Cast diversity in films “skyrocketed” last year, according to the latest inclusion report from UCLA.
“People of color and women made tremendous strides among film leads since the last report, cementing 2020 as a watershed moment for diversity,” the study says. “For the first time, both groups nearly reached proportionate representation among film leads.” And while 2020 was certainly Hollywood’s most atypical year in terms of how films were released, the report concluded that it “was the industry’s most successful year on the diversity front.”
UCLA’s “2021 Hollywood Diversity Report,” co-authored by sociologists Darnell Hunt and Ana-Christina Ramón, is the latest indication that Hollywood is in the midst of a diversity sea change. The report also looked at diversity within the ranks of film writers and directors, and here too found significant gains for women and minorities.
Percentage Of Top-Grossing Films With Female Protagonists 'Dropped Dramatically' Last Year, Study Finds
“We’ve been systematically looking at these key job categories and comparing the representation of women and people of color to the all-important bottom line for eight years, and it’s encouraging to see skyrocketing numbers this year in front of the camera,” said Hunt, dean of UCLA’s Division of Social Sciences and a professor of sociology and African American Studies. “Unfortunately, the progress hasn’t been nearly as meaningful behind the camera, particularly in the executive suites where white males still dominate the green-lighting decisions.”
The report, which examined the 185 top-grossing English-language films released domestically in 2020 via theaters and streaming services, found that the Black share of all speaking roles rose to 19.4%, up from 15.7% a year earlier, “marking the third year in a row for which the group was over-represented” when compared to the Black percentage (13.4%) of the U.S. population.
People of color, who collectively account for about 40.3% of the U.S. population, “exceeded proportionate representation for the first time,” accounting for 42% of all roles in the films surveyed.
The share of roles for all the other racial and ethnic groups surveyed also increased last year, though most are still under-represented in movies as a proportion of the population.
Latinx performers were cast in 5.7% of all film roles last year, up from 4.6% the year before. They make up nearly 18% of the population, however, and remain the most underrepresented group in Hollywood, despite the fact that as moviegoers, they were “significantly overrepresented” in 2020, accounting for 29% of the tickets sold.
Asians were cast in 6.5% of all roles last year, up from 5% in 2019. They account for nearly 6% of the U.S> population.
Multiracial actors got 8.5% of the roles in 2020, up from 6.2% the year before. They make up slightly less than 3% of the population.
Middle Easters & North African (MENA) performers were cast in 1.3% of the roles in 2020, up from 0.7% in 2019. Their percentage of the population is more difficult to accurately determine because the U.S. census doesn’t contain a separate category for them, but new estimates put them at close to 3% of the population.
Native Americans got 0.6% of all roles last year, up from 0.5% the year before. According to the census, Natives, including Native Americans, Native Hawaiians and all other Indigenous people, account for about 1.5% of the population.
Film leads by race reflect similar numbers: White (60.3%); Black (19%); Latinx (5.4%); Asian (5.4%); multiracial (7.6%); Native (1.1%) and MENA (1.1%). All but Whites showed gains last year compared to 2019.
Like people of color, the report found that “women have made enormous gains” since the college’s series of reports were launched in 2011. Women accounted for 47.8% of film leads in 2020, up from 44.1% in 2019, which is nearly double their share in 2011 (25.6%). “As a result, the lines for male and female leads had nearly converged in 2020, leaving women just shy of proportionate representation in this important employment arena.”
Despite all these gains, Black actresses, compared to their male counterparts, remain “significantly” underrepresented in leading roles. “Among White, Latinx, Asian, multiracial, Native and MENA film leads in 2020, women either approached or exceeded the numbers for their male counterparts. Only among Black film leads were women significantly outnumbered by men that year.” (The report considers only the top eight actors as leads in each film, in order of their appearance in the credits.)
And for the first time ever, Whites have joined the ranks of the underrepresented. “The White share of all top film roles dropped to 58% in 2020, down from 67.3% in 2019, thus continuing a downward trend for the group,” the report found. “As a result, Whites were for the first time slightly underrepresented among featured film roles in 2020.” Non-Hispanic Whites make up about 60% of the population.
Directors of color also did well last year, helming 25.4% of the top films, up from 14.4% in 2019. “Not only was this the largest single year-to-year increase in the minority share of directors, the 2020 share was the largest on record for the group,” the report says. “While this share was more than double the group’s 2011 share (12.2%), the group would have to increase its 2020 share by another 15 percentage points in order to reach proportionate representation (40.3%).”
Women directors also made significant gains, writing 20.5% the films surveyed, up from 15.1% in 2019. Since 2011, when only 4.1% of the top films were directed by women, their share of directing jobs has increased five-fold. “Despite these significant gains, women remained underrepresented by a factor of more than 2 to 1 in this employment arena in 2020.”
