UCLA released its latest Hollywood Diversity Report findings and once again, it continues to prove that people of color are pretty much a driving force in the industry. Say it with me so the people in the back can hear: REPRESENTATION MATTERS — especially when it comes to box office numbers.
Here’s the tea from the report: theatergoers of color were major drivers of box office revenue and home viewership during the pandemic. The biannual report examines the top 252 English-language films released in box offices or streaming services in 2021. It tracks progress for women and minorities in acting, directing and writing roles,
In an industry where gatekeepers and execs are only concerned about box office numbers when its convenient for them, the report shows that box office dollars and streaming views largely support films with casts that reflect increasingly higher levels of diversity,
Now in its ninth edition, the report has consistently shown increases for key jobs in front of Hollywood cameras. Researchers have also tracked sustained growth, albeit more stubborn compared to their presence in the population, for women and minorities in writing and directing.
The report tracks writers, directors and actors who identify as Asian American, Black, Latino, Middle Eastern/North African, multiracial and Native American. Collectively, people from these groups make up 42.7% of the U.S. population. And that 42.7% of the population contains important consumers of entertainment, a finding the report has consistently reiterated over more than a decade’s worth of data.
In 2021, people of color accounted for the majority of opening-weekend, domestic ticket sales for six of the top 10 films released in theaters. Echoing a pattern from the previous four reports, in 2021, films with casts that were fairly diverse–21%to 30% minority–enjoyed the highest median global box office receipts.
Conversely, as in earlier reports, films featuring casts with the lowest amount of diversity (less than11% minority actors) were the poorest box office performers.
“Looking at last year, every time there was a big movie that exceeded expectations or broke a record, we see that between 53%-60% of opening weekend audiences were people of color,” said Ana-Christina Ramón. “People essentially were risking their lives to go 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.”
Overall cast diversity more than doubled from 20.7% in 2011, based on the report’s first dataset, to 43.1% in 2021. And more than a third of the top-performing films in 2021 (31.0%) had majority-minority casts.
“In 2020, minorities reached proportionate representation for the first time when it comes to overall cast diversity in to films, and that held true in 2021,” said Darnell Hunt, dean of the social sciences at UCLA and co-author of the report. “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. We also 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.”
Nearly half (45.6%) of the films analyzed were released on streaming services only in 2021, reflecting the challenges Hollywood studios faced in film distribution the second year into varying COVID-19 business restrictions. The report also tracked films released simultaneously online and in theaters.
Streaming films with majority-minority casts enjoyed high ratings among viewers in the 18-49 category and Black households. There were 72 films with majority-minority casts released on streaming in 2021, including Raya and the Last Dragon, Coming 2 America, Vivo, and Mortal Kombat.
Studios are likely to bank on big-budget tentpole movies and sequels as traditional box office drivers, even as they continue to experiment with release platforms and theatrical windows (the time between when a film hits theaters and when it arrives on streaming services or in packaged media).
This could prove to be a mixed bag for diversity researchers said. Report data shows that women and people of color were more likely to helm a film with a budget of less than $20 million than white men.
‘’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. “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,”
Looking at directors from the top films of 2021, 21.8% were women and 30.2% were people of color. In writing roles, 33.5% were women and 32.3% people of color. These were both incrementally steady gains over 2020.
“The final frontier is really behind the camera for women of color,” Ramón said.
Out of the 76 minority directors of 2021 top films, just 23 were women. Black, Latino and multiracial women were outpaced at least two-to one by men from those groups. Asian American and Native American women directors stood at parity with men, but those numbers were very small. Just nine Asian American men and eight Asian American women directed top-performing films last year. One Native American woman and one Native American man were in the 2021 data.
White women are also still greatly outpaced by white men in the directing category–32 total women compared to 143 men last year. There was one trans woman director in 2021 top films.
Other bullet points worth noting are:
- Asian American people made up 5.6% of leads, 6.4% of overall cast, 6.7% of directors and 4.0% of writers.
- Black actors were slightly overrepresented (about 13% of population) as film leads (15.5%) and in overall cast diversity (18.0%). Black directors stood at 9.5% and writers at 10.4%.
- Latinos remain extremely underrepresented in all categories given their presence in the U.S. population (18.7%), making up just 7.1% of leads, 7.7% of overall cast, 5.6% of writers and 7.1% of directors.
- For people of Middle Eastern and North African descent, representation is minimal, making up a slight 1.1% of overall cast, 2.8% of writers and 1.6% of directors. There were no lead actors from this group in 2021 top-performing films.
- Multiracial actors made up 10.3% of leads, 9.3% of overall cast, 8.8% of writers, 4.4% of directors.
- Native Americans remain virtually invisible in Hollywood, making up less than one percent of each job category tracked.
- Women made up 47.2% of lead actors in the 2021 data, nearly double the 25.6% in 2011.
- Replicating a pattern observed in 2020, films written or directed by people of color in 2021 had significantly more diverse casts than those written or directed by white men.
- Eight of the top 10 theatrically released films in 2021 featured casts that were greater than 30 percent minority.
- For the first time since researchers began tracking, the majority of Oscar-winning films from 2020 were helmed by directors of color and featured minority leads.