USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative released a study today examining the diversity of Netflix’s original content. If anything the study could be summarized by Dr. Stacy L. Smith who said in a video: “Inclusion happens when women are given the keys to the kingdom.”
“I rarely have anything positive to say,” said Dr. Smith said during a symposium for the unveiling of the Netflix study. “This report was a bit of a reprieve from my typical rollout of information.”
Dr. Smith was joined on the virtual panel by Netflix’s Bela Bajaria, Vice President, Global Series; Scott Stuber Vice President, Global Film; as well as Tigertail director Alan Yang and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom director George C. Wolfe.
The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative studies diversity in entertainment and has released numerous studies and reports when it comes to representation. Netflix commissioned Smith and initiative to study for its original, English-language series and film titles originating in the U.S. from January 2018 to December 2019.
The streamer has decided to be transparent — even though they don’t have to share — with the study, sharing it with the public. Additionally, they announced the Netflix Fund for Creative Equity, a $100 million dollar fund to be distributed globally over 5 years, focused on building talent pipelines for underrepresented communities.
Across 22 inclusion indicators analyzed for film and series, 19 showed an improvement year over year, pointing to a Netflix commitment to increase inclusion in content. The streamer is outpacing the industry in hiring women of color directors in films and series and have achieved gender equality in leading roles across our films and series.
Specifically, Netflix reflects gender equality in leading roles. 52% of films and series had women as co-leads. Broken down: 48.4% of films had women as leads/co-leads versus 41% of top-grossing films in 2018-19. 54.5% of series featured women leads/co-leads versus 50.8% of the U.S. population
Netflix outpaced top box office films when it came to women behind the camera, specifically in the roles of directors, writers and producers. In addition, the study found women and people of color are excluded, women of color face the greatest erasure on screen and behind the camera. In front of the camera, girls and women of color were as likely as men of color to fill lead roles while women of color lead in Netflix movies more than top films in 2018-2019
Netflix’s Strong Black Lead campaign has become a touchstone for them when it comes to bolstering Black representation — and it’s working. As the study said, it is “more than a marketing slogan” as it found 21.4% of Netflix films had Black lead or co-leads while 10.8% of Netflix series featured Black lead or co-leads.
There is always room for improvement and there is a surprisingly low representation of LGBTQ+ and characters with disabilities on Netflix. In addition, there are significant gaps in representation in content for Hispanic/Latino, Middle Eastern/North African, American Indian/Alaskan Native, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander communities.
“This is all about access and opportunity,” said Dr. Smith during the symposium. “Hollywood has traditionally functioned on identity being a signifier to decrease or put up a barrier to give access or opportunity to historically marginalized communities.”
Dr. Smith said that it is clear as day with the numbers as the study found there are “exponentially more” leads, co-leads and main cast from marginalized communities when a person behind the camera is from a historically marginalized community. “That access is helping make people make decisions differently,” she said.
She added that she was excited about this study because we are seeing different decision-making than what Hollywood has typically done in the past.
Wolfe, spoke about his own experience when it came to cultivating opportunity during the symposium: “For the first six years of my life I grew up in a segregated town so there was an infrastructure of ‘no’ put into place to keep me from dreaming.”
He said it was ingrained in him, but when he was able to get into “the room” and follow his dream he wanted to open the doors for everyone. It became about inviting different people to tell their stories because “at the end of the day, accompanied with racist thought process is a fundamental lack of imagination,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to look like you to be about you. You can find yourself in all kinds of stories. I was trained early on to watch bad sitcoms that did not look anything like me… I cultivated imagination to be part of the human collective.”
He added, “When people can be in the rooms and confront what they don’t know, that’s a crucial step to moving forward.”
Yang also found ways to cultivating opportunities when he and Aziz Ansari started making shows. The pair wanted to make shows that looked like them and include people who looked like their friends — and we saw that in Master of None.
“I feel so incredibly fortunate to write, create and produce during this time because now, when I get to extend my production to other creators, I’m looking for people whose voices haven’t been heard,” said Yang. He added that he is currently working on numerous shows that will cultivate opportunities for other creators in the margins such as a show he describes as a Tawainese American Seinfeld and another is similar to Freaks and Geeks but at a Black high school. He and Bajaria are also working on Free Food for Millionaires which is a Sex and the City-esque story about a Korean American in the ’90s.
“If I as a kid could watch Friends, Frasier and Cheers and identify with those shows, I think white people and people who don’t necessarily look like the people on screen, can identify with these shows,” Yang stated. “It’s that simple.”
“Another thing we talk about on these shows is if we can show them something they haven’t seen before?” he continued. “Identity isn’t the only way to do that but it is one way.”
In a blog post written by Ted Sarandos, he said, “We’re committed to continue our work with Dr. Smith and USC, and will release a report every two years, from now through 2026. As Dr. Smith told me, she’s ‘not aware of another quantitative study that has this degree of nuance’ – setting ‘a high bar for the wider industry’ as ‘an internal audit is a critical first step toward inclusive change.’ We’ll also look to do similar studies in other countries around the world. Our hope is to create a benchmark for ourselves, and more broadly across the industry. “
He continued, “We are still in the early stages of a major change in storytelling – where great stories can truly come from anywhere, be created by anyone, whatever their background, and be loved everywhere. And by better understanding how we are doing, we hope to stimulate change not just at Netflix but across our industry more broadly.”
Read the full Netflix diversity report here.
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