies with more diverse casts consistently earned more at the box office and generated bigger streaming audiences.
Viewers are demanding that the pop culture they consume better reflects America’s diversity, meaning that when Hollywood doesn’t prioritize accurate representation, it’s leaving money on the table and hurting its bottom line.
The Hollywood Diversity Report was released Thursday, the latest edition of an annual study of the relationship between Hollywood’s bottom line and diversity in front of and behind the camera, from UCLA professors Darnell Hunt and Ana-Christina Ramón. Their newest report examined global box office revenue and viewership numbers of the top 185 films released in theaters and on major streaming platforms in 2020. Movies that featured 41 to 50% actors of color performed the best at the box office, while films with fewer than 11% actors of color performed the worst.
Perhaps more crucially — since the pandemic closed most movie theaters around the world in 2020 — the same pattern held when examining the top movies released on streaming platforms. The report broke down films’ Nielsen ratings for viewers ages 18 to 49. Across the board, for viewers of all races, the numbers were highest for movies with diverse casts.
The report also found that women and people of color are significantly more likely to have directed and/or written films with greater on-screen representation when compared to those of their white male counterparts.
For years, Hunt and Ramón’s research has consistently found that films with more diversity in their casts generate more profitability and popularity. Over the last few years, the massive economic success of movies like “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” helped dismantle a longstanding myth among Hollywood executives that movies centering people of color wouldn’t perform well at the box office. Reports like these demonstrate that this is patently false and they cement the fact that, not only are diversity and representation morally important, but they are essential to business. For an industry that makes a lot of decisions based on economic metrics, it means there is no excuse to not prioritize diversity and representation at every stage of a movie’s production process.
People of color now make up a disproportionate share of moviegoing audiences — and occasionally are the vast majority of attendees — making them a powerful economic force. The UCLA report found that in 2020, “People of color accounted for the majority of opening weekend domestic ticket sales for six of the top 10 films” at the global box office. Similarly, on streaming, “Households of color accounted for a disproportionate share of the households viewing eight of the top 10 films released via streaming platforms in 2020.”
A lot of other research and statistics back this up as well. For instance, a report last month from the consulting film McKinsey concluded that the persistent inequities for Black artists and creators in Hollywood are costing the industry $10 billion in revenue each year. Nielsen has also found that people of color make up a growing and influential portion of the television and streaming markets, and they tend to gravitate toward programming and content with more diversity on screen.
Hunt and Ramón’s report found that on-screen representation has improved year over year. In 2020 films, actors of color made up 42% of all on-screen roles and 39.7% of leading roles, which is just about representative of the U.S. population (40.3% people of color), according to the report. But several groups remain underrepresented, when compared to the U.S. population in general: Latinx, Asian and Middle Eastern/North African (MENA) actors.
Behind the camera, there’s even more work to be done. Across the board, women and people of color continue to be underrepresented in directing and writing. They also are more likely to be given lower budgets than their white male counterparts, a persistent example of disparity — and an especially galling one, considering the report’s findings about the economic value of diversity and representation.
Read the full report here. The second part of the report, focusing on television, will be released this fall.