The conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that movies by and about people of color don’t perform well with audiences. But the massive box office numbers for Marvel’s “Black Panther” are just the latest piece of evidence that that’s simply not true. And as a new study from the University of California, Los Angeles, demonstrates, entertainment executives have been slow to recognize that “diversity is essential for Hollywood’s bottom line.”
The findings of the report on diversity and representation, released Tuesday, match those of similar studies that have shown incremental improvements over the last few years, obscuring a lack of lasting, systemic change in Hollywood.
The report, “Five Years of Progress and Missed Opportunities,” also illuminates the discrepancy between audiences’ preferences for diverse projects and the idea, still common among industry leaders, that diversity somehow hurts Hollywood’s financial prospects ― particularly with international audiences, a major source of revenue.
“Diversity sells, but the TV and film product continues to fall short. So audiences are left starved for more representation on screen that reflects the world they see in their daily lives.”
Hollywood executives tend to treat movies like “Black Panther” as the exception rather than the rule, the report says ― hence the “missed opportunities” of the title. Despite mounting evidence that diverse movies and shows perform well with increasingly diverse audiences, executives often dismiss these successful projects as anomalies, the researchers note.
“Our findings reveal that, regardless of race, audiences want to see diversity on the screen,” UCLA social psychologist Ana-Christina Ramón, one of the report’s co-authors, wrote. “Our reports have continually shown that diversity sells, but the TV and film product continues to fall short. So audiences are left starved for more representation on screen that reflects the world they see in their daily lives.”
Analyzing major movies released in 2016 and TV series that aired or streamed online during the 2015-16 season, the UCLA researchers found that projects with diverse casts reported the highest box office and viewership numbers.
Many of 2016′s top movies at the box office had a combination of significant minority casts and significant minority audiences. Films where people of color accounted for 10 percent of the cast or less tended to perform poorly, yet Hollywood continues to produce them.
The researchers found similar results for the top-performing TV series.
Like other analyses in recent years, the UCLA report found that women and people of color remain underrepresented in movie and television roles, both in front of and behind the camera.
Taken as a whole, the study confirms that from a business standpoint, Hollywood executives are leaving money on the table when they don’t produce movies and television with diverse casts and creators.
Looking ahead, the study’s authors also wondered whether the recent Time’s Up and Me Too movements will lead to permanent progress for women in Hollywood.