A granular dissection of the 100 top-grossing films of 2014 soundly refutes any notion that Hollywood is a bastion of political correctness under the thumb of women and minority activists. On the contrary, according to the report from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Hollywood made no progress at all in diversification over the seven years from 2007 through 2014 — with the noteworthy exception of animated films.
The study, “Inequality in 700 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race, & LGBT Status from 2007 to 2014,” examined the 100 top-grossing films each year, from plot lines to casting and directing, with an emphasis on speaking roles.
“Rarely do you have a report that measures every speaking character on screen,” Professor Stacy L. Smith, author of the study, told Deadline in an interview. “Here’s a picture of what we see happening across the entire landscape. I don’t think we’re seeing a great deal of change. I call it ‘an epidemic of invisibility.’ In the top 100 films of 2014, there were 17 films with no black or African-American actors and over 40 with no Asians. Not one film featured a transgender character. And only 21 of the top 100 movies featured a female lead or co-lead.” That’s a 50% drop from the seven-year average of 30.2%.
“When over 40 films [out of 100] have no Asian characters,” Smith said, “we have a problem.”
“[T]hink about the entire ecology of Hollywood. These are easy asks for the industry because people don’t care about the characters who just say one word. The only limitation here is the imagination of the story teller.”
— Professor Stacy L. Smith
“The picture that film presents is one that bears little resemblance to our nation’s demography,” said Smith, founding director of the Initiative. She told Deadline that by weighing every role, down to those with only a single line, the study reveals how resistant Hollywood has been to even minor change.
“Over three quarters of all characters we evaluate are inconsequential to the plot,” Smith explained. “These are opportunities. Our work helps to illuminate the problem but also to say think about the entire ecology of Hollywood. These are easy asks for the industry because people don’t care about the characters who just say one word. The only limitation here is the imagination of the story teller.”
Smith said that the sole bright spot in the report related to animated films. “For the first time since we’ve been evaluating, there’s been an increase in underrepresented characters in these films.” There were 25.4% more characters from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups than there were in 2007, according to the report, though most of the increase was attributable to one film, The Book Of Life. “So change is possible in the entertainment industry,” Smith noted. “The question is, Will that percentage remain as high as it is in the next report?”
The report is most revealing on the issue of women in the industry, stressing that women and girls are much more likely to be presented as highly sexualized “eye candy” than to play significant roles in films. “Despite comprising roughly 50% of the U.S. population, girls and women make up less than a third of all speaking characters on screen and less than a quarter of the leads or co-leads driving the story lines,” according to the report. “Less than one out of four characters in animated or action adventure movies were female. Clearly, the norm in Hollywood is to exclude girls and women from the screen. It is also to misrepresent them.
“We were curious about what it would take to correct the female bias,” Smith said. “We found that if Hollywood added 5% more female characters each year, we would be at parity in four years.”
Smith said that the industry generally has been open to the center’s annual reports (even if the failure to change doesn’t reflect much movement in the direction of diversification). “Many of the folks who work in the industry are concerned with these issues,” she said. “People are invisible. Every person deserves to be seen and heard. These data make a compelling case that storytellers need to think beyond their own bias.”