About halfway through the 2018 Oscars ceremony, three women walked on stage and approached the microphone. Annabella Sciorra, Ashley Judd, and Salma Hayek had all come forward in the past year with stories of being sexually harassed or assaulted by studio mogul Harvey Weinstein, and spoke of how the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements had shown Hollywood a “new way forward.”
They introduced a celebratory montage of interviews that included Ava DuVernay, Kumail Nanjiani, and Geena Davis, who remembered that a surge of female-driven movies was supposed to happen after the release of Thelma & Louise back in the early 90s. “That didn’t happen,” she admitted. “But this … is now that moment.”
Whether it is or isn’t remains to be seen, and studio executives and talent agencies have a large role to play in making that change happen. Following the Oscars, UCLA released its Hollywood Diversity Report 2018: Five Years of Progress and Missed Opportunities, which is full of data that suggest that there’s quite a long road to travel before the entertainment industry is anywhere close to parity.
How bad is it?
The findings presented in the report are many and varied, documenting the degree to which women and people of color were present in front of and behind the camera in the top 200 theatrical film releases in 2016 and over 1,200 broadcast, cable, and digital platform television shows from the 2015-2016 season. Some of the data suggests slow and steady progress (emphasis on “slow”) over the past five years, while other data just looks abysmal. Nowhere does the report suggest that the industry is approaching parity in any real way, especially considering that women are 51% of the global population and people of color make up about 40% of the U.S. population and will make up more than half of the country before 2050.
The report contains information on lead characters, overall cast diversity, directors, television creators, writers, and awards and recognition. It’s revealed that 78.1% of the people we see in the movies and about 75% of the people we see on cable or digital platform television are white, despite the fact that white people make up only 61.3% of the U.S. population. Unsurprisingly, the characters we see in movies and TV are also overwhelmingly male. Only 12.6% of film directors are people of color, and only 6.9% are women. The numbers on show creators on broadcast and cable television are not only terrible, but stagnant; there seems to be movement in the right direction on digital platform television, but even there, the numbers end at 31.5% for women and 15.7% for people of color.
78.1% of the people we see in the movies and about 75% of the people we see on television are white, despite the fact that white people make up only 61.3% of the U.S. population #InclusionRider Click To Tweet
Why does this matter?
Obviously, the entertainment industry is like any other industry, and those workplaces are like any other workplace. Therefore, diversity and inclusion matter for many of the same reasons they matter elsewhere.
First, there are financial consequences for a homogenous landscape in entertainment. According to the UCLA report, movies with casts that were 20% minority or less had the lowest global box office compared to films with more diverse casts – and, ironically, were the majority of all movies in 2016. This makes no financial sense.
As the consumer base becomes more and more diverse, the demand for stories about diverse people is growing. It’s not a fluke that the most profitable films of the past five years in the Marvel and DC franchises, respectively, are Black Panther and Wonder Woman. With full appreciation for the artistry of directors Ryan Coogler and Patty Jenkins, there is clearly an appetite among those who rarely see themselves in the role of noble heroes – and an appetite among comic book fans to see stories that are new and different. That appetite can translate into millions of dollars. So studio executives must ask themselves why they are not demanding diversity in the majority of films. It’s just good business sense.
Secondly, being held back for no other reason than your gender or the color of your skin is an assault upon the values of the professionals who create entertainment, as well as most fair-minded consumers of the work. Just a week before winning her Oscar for Best Actress, Frances McDormand learned what an “inclusion rider” is – and being the advocate for underrepresented voices that she is, took the opportunity of accepting her award to let both consumers and creators alike know that sought-after talent can essentially demand that a sincere effort is made to diversify film and television sets, both in front of and behind the camera. Black Panther star Michael B. Jordan has already announced that he will adopt an inclusion rider on all future projects.
