It’s no secret that Hollywood tends to be risk-shy when it comes to greenlighting content and selecting talent to helm it. If there’s an established, marginally functioning formula, you bet executives are going to stick with it to the bitter end (who’s up for a dozen more Transformers movies?). Studios like to run on fumes, even if it means sacrificing innovation, because they know people will pay to see it.
This is why we see blockbuster- and franchise-heavy fare more than anything else in crowded movie months. It’s why the award circuit is hard-pressed to recognize new talent and why the same people, or the same types of people, are nominated year after year.
Hollywood is a business spilling over with talented individuals working to create content for all types of people who go to movie theaters and are shaped and affected by the films they watch for entertainment. Hollywood pours billions of dollars, $38.6 billion in 2016 alone, according to the 2018 Hollywood Diversity Report, into this industry, which retains immense power over its patrons across the world.
A 2016 comprehensive report on diversity in entertainment by the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California reckons that “the industry still functions as a straight, white, boys club.”
Women make up only 28.7 percent of all speaking roles in film compared to men, according to the Annenberg study. Approximately 72 percent of speaking or named characters “with enough cues to ascertain race/ethnicity” were white. As far as lesbian, gay and bisexual characters, only 2 percent of all speaking characters were coded as such.
Such an accusation stings for an industry that needs everybody’s money, not just the white males they seem so fond of depicting. Backlash for a lack of inclusivity and progress has raised alarms with recent controversies such as the #OscarsSoWhite debacle and instances of whitewashing roles intended for minority characters.
The fact of the matter is, movies continue to lag in accurately and consistently representing people of diverse races, ethnicities, genders and sexualities.
“Our interpretation of people’s identities is influenced by what we see on the screen,” said Frank Milo Scheide, a UA professor specializing in film history and criticism. “These representations affect how people are identified and the way we interact with each other.”
Why, then, are almost three-quarters of leads, co-leads and actors carrying ensemble casts male? Why do underrepresented racial/ethnic groups account for only 28 percent of speaking characters, when a far greater portion, about 38 percent, makes up the U.S. population? Why are there almost double the amount of LGBT people in the U.S. as there our on screen?
(And the numbers only get scarier when the behind-the-camera talent is considered—just ask the 3.5 percent of film directors that happen to be women.)
Grace Randolph, a film critic and creator of an entertainment coverage channel on YouTube, “Beyond the Trailer,” weighed in on the great Hollywood motivator (money) and the hegemony it gains over the major studios’ decisions.
“When it comes to Hollywood and diversity, follow the money,” Randolph said in a direct message through Twitter. “The studios only make real change when one of two things happen: whitewashed movies start losing money or diverse movies start making money.”
Take 2014’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings”—the standard case of a Hollywood studio attempting to water down a story with a predominantly white cast to make the story more appealing to western audiences. It was a critical and commercial flop. When that happens, studios raise an eyebrow.
It would be unfair to claim that filmmakers haven’t tried to rectify this trend. At least two films this year, both by major studios, have served to counter an old Hollywood wives’ tale: minority-led films don’t sell tickets.
In February, one of the most iconic films of the year stormed headlines and the box office. “Black Panther” is the No. 18 installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not to mention, it’s the highest-grossing domestic release of the year and one of only three films to ever cross $700 million domestically, according to Box Office Mojo.
On a smaller scale, the last-minute summer sensation “Crazy Rich Asians” has achieved similar success in recognizing another underrepresented group.
Films featuring several underrepresented groups have wowed audiences and even earned some award nominations.
“Get Out,” the experimental horror film last year with biting social commentary on latent racism in the U.S., made waves at the box office and during awards season, even earning a nomination for Best Picture.
Meanwhile, “Coco,” besides serving as a splendid animated film in its own right, highlights the beauty of Mexican culture and tradition that won it the 2018 Best Animated Feature. Without shying away, it offers its proudly Mexican story to American audiences, who widely embraced it. The Academy did as well, rewarding it with the Best Animated Feature prize.
Other recent standouts in this vein include “Call Me by Your Name,” “Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures,” and “Wonder Woman.”
So, when diversity is paired with genuinely well-made works of cinema, people notice, and pay to see it. Who would’ve thunk it?
Diversity sells. Or at least, it can. This revelation dispels the “stubborn Hollywood myth that in order to reach the widest audiences possible, films…must center white characters in their narratives and relegate racial and ethnic others to, at best, supporting roles,” according to the Diversity report.
Still, we’re not quite off the hook— “we” being the other half of this essential two-sided equation: the consumers. Examples like these prove that, ideally, when studios give a damn, so will moviegoers. If this is going to be democratic in any sense, we must support and “vote” for diverse films in the one way we can: by purchasing tickets.
“In the past when it appeared that the Hollywood cinema was taking a more inclusive and diverse path, too often that period in history proved to be more of a phase than a progressive trend,” Scheide said. “The current emphasis on diversity may reflect a progressive trend, but we should not assume that it is here to stay. It needs to be supported.”
As media-savvy and effective as Twitter rants are at calling Hollywood out on its rubbish, audiences will have to keep truly enlightened films afloat at the box office if we expect them to continue being made available to us. For instance, “Love Simon,” released in March, was a well-received (and, if I do say so, fantastic) teen comedy featuring a gay lead character. The actor playing Simon, Nick Robinson, was straight, so there’s obviously still room for improvement. Nonetheless, the project offered a lighthearted yet heartfelt look into a relatable young person’s experience. However, it didn’t even cross the century mark in revenue from ticket sales. Success stories of diversity are remembered by Hollywood executives, but so are the financial missteps that punctuate them.
Another diverse film, “Queen of Katwe,” failed at the box office in 2016. As audiences, we must demonstrate that we’ll spend money on quality, and if we don’t, there are no winners in the long run.
Audiences certainly don’t have to accept what we’ve always been given. But if true progress is to be achieved, we must be willing to celebrate what we ask for.
In essence, we have to walk the talk.
“Embrace and encourage films that incorporate diversity; engage in discussion regarding why we want these films,” Sheide said of fans’ duty in this uphill battle. “And don’t assume that we will continue to have these viewing experiences unless we support and demand them.”