Studios Need to Address Diversity in a Changing World

Studios Need to Get in Touch

Criticizing Hollywood, its products and players is hardly new. Since the industry’s inception, cultural watchdogs, pundits and movie-goers have hurled disparaging potshots and voiced more legitimate concerns.

In the early years of the past century, members of various religious groups and politicians clamored over the racy content of pre-code Hollywood’s films, urging the business to clean up its act. The social outrage inspired a patchwork of state regulations, and threatened federal legislation at a particularly ticklish moment in film history when the studios were becoming increasingly dependent on financiers to expand and develop the industry.

In a move that had no precedent at the time, and has yet to be repeated, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America created the Production Code Administration to oversee the implementation of guidelines intended to rein in the various perceived excesses of movie content. This act of self-regulation quieted the movement against the fledgling industry and ushered in decades of prosperity.

Fast-forward almost 100 years, and Hollywood finds itself standing on another precipice facing down a similarly disgruntled grassroots movement. This time, the challenge comes not from representatives of religious organizations and politicians, but from members of culturally under-represented social groups such as women and minorities. Armed with abundant channels to communicate their message, including social media and websites, members of these groups, as well as individuals supporting the cause, have raised public awareness of the lack of diversity in Hollywood, and are intent on keeping the issue in the public spotlight until progress is made.

To date, the mainstream film industry has demonstrated little inclination to meaningfully address the complaints of those calling for greater diversity behind the scenes. From its relative indifference to the investigations conducted by the Dept. of Justice and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the 1970s to the failed lawsuit filed by the Directors Guild of America in the 1980s charging the major film studios, television networks and independent TV production companies with sex discrimination, the industry has evaded calls for greater equality.

In part, the cultural zeitgeist was in Hollywood’s favor. But diversity was not the juggernaut in those days that it is today. In television, some of this season’s most successful shows — “Empire,” “How to Get Away With Murder” and “Black-ish” — feature diverse casts, and star or co-star women. Further, the explosion of social media and the Internet has solidified the notion that culture belongs to everyone, not just the demographically privileged. It is a clash between a Culture “R” Us popular movement and an entrenched megamedia system inclined to perpetuate the status quo.

A variety of grassroots organizations is also calling for greater visibility for their members onscreen. The studios have largely responded that their hands are tied by the imperatives of an international marketplace that does not favor films featuring female faces or faces of color.

This objection should be recognized as the self-fulfilling prophecy it is. Hollywood doesn’t just respond to market forces. Rather, it creates demand for its movies by spending millions of dollars on advertising and promotion domestically and globally. Not much is “natural” about these markets. Just as the industry plays a role in creating markets here in the U.S., it also has a hand in molding audience preferences internationally.

The notion that little can be done about the current dearth of diversity in the mainstream film industry reveals a startling lack of vision on the part of executives, who have yet to recognize the potential creative and box office bounty a more diverse film world would yield.

Martha M. Lauzen, PhD, is executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. She is the author of numerous studies on
women working on screen and behind the scenes in film and television.

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  1. jhs39 says:

    The problem with Hollywood making movies for a more diverse audience is a bottom line one–Hollywood has always been in business to make money but beginning with Jaws and Star Wars Hollywood morphed from being in the business of creating hits to being in the blockbuster business. The global market becoming such a lucrative part of the box office pie has pushed Hollywood much further in that direction.

    Movies with entirely or almost entirely black casts generally only attract black audiences and they don’t play well outside of North America. The audience for the Think Like A Man films, Tyler Perry movies and The Best Man Holiday is almost entirely black–and black people only make up 14% of the US population.

    The Best Man Holiday was considered a hit and evidence that studios should make more black films–it made 70 million dollars in North America and 1 million dollars everywhere else in the world combined on a 17 million dollar budget. That translates into roughly 37 million dollars in profits not including home video.

    Think Like A Man Too grossed 65 million dollars in North America and 5 million dollars internationally on a 24 million dollar budget. That translates to roughly 22 million dollars in profits before home video.