In addition to these concerns, the scarcity of women and people of color in Hollywood has dire effects that reverberate well beyond the industry itself. “Marginalized people deserve to feel like they belong,” said Lee Unkrich upon accepting his Best Animated Feature Oscar for Coco. “Representation matters.” Quite simply, being reflected in the popular culture has the power to validate a person’s existence. To never see yourself or anyone like you in the stories that achieve the status of myth is to literally be made invisible, with profound effects on a person’s mental and emotional health. Moreover, telling diverse stories well has an impact on our more dominant identity groups as well. Just as then-Vice President Joe Biden credited the sitcom “Will & Grace” for furthering the cause of marriage equality in the U.S., we shouldn’t underestimate the entertainment industry’s power to affect social change in both positive and negative ways.
4 Pathways Forward for Studios
There are several ways in which decision-makers in Hollywood can respond to the need for more diversity in front of and behind the camera.
#1. Start with the talent agencies.
After a number of mergers and acquisitions, there are three giant talent agencies that broker the vast majorities of projects produced by Hollywood studios. These agencies represent not only actors, but also directors, writers, and show creators. It is difficult to underestimate the extent to which their willingness to champion the concepts, scripts, direction, and portrayal of projects can make or break them. In the three dominant talent agencies, the partners are 96.7% white and 71.4% male, and the agents themselves are 90.8% white and 68.1% male. While invisible to most of the movie-going and television-watching public, studios that work with talent agencies that create cultures that value diversity and practice inclusion could unleash a flood of new talent onto screens both large and small.
#2. Get in front of the inclusion rider.
While it’s commendable that actors like Frances McDormand and Michael B. Jordan plan to adopt inclusion riders in all future contracts, studios could make the choice to be proactive in hiring at all levels. If a film takes place in the present day United States, all roles that are not race or gender-specific should be cast in such a way that mirror reality, with a goal of all such characters being 51% women and 40% people of color, adjusted as the demographics change. Behind the camera, it should be noted that tomorrow’s directors are today’s cinematographers and screenwriters, and that tomorrow’s cinematographers and screenwriters are today’s camera operators, grips, production assistants, and interns. Hiring more women and people of color in these jobs will make it easier to build a diverse crew (and uphold those inclusion riders that Jordan, McDormand, and others will soon demand). Obviously, it doesn’t just end with the hiring – film sets, which can be very informal and loose compared to more corporate workspaces, should nonetheless be free of the kinds of harassment and abuse that brought the #TimesUp movement into the limelight this year.
#3. Live (and work) by a set of values.
While this strategy might seem Pollyanna-ish to some, it’s important to remember that entertainment is an art form as well as an industry. It’s safe to say that young people who dream of filmmaking, writing, or acting someday are inspired more so by the art than the business. Studios and talent agencies and sets could easily do what so many organizations have done: establish a list of core values, define them with observable behaviors, and then adapt processes that drive people to live by them.
#4. Prepare for a long journey.
Just as the election of Barack Obama did not magically signal the end of racism in American politics, neither will the great success of Get Out and Lady Bird solve the marginalization currently plaguing Hollywood. Stories have been documented via cameras for popular entertainment for more than a hundred years, and this is now a huge industry, where missteps can mean the loss of millions of dollars. Sustainable change is incremental and slow, and so it’s important to choose external partners with the stamina to work with you during all the highs and lows of your change movement.
In closing, don’t underestimate how much power the entertainment industry has to affect the way our entire society thinks about diversity, inclusion and equity. In 1995, a documentary called The Celluloid Closet was released. It told the story of how gays and lesbians have been depicted throughout Hollywood’s history. Toward the end of the film, actress Susan Sarandon said something that remains true more than 20 years later:
“Oh, movies are important, and they’re dangerous because we’re the keeper of the dreams,” she said. “You go into a little dark room and become incredibly vulnerable. On one hand, all your perspectives can be challenged; you could feel something you couldn’t feel normally. It can encourage you to be the protagonist in your own life. On the other hand, it can completely misshape you.”