These gains were mirrored by women and minority writers. “Women and people of color made huge gains relative to their male and White counterparts among those credited for penning the top films in 2020,” the report found. “The gains were particularly noteworthy for writers of color, who nearly doubled their share of these credits due to the inclusion, for the first time, of a proportionate share of Black writers in 2020.”
People of color’s share of the writing credited for the top Hollywood films increased to 25.9% in 2020, nearly doubling from 13.9% in 2019. “This 12-percentage-point increase was the biggest single-year increase over the course of this report series, resulting in the largest minority share of film writers on record. People of color nonetheless would have to increase their 2020 share by about 14 percentage points in order to reach proportionate representation in this employment arena.”
The report found that more than three quarters of the films with minority writers in 2020 also had minority directors (81.3%).
Women’s share of the writing credited on the top films increased to 26% last yea, up from 17.4% in 2019, and nearly doubling from 14.1% in 2011. “Still, women would have to nearly double their 2020 share (again) in order to reach parity with men in this employment arena,” the report says. “Writer/director matching was not as pronounced for women as it was for people of color in 2020, a little more than half of the films with woman writers that year also had women directors (56.3%).”
The upward trends for women and minorities detailed in UCLA’s film report are similar those cited by the WGA and the DGA about TV writers and directors. Last June, the WGA reported that the hiring of women and underrepresented TV writers had progressed so much in recent years that they “could achieve parity” in two years if current trends continue. And in February, the DGA reported that the share of TV shows directed by women and people of color continued to reach “new highs.” Both guilds, however, said that women and minority writers and directors remain greatly underrepresented in terms of their share of the overall population.
The UCLA report, meanwhile, found that the top grossing films with leads who were women or people of color were more likely to have had smaller budgets last year than those with White and male leads. It found that 74.3% of the films directed by women in 2020 had budgets smaller than $20 million, compared to just 59.2% of those films directed by men. “Though men and women were equally as likely to direct films with budgets in excess of $100 million, the films directed by men were more concentrated on the higher end of the budget spectrum than those directed by women.” The report noted that nearly all of the films with a female director in 2020 also featured a female lead (94.7%).
“Our report finds that women directors and directors of color have overwhelmingly diverse productions,” said the report’s co-author, Ana-Christina Ramon, director of Research and Civic Engagement for the Division of Social Sciences at UCLA. “However, these films often have smaller budgets than those helmed by male directors and white directors. So, in a year where more diverse productions were made more accessible to larger audiences through streaming services, the contrast is stark as to what types of films have the big budgets. There is a clear underinvestment of films made by, written by, and led by women and people of color.”
Released just in time for the Oscars, the report says that “If the 2021 Oscar nominations are a sign of things to come, then women and people of color stand to make considerable progress among the talent awarded for their artistic merit. The nominations set a number of diversity firsts at the Oscars for films released in 2020 – including the most inclusive acting slate ever, the first woman of color nominated for best director, and the first film with an all-Black producing team nominated for best picture. Perhaps the record increase in the nomination of diverse talent for films released in 2020 is an indication that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ attempts to diversify its membership, post-#OscarsSoWhite, are finally beginning to pay dividends.
“And more progress may lie ahead with the Academy’s recently announced diversity standards for films seeking best picture consideration. Of course, the bar for ‘considerable progress’ is pretty low given how diverse talent fared at the Oscars a year earlier. Though English-language films released in 2019 with women leads and directors posted gains at the Oscars, those led and directed by people of color lost ground compared to the year before. Indeed, not a single English-language film featuring a minority lead won at least one Oscar in 2019 – the first time this was true since 2011. English-language films with casts that were only from 11% to 20% minority were the most likely to win at least one Oscar for 2019, while those with casts that were more than 30% minority were shut out from winning an award.”
The report recognized that last year was like no other, and that the closure of theaters made year-to-year comparisons more difficult, which is why films released on streaming platforms were included this time. “Due to the disruptions caused by the pandemic, the 185 top films considered in this report were released in a variety of ways, thus departing from an examination of only theatrical releases in earlier reports.”
The largest single category of films considered in the report includes those that were released solely on streaming platforms (54.6%). The second-largest category included films that were released only in theaters (16.2%), followed by those released both on streaming platforms and in limited theaters (15.1%). The next largest category included films that were released both theatrically and through video on demand (9.2%). Only 4.9% of the films were released both on streaming platforms and widely in theaters.
“The global pandemic that reshaped our lives in 2020 also upended business as usual in the Hollywood entertainment industry,” the report says in its view of the current Hollywood landscape. “As the spread of the Covid-19 virus provoked prohibitions against large gatherings and confined people to their homes, theaters in the United States and around the globe were forced to close their doors for extended stretches throughout the year. As a result, global box office plummeted 72% between 2019 and 2020, from $42.3 billion to just $12 billion. The effect of the pandemic was even more pronounced in the world’s largest theatrical film market, the United States and Canada, where ticket sales nose-dived from $11.4 billion in 2019 to a mere $2.2 billion in 2020, an 81% decline. Indeed, just 338 films were released in U.S./Canada theaters in 2020, down from 987 in 2019.
