Hollywood is slowly catching up with its increasingly diverse audience. But it still has a long way to go before those who create films and TV shows match the ethnic and gender makeup of those who watch them.
Dr. Darnell Hunt, dean of UCLA’s Division of Social Sciences and professor of Sociology and African American Studies, has been following these trends for more than two decades. Speaking today at SAG-AFTRA’s #Stop the Hate Week, he provided eight years of data showing that Hollywood has been making steady gains in diversity and inclusion. But it has been so far behind the diversity curve for so long that it will have to redouble its efforts if it ever hopes to reach true parity.
“Somewhere around 2043, demographers tell us, the US will become a majority minority country,” he said. “In fact, we’re becoming more diverse by a little bit less than half a percent each year in terms of people of color’s share of the population.” In 1960, minorities made up only about 15% of the U.S. population, and now account for more than 40%.
“What this means is that the market for Hollywood films and television is becoming much, much more diverse,” he said, noting that the data shows that. “Diverse audiences increasingly demand diverse content.”
In his latest report on films released in 2019 and TV shows that aired during the 2018-19 season, he looked at 146 of the top-grossing films and 463 scripted TV shows, and compared them to data he’s collected over the last eight years. In nearly every category, women and minorities have made steady, sometimes impressive, gains, but still lag far below their percentages of the US population.
On the film side, he found that women got just 30.8% of the leading roles in 2012, but landed 44.1% of those roles in 2019 – moving ever closer to parity. People of color, meanwhile, accounted for only 15.1% of the leading roles in 2012, but 27.6% in 2019 – not quite doubling in eight years. Still, he cautioned, that’s far below their percentage of the US population. “People of color would have to not quite double their share of leads to reach proportional representation in this arena. But you see the trend is an upward one, so I guess that’s positive. But we still have a long way to go.”
Women and minority film writers and directors have also made gains, but are nowhere close to achieving parity. Women directed just 5.8% of the top-grossing films in 2012. “That number nearly tripled to 15.1% in 2019, but women would have to triple that share again to reach proportional representation,” he said.
People of color directed 11% of the films in his survey in 2012, and 14.4% in 2019. “People of color would have to triple their share of directors to reach proportional representation in this arena, so we have a long way to go in terms of directors.”
Minority writers rose from 7.8% in 2012 to 13.9% in 2019. “People of color not quite doubled their share. But we still have a long way to go before people of color reach proportional representation among credited writers in film.”
Women writers were credited on 13% of the films in his 2012 survey, and on 17.4% in 2019. “Women, slightly more than half the population, are woefully underrepresented among the writers credited in film.”
One of the key problems in the industry, he said, “is that the executive suites tend to be overwhelmingly white and male, which crowds out the opportunity for people of color and women to occupy those all-important decision-making positions about what types of projects get greenlighted.”
According to his data, 91% of the chairs and CEOs at Hollywood’s major movie studios in 2020 were white, and 82% were male. The numbers are about the same in the senior executive ranks: 91% white and 80% male. Among unit heads, which includes the heads of casting and marketing, 86% were white and 59% were male last year.
On the TV side, his data on executives at the major networks was similar, although women make up a higher percentage of the executive ranks: 32% of the CEOs and chairs; 40% of the senior executives, and 46% of the unit heads. By race, 92% of the CEOs and chairs; 84% of the senior executives, and 54% of the unit heads last year were white.
Creators of TV shows are also overwhelmingly white and male, although women and minorities are making gains here as well. On broadcast TV shows that aired during the 2011-12 season, only 4.2% of creators were people of color, but more than doubled to 10.7% in 2018-19. Women creators increased their percentages from 26.5% in 2011-12 to 28.1% in the last season he surveyed.
In terms of the overall population, Hunt said, “We have a long way to go before people of color are in a position to create the shows that people see. In fact, people of color would have to nearly quadruple their 2018-19 share to reach proportional representation among broadcast show creators.”
Hunt found similar numbers at cable shows: minority creators nearly doubled from 7.4% in 2011-12 to 14.5% eight years later, while women creators went from 21.5% to 22.4%. On digital shows, the percentage of minority creators rose from 6.2% in the 2013-14 season to 10.3% five years later, while women creators surged from 15.6% to 28.6%.
The percentage of leading roles for women has increased on cable and digital shows, but declined on broadcast TV – from 48.5% in 2011-12 to 44.8% in 2018-19. “Women have taken a step or so backwards among leads in broadcast TV, from near parity when we first started this study eight years ago.”
Minority actors, however, have made strong gains on broadcast TV, with their percentage of leading roles increasing from just 5.1% during the 2011-12 season to 24% in 2018-19, which Hunt said is “nearly five-times the share from 2011-12. So there’s been quite a bit of progress in broadcast TV among leads for people of color. But we still have a ways to go: 24% is about 16 percentage points below the people of color’s share of the US population.”
The percentage of leading roles for people of color was even higher on cable TV, more than doubling from 14.7% during the 2011-12 season to 35% in 2018-19. “People of color in 2018-19 were getting very close to proportional representation,” he said. Leading roles for women on cable shows rose from 37.1% to 44.8% – the same as for broadcast TV.
Leading roles for women on digital shows almost reached parity – 49.4% – in 2018-19, which was up from 35.3% five years earlier. Minority leads rose from 9.1% in 2013-14 to 24.1% in 2018-19. “That’s quite a bit of progress – almost tripling their share.”
Hunt also found a more than doubling of the percentage of minority writers working on broadcast, cable and digital TV shows. On broadcast, they rose from 9.7% in 2011-12 to 23.4% eight years later; on cable, they rose from 11.8% in 2011-12 to 25.8% eight years later; and on digital they rose from 10.8% in 2013-14 to 22.8% five years later.
Hunt said that a key element of his research shows that diversity in hiring is good for the studios’ bottom line: that more inclusive casts among their eight lead characters generates higher ratings and bigger profits. According to his research, films released in 2019 did increasingly better at the box office as their casts became more diverse.
Films in which leading actors of color made up just 11% or less of a cast generated, on average, only $22 million at the box office, and rose steadily as the number of leading minority actors increased: to $36.9 million for films with 11-20% minority leads; to $71.7 for films with 21-30% minority leads; dipping to $68 million for films with 31-40% minority leads, before reaching the highest average gross of $76.1 million for films with 41-50% minority leads. Films with more than 50% minority leads, however, fell back to $44 million. His research found similar results, in terms of ratings, for TV shows.
Introducing Hunt, SAG-AFTRA national executive director David White said that “We need data to address racism and hate. Whatever we do to address it is always strengthened when we bring data and hardcore information into the conversation.”
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