An intensive new study commissioned by ReFrame and the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative is refuting what they call the “myth” that movies with female or underrepresented lead or co-leading characters earn less money at the box office than films with male or white leads/co leads.
The report, titled “The Ticket to Inclusion” and released Wednesday, used models controlling for a set of production, distribution, and exhibition factors to ask the question: Is it the gender and race/ethnicity of the characters and/or the support these films receive that contributes to differences in box office revenue?
The results show a cycle in which such films receive less funding, the latter of which is a bigger factor in overall box office results. The data, which used the economic performance of 1,200 top films from 2007-2018, revealed that instead the strongest predictors of economic success for films is the number of theaters in which a movie was released, story strength (as measured by Metacritic), marketing spend and production costs. As these factors increased, so did revenue.
Additionally, films with leads/co leads from underrepresented groups earned more revenue when other influences were accounted for in the model. The study found that a weaker, but still significant predictor of success was the percentage of female characters in a film.
Films starring women of color, for example, received the lowest funds in terms of median production costs and median marketing spend (domestic or international). Those movies were also distributed in fewer median international territories than films with white female, underrepresented male, or white male leads.
“This study confirms our previous work indicating that the gender of the lead/co-lead character is not a significant predictor of box office performance,” said Professor Stacy L. Smith, head of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, who co-authored the study witht Professor René Weber and the Media Neuroscience Lab at UCSB’s Department of Communication. “Rather, it is other factors that are within the control of executives—production costs, promotion, distribution density, and the story itself that play a key role in a movie’s success.
“Moreover, films with leading/co-leading characters from underrepresented racial/ethnic backgrounds are a significant and notable predictor of economic revenue domestically. This is a finding that cannot be ignored and is consistent with what activists, advocates and artists have been saying for years. Stories with underrepresented leads/co-leads make money. Period.”
ReFrame, the collaboration between Sundance Institute and Women In Film, said as a result of the finds that it will expand its current 14-point roadmap for mitigating bias in the industry “to include recommended changes to finance models based on the findings of this study, so that studios and production companies do not inadvertently underfund movies and shows based on mythological presumptions,” co-founders Cathy Schulman and Keri Putnam said.
Read the full study here.