This year, the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor sparked a racial reckoning not seen in America in decades. Of course — likely not wanting to find themselves on the wrong side of history — each major studio immediately issued statements of support for the movement for Black lives. Despite this unanimous display, it wasn’t quite clear just how sincere these gestures were, and to which degree each Hollywood heavy-hitter would be willing to put their words into action with dollars in order to create a more inclusive and diverse environment.
It certainly would be to their benefit to do so. A new study published in October from the UCLA-based Center for Scholars and Storytellers included key information on the single factor that could result in a $130 million loss per film for movie studios: a lack of diversity. The study is titled “Beyond Checking A Box: A Lack of Authentically Inclusive Representation Has Costs at the Box Office,” and its researchers present firm evidence that bringing authentic diversity to film improves financial performance at the box office; conversely, a lack of diversity can result in major losses.
The “diversity sells” narrative certainly isn’t a new one. For the better half of the last decade, it’s a song that’s been sung over and over again — yet Hollywood has been slow to catch up. White men continue to account for the vast majority of film directors, writers, executives, and actors, even though they make up only a third of the U.S. population. According to UCLA’s 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report, television network chairs/CEOs were a whopping 92 percent white and 68 percent male as of September 2020. Meanwhile, only 24 percent of credited writers were people of color and only 22 percent of all episodes airing, or streaming, were directed by people of color, on average, across all platforms.
And it’s near identical on the film side, where 91 percent of studio chiefs are white and 82 percent are male. The study also found that, among the top 200 film releases in 2018 and 2019, three out of 10 lead actors were people of color, less than two out of 10 film directors were people of color, and less than two out of 10 film writers were people of color. These statistics are emblematic of Hollywood’s diversity and inclusion problem.
As Michael B. Jordan emphatically asked during a Black Lives Matter rally in June: “Where is the challenge to commit to Black hiring? Black content lead by Black executives, Black consultants. Are you policing our storytelling as well? Let us bring our darkness to the light.”
Calls for diverse and inclusive hiring in Hollywood are not particularly bold or modern. However, they should be followed in an era when films need to grasp every dollar they can earn.
It’s already been a devastating year for Hollywood and the global movie industry, thanks to the substantial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic — complete with an overall financial bump that won’t be entirely known for some time. Across the world, cinemas and movie theaters shut down and festivals were canceled or postponed. Except for streamers like Netflix and Amazon and the rare project that still soldiered on despite the pandemic, the majority of the industry has been at a standstill.
Netflix especially reaped the rewards, bolstered by the release of a number of films it had already purchased or produced long before the pandemic struck. Those standouts include: “Da 5 Bloods,” directed by Spike Lee; “The Old Guard,” directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood; “Uncorked,” directed by Prentice Penny; “The Half of It,” directed by Alice Wu; “All Day and a Night,” directed by Joe Robert Cole (who co-wrote “Black Panther”); “The 40-Year-Old Version,” directed by Radha Blank; “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey,” directed by David E. Talbert; “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” directed by George C. Wolfe, and so many others. These are just a few that both tick the diversity box of having a person of color as director and/or lead actor — and are critically acclaimed.
A few other non-Netflix highlights include: “Birds of Prey,” directed by Cathy Yan; “Tenet,” starring John David Washington; “Minari,” directed by Lee Isaac Chung; “One Night in Miami,” directed by Regina King; and “Soul,” co-directed by Kemp Powers. There really isn’t a collective theme among all these films; the stories run the gamut, which is one good thing to celebrate here. It implies that studios are willing to fund films by writers and directors of color that don’t fit in a specific box.
But Hollywood’s unanimous display of unity in response to racial justice protests doesn’t distract from the reality that the industry still has a past — and present — to reckon with when it comes to diversity.
For example, several episodes of popular TV shows (and, in some cases, entire series) were yanked or tweaked this year because they feature blackface, including “30 Rock,” “The Golden Girls,” “Community,” and more. Several white voice actors from popular TV shows like “Big Mouth” and “The Simpsons” — who were originally cast to play characters of color — have stepped away from their roles in order to encourage the show’s producers to recast them authentically.
“Gone with the Wind” was removed from HBO Max amid the Floyd protests, as well as in response to an L.A. Times op-ed written by screenwriter John Ridley, which called for the streaming service to temporarily remove the film from its content library. It returned later, with a new introduction contextualizing the film.
And, finally, there was the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ big announcement that it had created new, strict inclusion requirements for the Best Picture category, which will become standard by 2024. One thing that is abundantly clear is that the Academy will want a diverse field of nominees, given that studies have found a direct correlation between Oscar nominee diversity in major categories and viewership.
The need to improve representation in Hollywood is a discussion that is as old as Hollywood itself. It’s been well-established that diversity is good for business, and since it’s all but a guarantee that the U.S. population will continue to become more diverse in the near and distant future, it only makes sense that Hollywood would want to cater to an increasingly diverse audience that’s hungry for content. It’s absolutely critical that consistent efforts to address representation across the industry continue into next year and beyond.