    While both movies were considered hits the returns were pretty modest by Hollywood standards.

    Neighbors made 268 million dollars globally on an 18 million dollar budget for an approximate profit of 232 million dollars before home video.

    22 Jump Street made 331 million dollars globally on a 50 million dollar budget which roughly translates to 231 million dollars profit before home video.

    Gravity made 716 million dollars globally on a 100 million dollar budget which translates to roughly 516 million dollars in profits before home video.

    Guardians of the Galaxy made 774 million dollars on a 170 million dollar budget which roughly translates to 434 million dollars in profits before home video.

    So what do you think Hollywood is more interested in making–black films that return 22-37 million dollars in profits or general audience films that return 231-516 million dollars in profits?

    Hollywood is in the blockbuster business and there isn’t a large enough audience for black films for them to become blockbusters so Hollywood isn’t generally enthusiastic about making them. Black movie stars like Denzel Washington and Kevin Hart can attract broad audiences in North America but neither is an international box office draw so budgets for their films need to be modest or they won’t make money. The budget for Denzel Washington’s The Equalizer was a thrifty 55 million dollars–contrast that with the 100 million dollar plus budget for The Expendables 3 the 175 million dollar budget for G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra or the 125 million dollar budget for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Denzel Washington’s Flight had an even more modest budget of 31 million dollars–which is less than Robert Downey Jr’s salary on Iron Man 3 or The Avengers. A bigger budget for a Denzel Washington movie results in diminished profits–Safe House made 208 million dollars globally on an 85 million dollar budget which translates to roughly 38 million dollars in profits before home video, definitely not blockbuster numbers.

    If black producers and directors and actors want more black films made then they should pool their resources and start their own mini-studio, a modern version of United Artists where the desire for creating blockbusters won’t be the primary reason for green-lighting films and where movies that make profits in the 30 million dollar range will be enthusiastically welcomed. The big Hollywood studios are never going to support wider diversity because there isn’t enough money in it for them to do so.

    • Al says:

      hey jhs39, you do make a few good points. the problem is that Hollywood doesn’t promote all black cast films overseas b/c they make the generalizations that they won’t make money. take black american athletes like kobe bryant & lebron james who are very popular around the world and they draw huge crowds when they travel to foreign countries.

      many black american athletes are more popular around the world than tatum channing, jonah hill and other famous white actors. it all results in one thing; Hollywood doesn’t want to promote all black cast films for some insane reason. this is my opinion.

    • TestRun223 says:

      Good thought, jhs39, but doesn’t remotely explain why women aren’t protagonists in films ever. Why are women still 33% of speaking roles? This past summer, only 2 studio films had female leads. Both did exceptionally well at the box office. Hunger Games makes bank every time it comes out – so, too, Divergent, 50 Shades of Grey, Sex and the City, Fault in Our Stars, etc. Yet, women are still considered a niche audience. Tyler Perry’s films seem to do pretty well, and those have African-American leads. But those notwithstanding, what about Asian leads? China is a major force in the marketplace, and I’ve yet to see a Chinese/Chinese-American lead version of anything from a studio in the past decade (occasionally, there will be a buddy film). Slumdog and Bend It Like Beckham both did pretty well at relatively low budgets – where’s the next Indian starring film? Protagonist aside, there’s no reason not to play the ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK game and fill supporting casts with minority players. Hollywood DOES shape world expectations, and it’s myopic to assume otherwise. Stars are stars because Hollywood creates them, promotes them, perpetuates them. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper just had a bomb come out. Don’t think anyone’s sitting around saying “hey, let’s not cast these people anymore.” One mediocre film can’t be said to stand for everything. The industry has had way too many films with straight white male protagonists bomb (helloooo John Carter), but no one’s saying that we shouldn’t make those anymore. Looking at percentage ratios rather than individual numbers is a better way to go, but even that doesn’t tell the full story. Where are certain films being marketed? How much is being devoted to those campaigns? That will tell more of a story than the actual box office revenue.

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