Study Finds Audiences of Color Kept the Box Office Afloat in 2021, but Other Strides in Representation Lag

The annual UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report studied the top 252 English-language movies from 2021 to chart representation both onscreen and off.
Hollywood Diversity Report
Hollywood Diversity Report
UCLA College of Social Sciences

The ninth installment of the UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report has addressed representation both onscreen and behind the camera in films released in 2021.

UCLA sociologists Dr. Darnell Hunt and Dr. Ana-Christina Ramón studied the top 252 English-language movies released in 2021 and found that films with more diverse casts succeeded at the box office, largely in part thanks to audiences of color attending opening weekend.

The report also tracked the numbers of writers, directors, and actors who identify as Asian American, Black, Latinx, Middle Eastern/North African, multiracial, and Native American.

The study revealed that films with 21 to 30 percent minority actors had a higher median global box office return than films in any other tier. This has been a pattern since 2011, with a steady increase in onscreen diversity. Comparatively, films with the least diverse casts (11 percent or less minority) were the poorest performers at the box office.

The report also found that the percentage of leading roles played by people of color in last year’s top 200 films has nearly quadrupled since 2011; that their share of writing credits has more than quadrupled; and that their percentage of directing jobs has nearly tripled.

Similarly, the percentage of women in leading roles has nearly doubled over the last decade. Notably, their share of writing credits has more than doubled, and the percentage of female directors has increased by more than fivefold over the past decade.

“Following the significant advances for people of color and women in 2020, both groups made small gains, or at least held their ground, relative to their white and male counterparts in 2021,” the report reads. “As a result, both groups enjoyed proportionate representation among film leads and top film roles for the second year in a row.”

Hollywood Diversity Report
Hollywood Diversity Report shines a light on directorsUCLA School of Social Sciences

For on-camera diversity, Black talents were “slightly overrepresented” in leading roles compared to the U.S. population statistics, with 13.4 percent of the U.S. population identifying as Black and film roles accounting for 15.5 percent on-camera. Latinx stars, meanwhile, “remain extremely underrepresented.”

Additionally, Native Americans “remain virtually invisible in Hollywood, making up less than one percent of each job category tracked.”

Hunt, dean of the social sciences at UCLA and co-author of the report, said that “in 2020, minorities reached proportionate representation for the first time when it comes to overall cast diversity in films, and that held true in 2021. We suspect this is at least somewhat due to the outsize impact of the number of films we analyzed that were released direct-to-streaming. We also think this dual-release strategy is probably here to stay and could have a lasting impact on diversity metrics in front of and behind the camera in the future as studios think about how to finance content for different platforms.”

Moviegoing audiences have also been more diverse, with 53 to 60 percent of opening weekend audiences made up of people of color. At 42.7 percent, people of color still represent a minority of the U.S. population, but they comprised the majority of ticket buyers for most of 2021’s highest-grossing movies.

Hollywood Diversity Report
A breakdown of diversity in terms of box office attendanceUCLA School of Social Sciences

“People essentially were risking their lives to go the movies during a pandemic. For people of color and especially for Latino families, theaters provided an excursion when mostly everything was shut down,” Ramón said. “In a sense, people of color really kept the studios afloat the past couple of years. Studios should consider them to be investors, and as an investor, they should get their return, in the form of representation.”

Last year’s third highest-grossing film at the box office was “F9: The Fast Saga,” which featured a cast that was more than 50 percent racial minorities and was directed by Taiwanese-American filmmaker Justin Lin. Sixty-five percent of opening weekend ticket sales for “F9” were to minority audiences, the highest figure among all films in the top 10.

However, co-author Ramón noted that in 2021, diversity in front of the camera is not indicative of more opportunities for women and POC filmmakers behind the camera.

Hollywood Diversity Report
A look at lead film roles by raceUCLA School of Social Sciences

The report added, “Since the previous report, women have inched forward relative to their male counterparts among the directors of top Hollywood films. Women claimed 21.8 percent of these critical positions in 2021, up just slightly from 20.5 percent in 2020. Women’s share of screenwriters in 2021 was more than double the 14.1 percent figure observed in 2011. Still, women would have to increase their 2021 share by nearly 20 percentage points to reach parity with men in this employment arena.”

The study continued that the lack of women behind the camera compared to male counterparts and population statistics “is likely related to the fact that decisions about which film projects will be greenlighted — and which stories will be told — are still overwhelming made by white men.”

“They continue to receive less financing, even when they make films with white lead actors,” Ramón said. “Most of these filmmakers are relegated to low-budget films. For women of color, directing and writing opportunities are really the final frontier.”

Head here to see the full report.

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