Diversity Panel Reveals Leaps Forward in TV, Sluggish Progress in Film

Zocalo public square Diversity - H 2015

Zocalo public square Diversity - H 2015

"On average, TV shows that were somewhat diverse tended to do better than shows that weren't. ... Diversity clearly sells," says Darnell Hunt, author of a newly released UCLA study on Hollywood diversity.

Entertainment industry insiders discussed the issue of diversity in film and television head-on at a “Thinking L.A.” panel held at the ArcLight Hollywood and co-presented by Zócalo, UCLA and UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies.

Moderated by The Hollywood Reporter executive editor Matthew Belloni, the panel included the Bunche Center director Darnell Hunt, who was also present to reveal the findings of the Center’s newly released Hollywood Diversity Report, for which he was the lead author. The report analyzed 200 films and more than 1,100 television shows released in 2012 and 2013.

For Hunt, the report’s most interesting discovery was that “diversity clearly sells.”  He said, “On average, TV shows that were somewhat diverse tended to do better than shows that weren’t and most shows aren’t diverse. Those that have less than 10 percent diverse casts represent the largest single share of shows in television.”

Hunt said that the diversity paradox — the fact that shows are more successful when they feature diverse casts yet there are so few shows like that on the air — can be explained by the industry’s structure and the fact that white men tend to be the ones holding the reigns: “People want to feel like they have the best chance at producing a successful project, so they tend to surround themselves with people with whom they feel comfortable and have a track record with. They tend to look like them and they often think like them.”

Despite this, the panel remained optimistic about the future of diversity in television with the success of shows like Empire, How to Get Away With Murder and Black-ish (on which panelist Brian Dobbins serves as executive producer).

Panelist Christy Haubegger, a CAA agent whose clients include Eva Longoria and Sofia Vergara, pointed to a shift in network makeup: “The complexion of the executives at the networks now has changed,” she said. “The head of casting at ABC, NBC and Fox, the head of programming at Fox, the head of comedy and drama at ABC — these are all people of color now. I think that is probably the biggest shift.”

The panel said that conditions were not as positive with regards to diversity in film. Panelist Franklin Leonard, the founder of the Black List, which collects Hollywood’s most popular unproduced screenplays each year, said that despite the data supporting the success of diverse films, “there’s an assumed conventional wisdom that people believe is right because it confirms what they already believe, and no amount of data that runs counter to that is going to change their mind.”

One example of this is the widespread belief that movies starring people of color don’t sell abroad, despite the international success of films headlined by African-American actors Will Smith and Denzel Washington. Leonard pointed out that because of this belief, movie studios tend not to market diverse movies overseas despite the proven knowledge that heavy marketing can boost a film’s international success. “You end up in this vicious cycle that’s confirmation bias over and over again,” said Leonard.

Haubegger touched on the report’s reveal that female directors were hard to come by, lagging 8-to-1 in film. “Television is so much more progressive than film, relatively speaking,” she said. “There were 140 big directing jobs in film this year. There are 1,200 TV shows and each of those has 22 episodes and each of those 22 episodes has a director. There’s far more jobs.” Haubeggar also pointed out that female film directors, if they even get a shot, don’t receive the huge promotions that male directors do.

Leonard agreed. “Colin Trevorrow does Safety Not Guaranteed, which was a $2 [million] or $3 million project at most, and his next film is Jurassic World. Ava DuVernay wins the directing award at Sundance for Middle of Nowhere and had to fight to get Selma at a $20 million budget.” He said, “Part of the issue I think is there’s an idea in the industry of what a director looks like. When someone walks in and they’re in their early thirties, they’re a white male, they haven’t shaved in three days, they have floppy hair, maybe they have a European accent — you look at them and you say, ‘Oh, that’s a director.’”

Dobbins discussed the difficulty of working his way up the entertainment ladder without diverse role models to look up to. “There were many times along the way when I thought, ‘This is not for me. There’s nobody that looks like me. There’s no one here who I can look at and say I want to be that person in 20 years,” he said.

Belloni asked the panel about what was needed for a substantial diversity shift in film similar to the current trajectory of the television world. “It’s going to take continued financial success for [diverse] films. You would think that there had already been more than enough to establish a market for this stuff,” Leonard replied. “It’s going to take a studio actually investing in marketing diverse films overseas, and it’s going to take that studio having a massive year or several years, which they will if they make that investment. Then everyone else will follow suit. I’ve always said that at the end of the day, the color that matters the most in Hollywood is green.”

Haubegger remained optimistic. “One of the things that’s really exciting is that the work that the people on this panel are doing matters,” she said. “Your lives [Leonard and Dobbins] are going to have a tremendous impact on the stories we tell. … It matters greatly and it’s hard and it’s slow, but it’s going to work.”