USC Annenberg Comprehensive Study Shines Glaring Spotlight On Slow Progress Toward Inclusion In Hollywood

As much as Hollywood has pushed diversity in the past couple of years, there is still a long way to go considering the magnitude of tone-deaf mistakes the film and TV industry has made since its inception. Strides are being made, but no one is going to step in and snap their fingers like Iron Man to make an equal playing ground for everyone who works in film and TV. This is very evident in the new report which dove deep into a comprehensive and intersectional look at film. The annual report from Professor Stacy L. Smith and the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism examined 57,629 characters in 1,300 top films from 2007 to 2019 to see where movies stand in terms diversity and inclusion.

The country is in the middle of a civic uprising and a reckoning when it comes to the treatment of marginalized communities — especially the Black community. That said, the movies and characters studied in the report aptly titled Inequality in 1,300 Popular Films shows a lack of inclusive representation of those from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, girls and women, the LGBTQ community, and individuals with disabilities.

“After 13 years, it is not clear what might convince entertainment companies to change,” said Dr. Smith. “Despite public statements, the data reveal that there is still apathy and ambivalence to increasing representation of speaking characters overall in popular films. This is both the easiest representational gap to address and one that is essential to strengthen the pipeline to more prominent roles.”

The study comes after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its attempt to bolster diversity and inclusion at the Oscars by setting new standards of representation and inclusion to win the coveted Best Picture trophy — standards that have been met with praise and skepticism.

The report clocked an increase in leading and/or co-leading characters from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, from 27 films in 2018 to 32 films in 2019. It was found that 17 movies featured a girl or woman from an underrepresented group as a lead or co-lead in 2019 compared to just 11 in 2018, 4 in 2017 and 1 in 2007. In 2019, 43 of the 100 top films had a girl or woman in a leading or co-leading role which is up from 39 in 2018 and a major gain from 20 in 2007. However, only 3 films had a leading or co-leading role filled by a woman aged 45 or older, and only one of these roles went to a woman of color.

As far as speaking female-identifying characters, things have been pretty stagnant for 13 years. The percentage has not meaningfully increased since 2007, reaching only 34% in 2019. Similarly, 34.3% of speaking characters were underrepresented, which is below the U.S. population and a slight decrease from 2018.

The study also found that on-screen representation of characters shown with disabilities and LGBTQ characters is not on par with population norms. In fact, they’re pretty behind. Of the 100 top films of 2019, just 2.3% of characters were shown with a disability, a number consistent over the last five years. In addition, there was a small 1.4% of all LGBTQ-identifying characters in the top films of 2019 even though there has been an increase over the past two years. Across 600 films from 2014 to 2019, only 4 characters were transgender. Not only was representation low with the disabled and LGBTQ community, all the characters did not have an impact on the overall narrative and appear on screen for only 2 minutes in total. Across 600 films and hundreds of hours of storytelling, transgender characters appear on screen for roughly the runtime of a film trailer.

The report also offers up an “invisibility analysis” to determine how many movies were missing girls and women speaking characters on screen from different underrepresented groups. Of the 100 top films of 2019, the researchers found that 33 films were missing Black/African American girls and women on screen, 55 were missing Asian or Asian American girls or women, 71 were missing Hispanic/Latinas, and 45 were missing girls or women from Multiracial/Multiethnic backgrounds.

Girls and women from other groups were also excluded, including American Indian/Alaskan Native characters (97 movies), Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander characters (99 movies), and Middle Eastern/North African characters (92 movies). Further, 77 films did not portray a single girl or woman with a disability and 94 films were devoid of even one female-identified LGBT character.

“The erasure of girls and women from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, the LGBTQ community, and those with disabilities remains a hallmark of top-performing Hollywood films,” explains Dr. Smith. “Intersectional inclusion on screen must be an area for targeted intervention.”

The report evaluated a total of 3,891 speaking characters were for race/ethnicity and found that nearly two-thirds of the speaking or named characters assessed were White (65.7%) Far behind were the Hispanic/Latino (4.9%), Black (15.7%), American Indian/Alaskan Native (<1%), Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (<1%), Asian (7.2%), Middle Eastern/North African (1.6%) and Multiracial/Multiethnic (4.4%). In total, 34.3% of characters were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. This point statistic was below the U.S. Census (39.9%).

The study also took a look at inclusion behind the camera which saw an good showing of women directors but not so good for underrepresented directors Of 1,447 directors over 13 years, 4.8% were women. Meanwhile, when it came to underrepresented directors 6.1% of directors were Black, 3.3% were Asian, and 3.7% were Hispanic/Latino. There was a significant change in 2018 with an increase in Black directors but then stumbled in 2019. To put things into further perspective, only 13 women of color have directed a top film across 1,300 movies in 13 years.

Dr. Smith pointed out: “In contrast to our findings on top-grossing films, 20.7% of Netflix directors of U.S. based films in 2019 were women. The legacy studios may want to take a note out of the streaming giant’s playbook on how to hire more inclusively behind the camera.”

In addition, it unpacked how well legacy studios and distributors performed when it came to indicators of diversity and inclusion. The report also unpacked representation when it came to global box office earnings by studio.

“This is a critical moment for the industry to commit to real and substantive change,” Dr. Smith said. “Too often the results of studies like this one garner attention without action. As protests for racial justice continue, it is imperative that companies move beyond performative statements and commit to take actions that will result in inclusive hiring practices on screen and behind the camera.”

Perhaps more studios, decision-makers and gatekeepers in Hollywood will be incentivized by the aforementioned new Academy standards for Best Picture to make these changes happen.

The full annual study from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative can be found here.

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