Diverse Casts Deliver Higher Ratings, Bigger Box Office: Study (Exclusive)
Audiences want more ethnic representation, a new UCLA study shows.
This story first appeared in the March 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Hollywood's racial and gender diversity is increasing. But it's not increasing quickly enough, says Darnell Hunt, lead author of the second annual Hollywood Diversity Report by UCLA's Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, set for release Feb. 25. "Hollywood is not progressing at the same rate as America is diversifying," says Hunt, the center's director and a sociology professor. The U.S. population is about 40 percent minority and slightly more than half female, but, in news to no one, women and minorities are represented onscreen and behind the camera in drastically lesser proportions, the study indicates.
The problem isn't audiences: During the years the study surveys — 2012 and 2013 — viewers preferred films and television shows with moderately diverse casts, according to Nielsen ratings and box-office reports. "Audiences, regardless of their race, are clamoring for more diverse content," says co-author Ana-Christina Ramon.
The study blames the lack of diversity on agencies, guilds, studios and networks — "an industry culture that routinely devalues the talent of minorities and women," reads the report.
The authors recognize the report's time window limits its relevance, especially as racial diversity has shown big gains on TV during the 2014-15 season, but they predict their findings will encourage more progress. The study surveyed the top 200 films by global box office in 2012 and 2013, excluding foreign movies, and every broadcast, cable and digital TV series of the 2012-13 season (1,105 total).
In movies, minorities were underrepresented more than 2-to-1 (less than half as much as their share of the U.S. population) in lead roles and 2-to-1 as directors, and women lagged 2-to-1 as leads and 8-to-1 as directors (female-helmed films included 2012's Zero Dark Thirty and The Guilt Trip and 2013's Frozen and Carrie). Meanwhile, films with casts about 30 percent diverse did best at the worldwide box office.
The diversity gaps mostly were smaller than in 2011. "There are pockets of promise," says Hunt, citing best picture winner 12 Years a Slave for upping the share of Oscar wins to 25 percent for films with a minority lead; Gravity, with seven Oscars, evened out the wins for male- and female-fronted releases. But after a 2014 Oscars race with all white acting nominees and only one best picture nominee with a black lead, "this year was a step backward from what might otherwise have been optimism from 2013," admits Hunt.
Viewers like diversity, with broadcast scripted shows 41 percent to 50 percent diversely cast scoring the highest ratings in black and white households alike in 2012-13, while on cable, white and Latino viewers preferred casts with 31 percent to 40 percent diversity. Black households preferred cable shows with more than 50 percent diversity, a figure buoyed by BET programs including The Game and Kevin Hart's Real Husbands of Hollywood.
But TV remained white-heavy onscreen and behind the camera, with minorities underrepresented nearly 6-to-1 in lead roles on scripted broadcast shows and nearly 2-to-1 as leads on cable (relative to their share of the U.S. population), more than 3-to-1 as cable series creators and more than 6-to-1 as broadcast creators. Women were underrepresented about 2-to-1 as broadcast and cable creators, and their frequency as leads on broadcast dipped below 50 percent; they also remained outnumbered on cable. Both groups were underrepresented in reality programming.
Hunt is hopeful, though. "Film has always been a step or two behind television in terms of its willingness and ability to open up and diversify," he says. He feels the medium is becoming more inclusive with the bevy of new distributors and producers, particularly such digital platforms as Netflix and Amazon. "It's creating a chance for people to get in who had no shot before," says Hunt. "But they're still not getting in at the rate the tried-and-true names are."
He is "very optimistic" regarding this pilot season's push for diversity — with numerous minority-led projects ordered, several through overall deals with diverse talent including Eva Longoria and producer Will Packer — as well as the recent success of Empire, Black-ish, How to Get Away With Murder, Fresh Off the Boat and other diverse programs.
This year, for the first time, the study surveyed diversity in 2013 in the executive ranks of TV networks and studios (96 percent white and 71 percent male) and major and mini-major film studios (94 percent white and 100 percent male). The past year's executive moves, such as Stacey Snider's jump to 20th Century Fox and Amy Pascal stepping down as co-chair at Sony Pictures, aren't reflected in this snapshot.
The report was backed financially by a half-dozen major studios and networks including the Walt Disney Co. and Time Warner. In addition to publishing the study online, Hunt and Ramon will present it to executives from each sponsor, as they did the first report in 2014. That study helped some executives make changes at their companies, including the creation of HBOAccess, a mentorship program for diverse writers and filmmakers, which Time Warner executive director of diversity and corporate social responsibility Jonathan Beane says was inspired largely by the report. "I want to make sure that what I'm preaching, I have data to support it. [The report] does that," he says.
He agrees with the researchers that the problem stems from executive attitudes during the hiring process, which perpetuates the lack of diversity in executive suites — even if unintentionally. "I don't believe it's malicious," says Beane. "It's just that people have a better eye for talent when it looks like them and has the same background as them."
Says Hunt: "It's a high-risk industry. People want to surround themselves with collaborators they're comfortable with, which tends to mean people they've networked with — and nine times out of 10, they'll look similar. It reproduces the same opportunities for the same kind of people: You're surrounding yourself with a bunch of white men to feel comfortable."
He adds that the industry won't change until that does. "It's not like there's this general trend upward, this wave everything is riding. It's very precarious," says Hunt. "It's getting better, but it's not getting better fast enough. And it's still a big problem."