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New Study Shows Little Progress for Diversity in 13 Years of Hollywood Movies

Hollywood Oscars

Hollywood Oscars

A new University of Southern California diversity study shows little progress for inclusion in 13 years of Hollywood movies.

A new University of Southern California study shows Hollywood movies continue to lack diversity and inclusive representation of racial and ethnic groups, women, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities.

The report, Inequality in 1,300 Popular Films, was issued Thursday by Stacy L. Smith and the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Smith, whose team creates multiple studies of every year about the film industry, describes her latest study focused on Hollywood films examining 57,629 characters in 1,300 top films from 2007 to 2019.

The study shows only a little progress in achieving inclusion and underrepresented groups amid ongoing protest for racial justice in America.

For example, most casting directors are white women. Across 1,300 films, the demographic breakdown of casting directors are: 17.9% white men, 71% are white women, 1.7% are underrepresented men, and 9.4% are underrepresented women.

"This is a critical moment for the industry to commit to real and substantive change," Smith said in a statement. "Too often, the results of studies like this one garner attention without action.

"As protests for racial justice continue, it is imperative that companies move beyond performative statements and commit to taking actions that will result in inclusive hiring practices on screen and behind the camera."

Smith said the study shows an overall ecosystem in which girls, women, and people of color are marginalized and minimized.

"After 13 years, it is not clear what might convince entertainment companies to change," she said. "Despite public statements, the data reveal that there is still apathy and ambivalence to increasing representation of speaking characters overall in popular films. This is both the easiest representational gap to address and one that is essential to strengthening the pipeline to more prominent roles."

She recently told USA Today she is not optimistic about the new Academy Award rules will help.

"It's fair to say that the industry has already met the criteria outlined by the Academy," Smith said. "So this doesn't move us farther in the conversation or alter access and opportunity; it reflects the status quo.

"These standards aren't aspirational or transformative, which is what would be necessary to move inclusion forward in this industry. My concern is that the standards create false hope that things will change when they reflect business as usual." 

Here's a critical breakdown of findings:

  • 1. An increase in leading and co-leading characters from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, from 27 films in 2018 to 32 films in 2019.
  • 2. An increase in movies that featured a girl or woman from an underrepresented group as a lead or co-lead character: 17 movies in 2019 compared to 11 in 2018, 4 in 2017, and 1 in 2007.
  • 3. A slight uptick in the number of films featuring a girl or woman in a leading or co-leading role: 43 of 2019's 100 top films, compared to 39 in 2018. The gain was more extensive compared to 2007 when only 20 films featured a girl or woman.
  • 4. But only three movies in 2019 had a leading or co-leading role filled by a woman age 45 or older, and only one of these roles went to a woman of color, the study found.
  • 5. 65.7% of all speaking characters were white, 15.7% were black, 4.9% were Hispanic/Latino, 7.2% were Asian, and 6.6% were other.

  • 6. 15 films had no black or African American speaking characters. 44 films have no Hispanic/Latino speaking characters. 36 films had no Asian speaking characters.

  • 7. The study also showed out of the 100 top films of 2019, only 2.3% of characters had a disability, a figure that has not changed in half a decade.

Another finding is that only 1.4 of all characters in the top films of 2019 were from the LGBTQ community. Also, from 2014 to 2019, only four characters were transgender and had little impact on the plot of the movie, appearing on screen for only two minutes in total.

Invisibility Analysis

The study also revealed an "invisibility analysis." The analysis was conducted to find how many movies, including speaking characters from underrepresented populations.

"Invisibility Analysis" research found 33 films were missing Black girls or women on screen. Fifty-five films were missing Asian or Asian American girls or women. Seventy-one films were missing Hispanic/Latinas, and 45 were missing girls or women from multiracial/multiethnic backgrounds.

Those numbers were far worse for underrepresented groups, including American Indian/Alaskan Native characters (97 movies), Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander characters (99 films), and Middle Eastern/North African characters (92 movies).

"The erasure of girls and women from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, the LGBTQ community, and those with disabilities remain a hallmark of top-performing Hollywood films," Smith said in her statement. 

The report also looked into the inclusion and diversity behind the camera. For example, of the 1,447 directors over the last 13 years, 4.8% were women, with 2019 being a high point.  But only 6.1% of directors were Black, 3.3% were Asian, and 3.7% were Hispanic/Latino.

In 2018, the percentage of Black directors rose, then dropped. But only 13 women of color directed a top movie across 1,300 movies in 13 years.

Netflix is leading the way in diversity and inclusion

The report encourages studios to look at Netflix's approach to hiring and casting.

"In contrast to our findings on top-grossing films, 20.7% of Netflix directors of U.S.-based films in 2019 were women," Smith said. "The legacy studios may want to take a note out of the streaming giant's playbook on how to hire more inclusively behind the camera."

The report looked at how studios and mini-major distributors performed across each diversity indicators. Universal Pictures and Paramount Pictures led on 6 of the 19 indicators in the study. Walt Disney Studios did not show any inclusion indicators in 2019. However, Disney's female-centered films were box-office front runners. They outpaced other studios with more than $4 billion earned globally on stores featuring girls and women and an additional $2.7 billion for stories with underrepresented leads/co-leads.

"While the studios still have room to improve on inclusion overall, it is clear that an economic incentive may be one reason to do so," Smith said. 

In relevant news, Anthony Mackie, the actor who plays Falcon in several Marvel movies reveals in an interview that Marvel movies all have had a white production crew and the company needs to work on diversity. Anthony Mackie recently opened up about his experiences playing Falcon in Marvel movies. During an interview with Daveed Diggs for Variety’s Actors on Actor, Mackie discussed how the Black Lives Matter movement is putting a spotlight on diversity in Hollywood.
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