KUNM

Diversity Sells — But Hollywood Remains Overwhelmingly White, Male

Feb 28, 2015
Originally published on February 28, 2015 4:39 pm

If you want an accurate picture of ethnic and gender diversity in the United States, don't look to Hollywood.

That's the conclusion of the "2015 Hollywood Diversity Report" conducted by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA.

The report quantifies the striking — if not surprising — racial and gender imbalances in film and television, both behind and in front of the camera, by comparing the representation of minorities to their actual proportions of the population.

"At every level, in every arena, women and minorities are under-represented in the industry," says Darnell Hunt, the study's co-author and director of the Bunche Center. "And the only question really is how serious, how egregious that level of under-representation is."

The report, the second such study conducted by UCLA, found that under-representation was often very egregious — even though diverse shows and films make more money.

Hollywood's Homogeneity

Women make up slightly more than half of the U.S. population, but, according to the report, directed only 6 percent of theatrical films in 2013.

Ethnic minorities, who make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population, received only 17 percent of the lead roles in theatrical films.

And among the ranks of top Hollywood film executives, the report states, "the corps of CEOs and/or chairs running the 18 studios examined was 94 percent white and 100 percent male."

Co-author Ana-Christina Ramón says the findings were not surprising, but they carry an important message for the studios.

"We continue to see that diversity sells," says Ramón. "And that's a big point that needs to be then relayed to the studios and the networks."

According to the report, "films with relatively diverse casts enjoyed the highest median global box office receipts and the highest median return on investment." The same holds true for success in television.

Although Hollywood is a business, constantly in search of new ways to make a profit, Hunt says the high-risk nature of the entertainment industry, combined with existing demographics, presents a barrier to diversity.

Gatekeepers and decision-makers, who are typically white men, says Hunt, "want to keep their jobs. They want to succeed. And they feel that their best chance for success is by surrounding themselves with other white males, basically."

TV Studios Starting To Change

Television has recently seen highly diverse shows succeed in greater numbers, such as How To Get Away With Murder, Black-ish, Empire, Jane The Virgin and Fresh Off The Boat.

UCLA's report confirms that TV fares better than film, in terms of diversity.

"Film always lags behind television," says Hunt. "I think part of it has to deal with, in many ways, the higher risk associated with film."

Studios produce relatively few films every year, and each film can cost hundreds of millions of dollars. There are many more TV shows produced each year, and their budgets are typically much smaller.

Another factor is the power of the audience. Aside from voting with their wallets and their remote controls, Ramón says, viewers who want to encourage change in Hollywood should engage on social media.

"Every viewer has really the power to influence the network directly, especially through Twitter," says Ramón.

Scandal viewers, she says, helped change the arc of a show that was once about to be canceled. And once shows succeed, they establish a model that can be imitated — which might be why upcoming TV pilots also show promise in terms of diversity.

"Whenever [TV networks] see a formula that works and makes money, they want to also replicate that," says Ramón. "And so right now they do see that certain diverse shows with black female leads, that those are selling. And so you can see that some of the pilots are trying to replicate that."

"Nothing succeeds like success," says Hunt.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

As we reach the end of awards season in Hollywood, the debate over the lack of ethnic and gender diversity in popular movies and TV has picked up a lot of steam. Now, a new study from the Ralph J. Bunche Center at UCLA actually puts numbers to the problem. Earlier, I spoke with the co-authors of the Hollywood Diversity Report - Ana-Christina Ramon and Darnell Hunt. You'll hear Dr. Hunt first.

DARNELL HUNT: At every level, in every arena, women and minorities are underrepresented in the industry. And the only question really is how serious, how egregious, that level of underrepresentation is. I mean, among film leads, minorities are greater than 2 to 1, among film directors about 2 to 1, film writers about 3 to 1, broadcast scripted leads about 6 to 1, and women, you know, directors in film, 8 to 1.

RATH: And just to be clear, when you're talking about these ratios - you know, 2 to 1, 3 to 1, 6 to 1 - you're talking about who they reflect the actual population levels of women and minorities...

HUNT: Absolutely.

RATH: ...in the country.

ANA-CHRISTINA RAMON: Exactly.

HUNT: Minorities make up almost 40 percent of the U.S. population today - women, a little bit more than 50 percent. So yeah, it's based on those shares.

RATH: So anything in the study that surprised you?

RAMON: Nothing surprised us. I think that basically what it underscored - our findings - was that we continue to see that diversity sells. And that's a big point that needs to be then relayed to the studios and the networks.

RATH: That the movies with more diverse casts actually do better at the box office or same with TV?

RAMON: Exactly.

HUNT: Yeah, yeah.

RATH: So Hollywood's a business. If more diverse movies and television make more money, why aren't the studios chasing after that money?

HUNT: I really believe it has to do with this lack of alignment between the interests of individuals who work in the industry, who enjoy a very lucrative career - mostly white men because of the way the industry has been structured. And it's a high-risk industry. They want to keep their jobs. They want to succeed. And they feel that their best chance for success is by surrounding themselves with other white males. Basically, people who think like them, who they feel comfortable with, who they feel will give them the best chance of producing a successful project.

RATH: In terms of the diversity, do you see a substantial difference between television and film? Is one lagging farther behind?

HUNT: Yeah, film always lags behind television. I think part of it has to do with, in many ways, the higher risk associated with film. You have these huge, you know, $100 million plus budgets for some films. You don't make that many films per year. And television, of course, there are multiple episodes for every show. And we had 1,105 TV shows in our sample.

So this year, of course, with the emergence of TV shows like "Empire" and "How To Get Away With Murder" and "Blackish," "Fresh Off The Boat" - shows that are quite diverse not only in front of the camera but behind the camera. They are doing great in the ratings thus far. I think people are starting to get the memo maybe in television. It's too early to say whether this is an outlier year and whether we go back to business as usual. But as yet, I see no signs in film that we've turned any type of corner or anything is different than what we've seen in recent years, which is not pretty for women and minorities.

RAMON: I think another positive thing that's going on right now is that the pilots that are getting greenlit to get the go-ahead are showing that they're also diverse, so we'll see which ones make it through to actually get on fall season. But at least for the TV networks, they're seeing that there are certain formulas. And whenever they see a formula that works and makes money, they want to also replicate that. And so right now, they do see that certain diverse shows with black female leads, that those are selling. And so you can see that some of the pilots are trying to replicate that.

RATH: Everybody's going to want to have a piece of that "Empire" action.

RAMON: Yeah.

HUNT: Nothing succeeds like success.

RATH: Ana-Christina, how can viewers get in on this conversation?

RAMON: I definitely think that for social media, that's like this huge area that now is become very powerful. Every viewer has really the power to influence the network directly, especially through Twitter. The other day we were talking about "Scandal" and how it went from almost being canceled to then becoming the big hit that it is now because of social media.

RATH: Ana-Christina Ramon and Darnell Hunter, co-authors of the UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report, which came out this past week. Thanks very much both of you.

HUNT: Thank you.

RAMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.