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At 42.7 percent, people of color still represent a minority of the U.S. population, but they comprised the majority of ticket-buyers for most of 2021’s highest-grossing movies.
In the film-focused first installment of their 2022 Hollywood Diversity Report, UCLA researchers Darnell Hunt and Ana-Christina Ramón find that six of last year’s top 10 movies enjoyed majority nonwhite audiences on opening weekend (including box office king Spider-Man: No Way Home, with a 60 percent POC audience share), as did two of the top 10 streaming films (Netflix’s Vivo and Amazon’s Coming 2 America).
“Every time there was a big movie that exceeded expectations or broke a record, 53 percent to 60 percent of opening weekend audiences were people of color,” Ramón said in a statement. “People essentially were risking their lives to go to the movies during a pandemic. For people of color and especially for Latino families, theaters provided an excursion when mostly everything was shut down. In a sense, people of color really kept the studios afloat the past couple of years. Studios should consider them to be investors, and as an investor, they should get their return, in the form of representation.”
Analyzing the eight top-billed actors in each of 252 English-language titles in 2021 (including the 200 highest-grossing movies worldwide as well as films released by major streamers), the new study finds that people of color — when counted as an aggregate — achieved proportionate representation onscreen (43.1 percent) but not as directors (30.2 percent) and writers (32.3 percent). The plurality (31 percent) of the films in last year’s sample featured casts that were more than 50 percent nonwhite, a marked contrast from a decade ago, when the majority of movies (51.2 percent) were more than 90 percent white.
“We suspect this is at least somewhat due to the outsize impact of the number of films we analyzed that were released direct-to-streaming,” said Hunt in a statement. The study reported that the vast plurality (45.6 percent) of 2021’s releases were streaming-only, while just 17.9 percent received a “traditional” theatrical-only release.
Looking at theatrical-only films by their percentage of nonwhite cast, the decile with the highest median global box office ($107.4 million) featured 21 to 30 percent castmembers of color. This same proportion of diversity held true among streaming films (measured by median ratings) in white, Latino and Asian households, although Black households and viewers 18-49 peaked with titles featuring majority-POC casts, of which there were 72 released in 2021, including Raya and the Last Dragon, Vivo, Coming 2 America and Mortal Kombat.
“We think this dual-release strategy is probably here to stay and could have a lasting impact on diversity metrics in front of and behind the camera in the future as studios think about how to finance content for different platforms,” Hunt added.
Although the study didn’t cross-reference film budget by distribution strategy, the authors did examine budget by race and gender of star and director. There was little difference when it came to a lead character’s race, but nearly half (45.9 percent) of films starring women were low-budget (under $10 million) with just 4.6 percent of their movies costing more than $100 million, whereas male-led movies enjoyed a more even spread. Directors who aren’t white or male also experienced a greater disparity in film budgets, with 40.3 percent of movies helmed by people from the global majority and 47.1 percent of women-directed films pegged at the sub-$10 million range (compared with 28.6 percent and 28.2 percent of movies helmed by white directors and men, respectively). Women were also about half as likely as men to get a shot at a $100 million-plus film.
“In 2021, diversity in front of the camera did not equate to more opportunities behind the camera for filmmakers who are women and people of color,” Ramón said in a statement. “They continue to receive less financing, even when they make films with white leads. Most of these filmmakers are relegated to low-budget films. The chronic underinvestment in women and people of color creates limited opportunities for them to showcase their talents to a wider audience.”
The funding deficit belies increasing critical acclaim for more inclusive movies. For the first time in the Hollywood Diversity Report’s nine-year history, most of the movies that won at least one Oscar last season featured directors or leads from the global majority, including Judas and the Black Messiah, Minari, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Soul.
UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report is the latest such study to be released as another awards season draws to a close. Last week, USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative updated its ongoing demographic analysis of film characters, while San Diego State’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film published its most recent report on female representation in the movies.
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