UCLA Diversity Study Blasts Hollywood as 'Woefully Out of Touch'

 AP Photo/Reed Saxon

A UCLA study released Wednesday slammed the entertainment industry for its persistent and dramatic underrepresentation of minorities and women onscreen and behind the scenes, with the study’s chief author telling The Hollywood Reporter in an interview that “there are a lot of industries that do a better job than Hollywood” in forging workforces that reflect the nation’s diversity.

The study, prepared by a team led by Darnell Hunt of UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, found that ethnic minorities were underrepresented as lead actors in films by a factor of more than three-to-one -- that is, they appeared as leads at less than one-third the rate that would be expected based on their proportion of the population, which the study said was about 36 percent. Hunt is director of the center and a professor of sociology.

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In broadcast TV comedies and dramas, minorities were underrepresented by a factor of seven-to-one, the study found, while the ratio on cable and in reality programming was two-to-one.

The situation was similar behind the scenes. As film directors, minorities were underrepresented by a factor of three-to-one; as film writers and as creators of comedies and dramas on cable, the ratio was five-to-one; and as creators of broadcast comedies and dramas, nine-to-one.

Hunt is pessimistic that the situation will change anytime soon. “There are a lot of white males in positions in the industry who are not in a rush to do things differently,” he says. “There’s a self-fulfilling prophecy at work, a vicious cycle,” he added, when minorities and women are passed over for opportunities.

Women appeared as leading actors in about 52 percent of broadcast comedies and dramas studied, a proportionate share. But they were underrepresented by a factor of twelve-to-one as film directors and three-to-one as film writers. In the other film and TV categories studied, they were represented at only 50 percent to 70 percent the expected rate.

Ironically, the study also found that greater diversity onscreen actually helps the bottom line. Hunt tells THR that ratings and box office peak when the cast is 30 to 40 percent minority. “That’s the sweet spot,” he says. “When you reflect the diversity of the American scene, you do better.”

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The study took aim at talent agencies as well. The three major agencies represented more than two-thirds of the writers, directors and lead actors in the 172 leading films in 2011. Yet less than 10 percent of this talent was minority, according to the study. In broadcast television, the same three agencies represented more than two-thirds of show creators and more than half of the leads. Yet minorities accounted for only 1.4 percent of these creators and 5.5 percent of these leads during the 2011­12 broadcast season. In cable, the three agencies represented more than two-thirds of show creators and nearly half of all leads, but only 6.1 percent of these creators and 13 percent of these leads were minorities.   

“There are certain major projects that you just don’t get to be part of unless you have a connection with one of these top agencies,” says Ana-Cristina Ramon, co-author of the study and the assistant director of the Bunche Center. “Or maybe you get to be a part of it, but you’re not going to be the lead. So the tendency of top agencies to pack their talent rosters with whites really restricts access to opportunities for underrepresented groups.”   

The study also criticized industry awards. No minority-directed film from 2011 won an Oscar, and no film with a minority lead actor won an Oscar, the study shows. More than 90 percent of the Oscar-winning films in 2011 had male directors, and more than 80 percent of Oscar-winning films featured male leads.

Only 5 percent of Emmy-winning comedies and dramas on broadcast TV from 2011­-12 were minority-created, and a single show — Shonda RhimesGrey’s Anatomy — accounted for that entire share. On cable TV, no minority-created comedies or dramas won Emmy awards.  

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Programming created by women fared only slightly better. Of the Emmy-winning broadcast comedies and dramas, 20 percent were created by women; about 7 percent of the Emmy-winning cable programs were created by women.

The study, titled “2014 Hollywood Diversity Report: Making Sense of the Disconnect,” focused on the top 172 American-made movies from 2011 and more than 1,000 television shows that aired on 68 cable and broadcast networks during the 2011-­12 season. Future studies will take more-current data into account, but there will always be a lag, says Hunt, because of the large size of the database and the complexity of analysis. The intent is to track trends in diversity over time and to identify best practices for widening the pipeline for underrepresented groups.    

The findings come at a time of increasing diversity in the U.S., with minorities outpacing whites as consumers of entertainment. Even though minorities account for 36.3 percent of the overall U.S. population, they represent 44.1 percent of frequent moviegoers and tend to watch more hours of television each week than white viewers, according to the study’s authors.

“The report paints a picture of an industry that is woefully out of touch with an emerging America, an America that’s becoming more diverse by the day,” says Hunt. “The situation is better than it was in the 1950s, but Hollywood is falling further and further behind. America is infinitely more diverse than it was. So the gap has gotten bigger between where America is going and where the industry is going.”

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Hunt is the author of the "Hollywood Writers Report,” an ongoing analysis for the WGA focusing on employment, access and earnings among television and film writers. He was also the principal investigator on “The African American Television Report,” released by SAG in 2000. In 1993, he served as a media researcher for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights hearings on diversity in Hollywood.

Told that the DGA had recently achieved contract language that requires each major television studio to establish a formal diversity program by July 1, 2014, Hunt said that “there may be some positive change there [but] we’ll have to wait and see.” He added that he hoped the WGA (now in negotiations) and SAG-AFTRA (with negotiations upcoming) would be able to add additional diversity language as well. He also praised the efforts of diversity offices at each of the guilds.

Zachary Price, the holder of a recent doctorate in theater from UC Santa Barbara, worked on the project, as did four UCLA graduate students. Support for the report was provided by the Bunche Center’s Hollywood Advancement Project. Hunt added that support was also provided by donors who wished to remain anonymous, given the sensitivity of the issue in Hollywood.

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