Opinion: It's Time to Retire the Phrase "Diversity Is Good for Business"

Black Panther Crazy Rich Asians Into the Spider-Verse Split - Photofest - H 2018
Photofest (3)

The oft-repeated refrain is in danger of becoming shorthand for a focus on skin-deep factors that, without underlying support, are set up to fail.

The first time I heard the phrase "diversity is good for business," I thought it was ingenious. Finally, an appeal not predicated on charity or morality but on self-interest, the primary fuel of human nature. Surely this message, if conveyed to the right gatekeepers, would serve as the linchpin of progress.

That was half a decade ago, when I began covering inclusion in the entertainment industry in earnest, and the phrase certainly predates my own entry into the field. Since then, I’ve written my share of stories stating the argument, and sat on countless panels that have made the case. In 2013 Lee Daniels’ The Butler made $176.6 million worldwide on a $30 million budget, proving that "diversity is good for business." Big Hero 6 and Ride Along reproved it a year later, followed by Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Straight Outta Compton, Moana, Hidden Figures, Get Out and Girls Trip. And then there’s the Fast and Furious franchise, whose multicultural ensemble yet again affirms that diversity is still good for business every time another blockbuster installment is released.

This year, Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians feel like the most unassailable proofs yet, but the urge to point to them as evidence that "diversity is good for business" casts a shadow on all the movies that came before. How many more case studies of successful films made by and about underrepresented people are needed in order to establish a ruling? 

Semantic satiation is the phenomenon whereby over-repetition of words and phrases devolves them into meaningless sounds, and it appears that "diversity is good for business" is approaching that point. The declaration is somewhat inane to begin with: Diversity is often imprecisely employed as a synonym for "non-white" and/or "non-male," leading to a fairly reductive conception of what constitutes the rich variety of human experience (as well as the untrue implication that movies by and about white men have somehow become bad for business). A more useful proxy definition for diversity might be fresh perspectives and original stories (which, yes, commonly come from women and people of color) that can enliven the palates of frequent consumers while also enticing underserved ones. Less catchy, but more accurate.

Black Panther didn’t become Marvel’s highest-grossing non-Avengers movie simply because blackness sells, and Crazy Rich Asians isn’t the most successful rom-com in over a decade because Asians are finally trendy. Attributing their achievements simply to "diversity" can be tokenizing and minimizing. (And what happens when a "diverse" film inevitably flops? "Diversity: No Longer Good for Business"?) Audiences embraced these films because their stories were conceived with authenticity and care, helmed by filmmakers who knew the themes in their bones and possessed the ability to execute their visions. Their crews were populated by artists and craftsmen who similarly shared a deep understanding of the cultures being depicted onscreen. Sure, all that costs a lot more time, effort and money than casting a few “ethnic” supporting tokens and calling it a day, but it’s the same approach afforded to the likes of A Star Is Born, The Favourite and A Quiet Place.

In short, good movies are good for business. But people of color and women have traditionally faced fewer opportunities and resources to succeed as their white male counterparts. When studios properly invest in talent of any kind, audiences and accolades tend to show up. It’s common sense, but lack of faith in nearly all but one specific group of people has precluded so many creatives with potential from even getting a fair shot; hence, to cite just one statistic, why 80 percent of the women who directed a film in the past decade made exactly one movie during that span.

The unrelenting drumbeat that "diversity is good for business" has reaped necessary first steps — more female filmmakers and directors of color than ever are attached to major tentpoles (my personal favorite example is the fact that Marvel and DC each have an Asian female indie superstar helming an upcoming project in Chloe Zhao and Cathy Yan, respectively) — but it's time to evolve into the next phase. The savviest decision makers know that inclusion must take place not merely in the most visible positions, but throughout the entire pipeline. Norman Lear, always ahead of the times, had the wisdom to bring in Gloria Calderon Kellett to co-showrun his Latina-focused reboot of One Day at a Time, now one of the most acclaimed series on television today. And Marvel tapping Chinese-American screenwriter Dave Callaham to pen its first feature focused on an Asian superhero, Shang-Chi, is the first promising sign that the project is on the right track.

The investment must continue after the film is in the can. You don’t truly believe "diversity is good for business" if you’re not throwing your weight behind the finished product. Movies helmed by women routinely receive smaller distribution deals than those directed by men. And in summer 2017, Girls Trip made nearly $100 million more in the U.S. than the similarly premised Rough Night, yet the films earned the same amount abroad, about $25 million. But looking closer, Girls Trip managed to equal Rough Night’s foreign take in exactly half as many territories — 20 to 40. How much money did Girls Trip leave on the table because of the old saw that black movies don’t travel? Universal may never know. Studios are only shooting themselves in the foot if they hedge their bets with the underrepresented artists they’ve hired. They must be given the same opportunities to succeed as that of their white male counterparts.

It’s inevitable that not every movie or TV show will exceed or even meet expectations. But when a Ghost in the Shell bombs, nobody declares a moratorium on white British directors or Scandinavian-American actresses (even those in Japanese drag). The danger in preaching "diversity is good for business" over and over again is that it becomes a threadbare homily, and the focus on skin-deep factors do nothing to excavate institutional inequity and effect systemic change.

The lesson of 2018’s "diverse" hits should be that movies and TV shows that depart from the norm, are inclusive and tell underrepresented tales do well not simply because they are fresh and new. They succeeded because they were damn good stories, made by a team of artists with an authentic understanding of the characters depicted, given all the tools and investment they needed to succeed. That’s a formula any producer or studio can replicate.

Rebecca Sun is a senior reporter at The Hollywood Reporter, where she writes about inclusion and representation in media, among other topics.