EXCLUSIVE: A UCLA-sponsored study of Hollywood’s favorite subject — itself — concludes that expanding opportunities for women and minorities behind and in front of the cameras is critical for the bottom line as the country heads incrementally toward a majority non-white population.
“Audiences crave diverse content,” Dr. Darnell Hunt, chairman of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, told Deadline in an interview. Hunt is the author of the Center’s “2016 Hollywood Diversity Report: Business As Usual?” which is to be published Thursday. That report comes on the heels of the Comprehensive Annenberg Report On Diversity (CARD), a similar survey published this week by the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School For Communication and Journalism.
“Diversity sells,” Darnell Hunt said. “Diverse audiences are buying the tickets. As a nation, we’re becoming half a percent more diverse every year and by 2042, minorities will be the majority.”
Both reports include granular research on the hiring of women and minorities in films and television as actors, creatives and executives. The USC study, headed by Dr. Stacy Smith, focused on the ongoing lack of women and minority representation in those areas. The UCLA study, Hunt said, advocates for change at the highest levels by focusing on impact at the box office.
“The two studies complement each other and show that Hollywood is way behind America in diversity,” Hunt said. “We look at the relationship between a diverse film or TV show and the bottom line. When casts are roughly reflective of America, films have the highest box office and television shows have the highest ratings, on average.” The UCLA study, the third produced annually by the Bunche Center since 2o14, aggregated information on movies from 2014 and television shows from the previous season.
“Diversity sells,” Hunt said. “Diverse audiences are buying the tickets. As a nation, we’re becoming half a percent more diverse every year and by 2042, minorities will be the majority. The top film at the box office in 2014 was Transformers: Age Of Extinction. People of color bought 60 percent of the tickets to it.”
Both studies were released, clearly for maximum impact, during the week before Sunday’s Academy Awards. The language of USC’s CARD study was designed to inflame an already intense firestorm unfolding in Hollywood in the wake of two years of all-white nominations in the Oscars’ acting categories. It guaranteed headlines, declaring that “the film industry still functions as a straight, white boys’ club” and suggesting that the phrase “#OscarsSoWhite” might more precisely be changed to #HollywoodSoWhite.” Most of the media coverage Tuesday did little more than regurgitate the USC numbers and conclusions, admittedly pretty damning in and of themselves.
Hunt acknowledged the similarity of the studies but his posture is more conciliatory. “There’s a place for calling out the bad guys, but that’s not our position,” Hunt said. “Our goal was to have the industry included in the study, to be constructive and help them think about what they’re doing. While no one studio or network is a major sponsor, we have a meeting with executives to go over the findings. They have skin in the game.”
Asked whether the studios and networks do more than pay lip service to the reports — especially in light of the fairly downbeat conclusions they reached — Hunt demurred, pointing to one recent event as a possible bellwether.
“ABC just named the first African-American woman to head a network division,” he said, referring to the appointment of Channing Dungey as head of ABC Entertainment. (Jamie Tarses, at the same network, was the first woman named to the top position, in 1996.) As it happens, ABC owner Disney also just hired African-American Selma helmer Ava DuVernay to direct the film adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time.
“That’s not lip service,” Hunt said. “That’s good business sense. Clearly, they’re in the America business.”