“Sheltered in their homes, viewers turned more fervently than ever before to home-based and mobile entertainment. The global home/mobile entertainment market increased to a record $68 billion in 2020, up 23% from the $55.9 billion figure for 2019. The U.S. share of this global market stood at nearly 44% in 2020. More than half of U.S. adults (55%) reported that their viewing of film and series content via online subscription services increased during 2020. Latinx and Black adults were both overrepresented among online content subscribers and electronic sell-through/video-on-demand, daily viewers.”
One of the main thrusts of the report is that diversity on-screen and behind the cameras is good for business. “Though 2020 was far from a typical year in the Hollywood film sector, new evidence nonetheless supports longstanding findings from this report series that America’s increasingly diverse audiences prefer diverse content.”
For the smaller-than-normal number of top films released theatrically last year, median global box office receipts peaked for those that had very diverse casts – from 41% to 50% minority, according to the report.
“For the much larger collection of top films released via streaming platforms, ratings and social media interactions were highest for titles with casts that were from 21% to 30% minority,” the report says. “Meanwhile, people of color accounted for the majority of opening weekend domestic ticket sales for six of the top 10 films released in theaters in 2020 (ranked by global box office), as well as half of the tickets for a seventh top 10 film. Similarly, households of color accounted for a disproportionate share of the households viewing eight of the top 10 films released via streaming platforms in 2020, ranked by total household ratings. Finally, findings based on box office share and household ratings reveal that the films most favored by diverse moviegoers and households in 2020 tended to have casts that were greater than 30% minority.”
Median global box office peaked at $141.9 for films with casts that were from 41-50% minority last year, according to the report. “In a year in which theater attendance was decimated by the Covid-19 pandemic, theatrically released films with relatively diverse casts far outshined their less-diverse counterparts at the box office. Indeed, the 12 films with the least-diverse casts (less than 11% minority) were the poorest performers in 2020.
“While the COVID-19 pandemic greatly reduced the number of theatrically released films in 2020, it had the opposite effect on the volume of top films released via streaming platforms. The number of streaming films increased dramatically in 2020, and for viewers 18-49, White, Black, Latinx, and Asian households, ratings peaked for films featuring casts that were from 21-30% minority.
“Minority households were overrepresented among the households streaming eight of the top 10 films in 2020, ranked by total household ratings. Minority households reached or approached proportionate representation for the two remaining top 10 streaming films in 2020.”
Just how big the market was last year for theatrical and streaming films with diverse casts is shown in these figures:
• Seven of the top 10 theatrical films at the domestic box office, ranked by both the Black and Asian shares of opening weekend, featured casts that were more than 30% minority.
• Four of the top 10 theatrical films at the domestic box office, ranked by the Latinx share of opening weekend, featured casts that were more than 30% minority.
• Seven of the top 10 streaming films, ranked by both Black and Asian household ratings, featured casts that were more than 30% minority.
• Six of the top 10 streaming films in 2020, ranked by both White and Latinx household ratings, featured casts that were more than 30% minority.
Even so, the report found that only one of the top 10 theatrical films, in terms of domestic box office, ranked by the White share of opening weekend, featured a cast that was more than 30% minority.
In its conclusion, the report ponders whether the “tremendous strides” made in diversity last year are a fluke of the pandemic or if the trend will continue into the future. It should be noted, however, that nearly all of the films surveyed were in the pipeline long before the pandemic began. “Could there be a relationship between the dictates of the pandemic and the tremendous progress observed on the diversity front? Or were these corresponding breaks with business as usual a mere coincidence – Hollywood finally coming to terms with its diversity problem by happenstance in year also rearranged by a pandemic? How do we know that the progress observed in 2020 was not an anomaly that will be revealed as such by findings from the next report?
“Only future reports in this series can answer these questions for sure. This is because many of the more diverse films included in this report may not have made the cut as top 200 films (ranked by global box office) if the analysis had been restricted to films originally released in theaters, as in previous reports. Though it is clear that streaming will play a larger role in the distribution of major films going forward, it is less clear how this new normal will take shape with respect to diverse content and the particular mix of theatrical and streaming films.
“Nonetheless, Hollywood would benefit greatly from embracing 2020’s revelations about the bottom-line possibilities associated with major advances on the diversity front. People of color already constitute more than 40% of the U.S. population, and their share is increasing by about half a percent a year – a trend that guarantees the growing importance of diverse audiences going forward.”
The film diversity report is the first of two parts that UCLA issues each year; its TV report will come out later this year.
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