Study: Biz could see bias suits

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Hollywood is holding the door open to discrimination lawsuits by limiting opportunities for female and minority actors, according to a new report from UCLA's Chicano Studies Research Center.

The report is based on a survey of all studio casting announcements, or "breakdowns," for feature film projects circulated from June-August.

"Breakdowns overwhelmingly favor white male actors for leading roles, leaving only a small proportion of roles open to actors of color or to women," the report concluded.

About 59% of all roles called for a male actor, and 35% were designated as female roles, the study found. Of all the breakdowns surveyed, 94% contained gender designations.

About 23% were designated for whites, and a similar number were designated for "another racial/ ethnic group," according to the UCLA report. But significantly the balance of roles "were understood to be for white actors," even though no race or ethnicity was designated, the study found.

The study quotes casting director Jane Jenkins as lamenting that it is "definitely harder for minority actors to get good (agent) representation and to get work." Jenkins also observed that female actors compete for fewer roles and that women older than 40 are "as much a minority as any ethnic group," researchers said.

The report, written by acting UCLA law professor Russell Robinson, warns that Hollywood could be vulnerable to suits based on Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act if it does not take certain actions to address the situation. Recommendations include:

Ban the use of racial, ethnic or gender designations in breakdowns "except where casting an actor of a specific race/ethnicity or gender is truly integral to the narrative."

Require studios to instruct directors and casting directors to avoid designations unless they complete a form justifying their use.

Conduct an annual review of the information obtained from such forms and compile annual information on race, ethnicity and gender of primary actors in all films.

Study casting practices of "film and TV shows that achieve diversity" and draw on such practices to intervene where necessary in industry operations.

"Studios would likely assert that casting based on race/ethnicity and gender maximizes boxoffice potential," Robinson writes in suggesting likely defenses to prospective lawsuits. "Empirical evidence is unlikely to help the defense tie the success or failure of a film to race/ethnicity or gender, however, because the reasons for a film's critical or financial outcome are complex."

He also suggests than a First Amendment defense would likely fail as "the film industry is a commercial enterprise" that is subject to Title VII hiring provisions.

"Casting directors take into account race and sex in a way that would be blatantly illegal in any other industry," Robinson argues. "Many actors accept this as normal, but depending on the facts of the case, lawsuits can be filed."

SAG regularly surveys industry hiring trends, and deputy national executive director Pamm Fair said the guild has seen similar imbalances over the years.

"We're not surprised by the findings," Fair said. "We're seeing the same trend, though there has been improvement over the last decade.

"We remain committed to more positive roles for people of color throughout the media, and we have the same concerns for women, persons with disabilities and seniors," she said. "Any form of discrimination is reflected in the lack of these kind of roles."
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