African-Americans and Asian-Americans showed up in force at the box office in 2016 as major movies showed greater diversity in their casting and subject matter, according to a new report by the Motion Picture Association of America.
The number of frequent African-American moviegoers nearly doubled to 5.6 million last year, while the number of regular Asian ticket-buyers jumped from 3.2 million to 3.9 million. The MPAA defines frequent moviegoers as people who attend the cinema once a month or more. Both groups were over-represented on a population basis. African-Americans made up 15% of frequent moviegoers, while comprising 12% of the U.S. population. Asians account for 8% of the population, but made up 11% of frequent moviegoers.
In 2016, Asians over-represented the most of any group in terms of per capita ticket buying. They went to the movies an average of 6.1 times last year, up from 4.9 times in 2015. African-Americans went an average of 4.2 times, and increase over the 3.5 times they averaged in 2015.
The rise in attendance comes as Hollywood created more movies featuring black characters, such as “Hidden Figures,” a commercial hit about pioneering African-American NASA workers, and “Moonlight,” a coming-of-age drama that won best picture at the Oscars. It also follows an industry-wide debate about diversity that was triggered after black performers were shut out of the Academy Awards for two consecutive years. This year’s Oscars were notably more diverse — not only did “Moonlight” win, but its star Mahershala Ali nabbed best supporting actor and Viola Davis picked up a supporting actress statue for her work in “Fences.”
Asian characters did pop up in such blockbusters as “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and “The Magnificent Seven,” but there were also several instances of “whitewashing” that raised protests. “Ghost in the Shell,” an upcoming adaptation of a Japanese manga, and “Doctor Strange,” a Marvel Comics film, both cast white actors as characters that had originally been depicted as Asian.
It’s not clear if these movies were just a few stray examples of diversity that attracted attention because of their commercial success or if the industry is creating more roles for actors of color. There was certainly ample room for improvement. A USC study from last fall found that out of the top-grossing films of 2015, white actors played 73.7% of speaking or named characters. The researchers discovered that only 12.2% of speaking or named characters were black, 5.3% were Latino, and 3.9% were Asian.
Not every ethnic group was showing up as frequently to the multiplexes. Hispanics have been one of the most reliable groups of moviegoers, but they didn’t exhibit the same appetite for the films being released last year. The remained the second-biggest sector of ticket buyers after Caucasians, but their representation dipped on a per capita basis. Hispanics frequented the movies 4.6 times on average, down from 2015 when they averaged 5.2 visits.