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Report shows better representation in Hollywood on screen but not behind the camera

Although the Hollywood scene has vastly improved its representation of minorities in film, the Hollywood Diversity Report shows that the majority of members competing in the industry are still white men. (Tanmay Shankar/Assistant Photo editor)

By Matthew Chu

February 10, 2020 12:22 am

Hollywood has made strides to include more people of color on the silver screen, but according to the annual Hollywood Diversity Report, the industry remains overwhelmingly white and male behind the camera.

The struggle to achieve proportionate representation within the film industry is reflected in this year’s report, subtitled a “Tale of Two Hollywoods,” which was released Thursday by the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. As the seventh study in a series of annual reports, the report considers the top 200 films of 2018 and 2019 rated by the global box office. It breaks down how women and people of color were represented within the productions said Ana-Christina Ramón, director of research and civic engagement for the division of social sciences, who co-authored the report alongside Darnell Hunt, the dean of social sciences at UCLA.

In the past, the report has also included a television analysis, which for the first time will be included in a separate report to be released later this year. Ramón said this decision was made so the film portion could accompany this year’s Academy Awards, which was held at an earlier date than usual. She said this year’s report shows visible progress for minorities and women in lead acting roles and overall cast diversity. However, she said these groups continue to be vastly underrepresented in positions such as directors, screenwriters and film executives.

“Behind the cameras, there is very minimal progress,” Ramón said. “It looks like things are changing, but when you look at it overall, you see that … the numbers have just increased slightly. It’s still not enough to … say that you’re getting close to proportionate representation.”

[Related: Second Take: Just because the Academy thinks a picture is best doesn’t mean it is]

For minorities – who comprise approximately 40% of the U.S. population – their share of directors in top films declined from 19.3% in 2018 to 14.4% in 2019. Similarly, while female directors have shown an upward trend, reaching 15.1% in 2019, they still fall short of proportional representation by a factor of more than three to one.

Sociology doctoral student Michael Tran, who collected data for previous reports, said the lack of diversity behind the camera has been a consistent pattern since 2011. Tran said that while a more diverse year like 2013 was heralded as the year of black film, the annual data revealed only a blip, and representation reverted to the status quo in the following years.

Ramón said the fact that Hollywood studio executive positions are dominated by white men has contributed to the stagnation toward diversity. At the Oscars, female directors in particular have been virtually excluded, as films directed by women saw zero wins from 2015 to 2018, she said. Since the Academy is a large body comprised of about 8,000 people who are mainly older white men, she said it has been difficult to diversify, since not all new class members are minorities or women.

“The bias starts early in that process, so it’s not like everyone has viewed everything and then you have to vote,” Ramón said. “Oftentimes you’re not even considered, because you don’t even get your foot in the door, so people don’t even interview you – you don’t even get an opportunity.”

Nonetheless, Ramón said studios have begun to recognize the profitability of diversity within domestic and international markets. “Black Panther” in 2018 was a significant turning point in the industry, she said, validating the previous reports’ conclusions that diversity sells notably, the majority-minority movie. Minorities’ share of lead roles in top films has shown an increasing trend, with 26.6% in 2018 and 27.6% in 2019. With regard to minority casts’ share, 2019 saw films with 31% to 40% minority casts getting the highest median domestic box office receipts at $44.5 million.

“There’s old myths that existed before, and they were very entrenched,” Tran said. “For instance, white households didn’t want to see people of color on screen. We’ve shown that’s not necessarily the case. People of color generally overrepresent ticket buyers, (so) they’re buying a lot more tickets than their share of the population.”

[Related: UCLA professors in the Academy discuss their Oscars voting processes]

Not all groups are represented equally, however. Ramón said Latinx, Asian, Middle Eastern North African, and Native audiences still aren’t seeing themselves represented enough on screen in the major films that are being shown around the world in English. Furthermore, within several minority groups, she said there are significant disparities between men and women, who are disproportionately represented both on screen and in production roles.

In order to create lasting change in the film industry, Ramón said it will require top-down changes within the major studios. Given that production timelines for films can take up to three years, she said studio heads can make immediate change with public commitments to increasing diversity at all levels of production. Such inclusion initiatives recently undertaken by WarnerMedia and Paramount are a step in the right direction, she said.

And while movies have become more reflective of the population, sociology doctoral student Kali Tambreé, who worked on the television portion of the report, said there are still concerns about tokenism within the industry. She said movies often feature merely a sprinkle of diversity, and the data can’t always distinguish between the kinds of representation on screen. Therefore, she said it is important to consider whether films are telling new and creative stories or conforming to the same patterns of representation from the past.

Ramón said deeper structural changes will need to occur until the individuals writing, directing and greenlighting content reflect these underrepresented groups. The needle will only shift, she said, if studios commit themselves with accountability to expanding their pool of candidates for industry positions and amplifying the presence of women, especially women of color.

“The people who are shaping the narrative and … creating the story, they’re not as diverse,” Ramón said. “That’s why, on the face of it, there’s progress, but it’s still not a complete sign of things changing.”

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