Trending Towards Diversity

Originally Written for Hollywood Economics at Emerson College, taught by Dr. Tylor Orme

Read through any popular press article about the film industry today, and you’re likely to come across a discussion on diversity. What is diversity? Is there enough of it? Who gets to decide what is enough? How do you make it “better”? Why is it important? Each of these questions have enough answers to fill a book, and each one will always have more viewpoints to discuss. Despite the normative trend of these questions, there are some truly positive answers (in both senses of the word).

At the point in which DeVany was writing his book, there was very little popular discussion of diversity. It was brought up, but there were bigger battles to win. Breadcrumbs of non-Xist roles were celebrated. Politics has long since been prevalent in the film industry, but the industry has only caught up as the society has.

Race isn’t discussed by DeVany, nor is sexuality, disability, class, or any other diversity issue. As I said, diversity hasn’t been brought to the forefront of discussion until recently. Political issues were sometimes discussed in films of the past—largely arising in response to or in conjunction with wars or civil rights movements. But the films, or the dialogue surrounding them, were often heavily skewed towards a “palatable” version of that issue that would appeal to the dominant consumer base: white people with time to spare.

While gender isn’t discussed either, DeVany’s findings do highlight the gender inequality. And, while discussion of the diversity is usually limited to male versus female, it has grown overall. DeVany found the 30 top grossing actors, and his list only included two women (Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock) (DeVany 233). Since the 2000s, the 30 top grossing actors list includes seven women (Elizabeth Banks, Michelle Rodriguez, Julie Walters, Helena Bonham Carter, Scarlett Johansson, Emma Watson, and Cate Blanchett) (Eames). The current 30 top grossing, ever, list includes three of those women (Cate Blanchett, Emma Watson, and Scarlett Johansson), with the addition of Cameron Diaz (The Highest).

While not fixed, and nowhere near 50/50, Hollywood seems to have improved its gender diversity since the 80s. UCLA began a Hollywood Diversity Report in 2014 and has since put one out every year, and even this limited time frame proves this improvement. In the 2014 report (on films released in 2011), only 25.6% lead actors were women (UCLA 2014 6), in the 2019 report (on films released in 2017), it had grown to 32.9% (UCLA 2019 15). So too, Hollywood has improved in race and ethnic diversity. The 2014 report found that “more than half of films had casts that were 10 percent minority or less” and that only 10.5% of the lead actors were minorities (6), compared to the 2019 report which found that 19.8% of lead roles were played by people of color (14). The proportions of directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, and other executives are even more unequal, but they too follow similar growth trends. None of the reports provided data on other forms of diversity.

Thus is the situation at which Hollywood operates—trending towards diversity. But this trend needs to be questioned economically to really understand it. Does money drive this trend, and if so, how? What is done to safeguard this “risk” of diversity? Where is diversity still lacking, and why? What needs to be done to encourage a more dramatic change, and why should we care?

As shown by the UCLA Diversity Report, the state of representation in Hollywood is improving. However, this diversity isn’t coming simply from the good hearts of those in the industry. Yes, TimesUp, #MeToo, and #OscarsSoWhite exist, and are bringing awareness to the issues within the industry, but the change is mostly attributed to a search for profit. It’s been found that “minority ticket buyers accounted for the majority of ticket sales for five of the top ten grossing films” (Wolf). Furthermore, the Diversity Report shows that,

Films with casts that were 31-40 percent minority enjoyed the highest median global box office receipts… By contrast, films with the most racially and ethnically homogenous casts were the poorest performers. (UCLA 2019, 4)

These data points seem to go together, and begin to make sense of the changes we’re seeing. Firstly, minorities now hold a large portion of the purchasing power, which means the industry actually has to somewhat cater to their interests in order to capture their revenue. Hollywood has always catered towards viewers—most of the difficulty of showing a movie is predicting what audiences will like—but now they can’t just tell white stories at the claim that white people are the only ones that matter. The industry has to provide for the growing demand of stories that represent the diversity of America. Secondly, because of the power structures within Hollywood (those that are based around the promotion of white men and their ideas) and the systematic disadvantages these bring to those not in power, it’s actually cheaper to make a diverse movie than a homogenous one. Of any of the “top 30 grossing actors” lists I mentioned, the majority of the talent included is white and male. Thus, white, male stars tend to cost more to hire and will therefore raise production costs of a movie without significantly raising profit. This comes back to the rent capture concept from the DeVany book. A superstar will capture the extra revenue they bring in with their high fee. But since few minority actors are considered superstars, they aren’t paid as much and therefore don’t capture as much of the revenue, even when their film is wildly successful. The 2019 Diversity Report recognizes this, “Films with at least 51 percent minority actors earned the greatest return on investment, because they generally cost less to make than other top films but still performed well at the box office” (Wolf).

Beyond expected profit dynamics, in today’s era, a diverse film seems likely to garner more social media attention (reviews, press)—which, according to Ravid, may still actually lead back to higher profit. Viewers become excited about films that they see themselves in, and share their thoughts online. This solves some of the information issues commonly seen in Hollywood—think of “Crazy Rich Asians,” with it’s slow build towards major success, as people heard about, saw, and finally shared their “take” on it. A diverse and talked about movie is also likely to create a sort-of network effect, where everyone wants to see the new film so we can all collectively talk about it and enjoy it even more. While most of this is drawn from discussion and my own understanding of the interaction between social media and the film industry, signs from TV do point towards this holding true. UCLA’s 2018 Hollywood Diversity Report says,

Social media engagement during the 2015-16 season peaked for broadcast scripted shows with casts that reflected the diversity of America… Social media engagement peaked for cable scripted shows with casts that were at least 31 percent minority. (5)

This information brings shows like Scandal, Empire, and This Is Us, to mind—shows that drew huge social media buzz with every new episode and interaction. It would seem that the concept would translate to the film industry as well; although, with slightly different dynamics due to the length and information contained in a film. But, as “they” say, any press is good press, so even if social media engagement doesn’t work for film quite as well (or in the same way) as for TV, there’s little risk involved with letting diversity promote itself.

Despite all of this encouraging data promoting diversity, Hollywood still seems to believe there is risk associated with diversity. Despite the lack of true evidence supporting a “bankable” star, Hollywood still would like to imagine they exist. And so, choosing a minority actor over a superstar feels risky. However, Hollywood is noticing the profit that can be made, and so the industry has learned to create some safeguards against that so-called risk. First, the films that are made with diverse casts are often “safe” genres. Superhero movies almost always do well at this point, and so “Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman” don’t feel as surprising. Horror movies consistently make money, so Jordan Peele was given the greenlight to make a (what we now know is huge) profit on “Get Out” and “Us.” Even romantic comedies can usually be considered “safe” and enjoyable to large audiences, and so “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Love, Simon” and “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” were put into production—although, “Love, Simon” still cast a straight white male to play the lead, the only “safe bet” of a movie about a gay teenager, and the latter is a Netflix film and a slightly different situation. On top of genre, Hollywood builds largely on two, very different, things to tell these diverse stories: franchises and aspirational affluence. The franchise bit is easy, and has been heavily discussed in class. Franchises do well because they solve some of the information dynamics—you’ve seen the first of the series, and liked it, so you’ll probably end up liking the ones that follow it. This is why “Black Panther” can be included in a franchises’ cinematic universe, and be safe because people know they like Marvel movies, while also adding to the draw of future movies with its inherent diversity.

The latter—aspirational affluence—feels less obvious. The theory goes that, to make a “different” character likeable and enjoyable to watch, you give them something that the audience can desire as a collective whole. As Vox pointed out in an article about “Crazy Rich Asians,” time and time again we come across movies that tell new and unusual stories, but help the stories get absorbed by the audience with some aspirational point to the characters. Emily Yoshida, for Vulture, called it “a heaping spoonful of affluence porn.” Vox brought up movies like “It’s Complicated” and “Something’s Gotta Give” for their portrayal of the romantic lives of older women, who happen to have the nicest beach houses you’ve ever seen. Or 50 Shades of Grey, which was a BDSM Twilight Fanfiction, that (apparently) wasn’t creepy because the main character was insanely wealthy. Vox even explains that, “Tony Stark’s immense wealth and technological trappings in Iron Man — the movie that kicked off Marvel’s Cinematic Universe — helped turned a B-List comic book hero into an A-List cinematic figure” (Abad-Santos) This safeguard, telling unusual stories by giving audiences something other than the diversity to talk about, feels like the most cowardly version of portraying diversity (despite my love of Crazy Rich Asians). Hollywood hides from the idea of portraying actual diversity by covering it up with a display of wealth inequality that we can feel good about and unite together on.

Despite all of this tip-toed improvement when it comes to gender, racial, and ethnic diversity, there are still gaps in the representation of people with disabilities, sexuality (for the most part), non-cisgender stories, and class (for the most part). These issues don’t yet seem to be risk-free enough for Hollywood to tackle. And again, for now, Hollywood is growing more diverse because of a desire to make profit on the demanded representation, not necessarily because of the kind and open hearts of movie executives. But, that could change.

At this point in time, there are a few different gatekeepers that maintain the profit-focused status quo in Hollywood. The first of which is the cost of film production. The astronomically high costs of film production is one of the main things that keeps new stories from being told. Originally only the big six had enough money to produce and distribute films, and when the executives of those companies are old white men, the stories they tell don’t range far from their own. However, Netflix and Amazon’s ability to create long-tail movies, and the technological advances of filmmaking equipment (think, award-winning films shot on an IPhone) all help to “reduc[e] the cost of movie making. Such innovation could further level the playing field, creating more opportunities for Hollywood outsiders to break into the industry, and opening the industry up to films that tell new, diverse, and most importantly, authentic stories” (King). Access to education is another gatekeeper of the industry, but it too is being tackled. Many school districts across California are creating filmmaking programs for school children, teaching them how to use the software and equipment. This training can “put pressure on Hollywood studios and networks, in addition to the Academy, to diversify the people they hire” (Sastry).

With all of this, the industry is changing. Hollywood is being forced to pay attention to the economic benefits of diversity and representation. Slowly but surely, executives will give into the demands of a new minority-majority America, and eventually a new generation will have the right combination of tools, technology, and maybe even heart, to fix the root of a broken system.

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