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Despite Dollars in Diversity, Hollywood Still Averse to Making Inclusive Films

In Hollywood’s struggle to increase diversity both in front of and behind the camera, 2017 is proof positive that such films can conquer the box office, potentially putting to rest long-held conventions about what kinds of movies are most successful. 

Get Out,” the social thriller by first-time filmmaker Jordan Peele, featured a black, unknown lead (Daniel Kaluuya) but nonetheless became the most profitable movie of the year, grossing $253 million worldwide on a $4.5 million production budget. Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” represented a triumph for female directors, who for so long have been shut out of helming big-budget superhero action movies. Adored by critics and audiences alike, the film lassoed $822 million globally, prompted a sequel and became a rare cultural milestone likely to inspire and empower a generation of girls for years to come. And, in a summer that saw a number of sequels stall out, Universal’s multicultural “Fast and Furious” franchise is racing ahead to two more installments (and a spinoff) after the last two films each sped to more than $1.2 billion worldwide. Malcolm D. Lee’s R-rated “Girls Trip,” featuring an all-female black cast, vanquished all other live action domestic comedies this year, grossing $115 million. 

“I think we’ve turned the tide,” Peele says in an interview with Variety. “It’s becoming clear that the country and the world is ready for protagonists and stories and ideas and points of view that haven’t been seen before.” →

As major studios struggle to fend off digital rivals like Netflix and Hulu, the box office performances of these kinds of diverse films provide a blueprint for how studios need to adapt to competition from television, where inclusive representation is greater and the quality of shows has increased dramatically in recent years.

Audiences have shifted to TV in droves, increasing pressure on studios to offer films that reflect the world at large. In that respect, movies have failed year after year, according to nine years of data analyzed by USC’s Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative, which shows that women and minorities continue to be underrepresented on the big screen. Of more than 39,500 speaking roles across 900 films studied, women made up just 30.5% of those roles. In the top 100 films of 2016, Latinos, who make up roughly half of Los Angeles residents, were represented by just 3% of speaking parts.

This absence of diverse voices stands in glaring contrast to the racial makeup of film audiences, raising questions about why — despite high-profile hits like “Hidden Figures” and “Straight Outta Compton” — pictures have largely featured straight white male leads, according to the USC data. By significant margins, Latinos, blacks and Asians represented an outsize and growing share of loyal filmgoers in 2016, according to a recent report from the Motion Picture Assn. of America. Latinos, who make up 18% of the U.S. population, accounted for nearly a quarter of frequent moviegoers, defined as those watching at least one film per month. In comparison, the share of frequent white filmgoers has decreased dramatically, declining from 23.2 million in 2012 to 18.3 million in 2016, a 21% drop.

Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for comScore, says that audiences have the power to demand more-inclusive films. “If you want to take the most absolute cynical view and say that everything in Hollywood is powered by the almighty dollar,” he says, “then it still makes sense to have more diverse movies.  … If you have groups of people who are really passionate about going to the movie theater, you don’t want to leave them out of the equation.”

Among films that have leaned into diversity this year are Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” starring Daniel Kaluuya (top left), “Spider-Man: Homecoming” with Zendaya, top right, and “Thor: Ragnarok,” with Cate Blanchett as the evil Hela.

Christy Haubegger, CAA agent and founder of Latina magazine, argues that studios are leaving money on the table by not casting films with true diversity, meaning a film that is not all-white or all of one ethnicity.

The agency’s Motion Picture Diversity Casting Index, which analyzed more than 500 films dating back to 2014, should help dispel at least one myth: that big-budget movies with diverse casts don’t perform as well overseas.

CAA’s analysis shows that of nearly 100 features with budgets larger than $100 million, there is a $120 million difference in cumulative global box office average between films that have diverse casting (those with at least 30% diversity) compared with those that don’t.

“In this case, when you’re making a $100 million-plus bet, it’s clearly essential that you find a way to appeal to a diverse, global audience,” Haubegger says.  

Though progress toward inclusion has been slow, interviews with studio executives, producers, box office analysts, researchers and media entrepreneurs suggest that a groundswell is growing. Diverse storytellers are creating opportunities themselves rather than waiting for them to form. And once a film is made, the importance of the commercial success and profitability of pioneering titles cannot be overstated, in part because moral arguments for improving diversity have so far made only incremental gains. But can diverse films that make bucketloads of cash spur the production of more like-minded movies and close the racial disparities?

“I would love to think we have finally put to rest the notion that films that prominently feature and/or are driven by women and people of color don’t perform well,” says former WME partner Charles D. King, who two years ago founded Macro, a media company dedicated to providing opportunities for diverse filmmaking. “Certainly, [films like “Get Out” and others] have shown that not only will these projects be sought after by multicultural audiences but by mainstream audiences as well. We may be nearing a turning point, but we haven’t fully reached it yet.”

Macro found success with its first feature, “Fences,” starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. The film grossed $64 million globally and was nominated for dozens of awards, with Davis winning an Oscar for supporting actress. “There’s a famous quote about being the change you want to see in the world. This is basically what’s happening now,” King states in an email. “The studios and financiers who recognize this stand to be rewarded handsomely for their efforts.”

Among other features coming from Macro is the Netflix-acquired period piece “Mudbound,” directed by Dee Rees and starring Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell and Mary J. Blige. Sony and Macro co-financed the legal drama “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” directed by Dan Gilroy and starring Washington. Both films have Nov. 17 theatrical release dates.

USC researchers Stacy L. Smith and Katherine Pieper argue that box office hits alone have done nothing to move the needle toward greater inclusion. “There are successes time and time again, and those rationales don’t work,” Smith says. “I hate being the naysayer here, but Hollywood loves to engage in adventures in missing the point.”

Pieper agrees, adding that while “Hidden Figures” and other films have had a great impact on viewers, “these long strings of success are treated as anomalies and are a drop in the ocean of the status quo.”

If you want to take the most absolute cynical view and say that everything in Hollywood is powered by the almighty dollar, then it still makes sense to have more diverse movies.”
Paul Dergarabedian, comScore

The success of “Get Out” prompted a stampede by studios offering Peele a first-look deal; he signed with Universal, which had released his film. Among the majors, Universal has the most diverse roster of producers with first-look pacts, according to a Variety calculation of such deals through August and confirmed with studios. At Sony, 16% of production pacts are with minority companies. Fox and Warners stand at 13% and 8%, respectively. Paramount and Disney, which did not respond to a request for confirmation, appear to have no arrangements with minority-owned production companies.

Universal last year signed Eva Longoria to a two-year first-look deal. The “Desperate Housewives” alum turned producer is stepping into a void of content for Latino audiences. Rather than wait for others to write stories and parts for Latinos and women, Longoria decided to bring forth untold stories, tales that are largely unknown to wider audiences. It’s similar to what “Hidden Figures” did when it unearthed the previously unknown saga of the black women at NASA who were critical to the success of the country’s space program.

“The responsibility I feel is producing with purpose,” Longoria says. “Why do I want to put this out in the world? I want our community to see what it can be. If we can put those stories on the big screen, young Latinos and women can look up and aspire to do that or be that.”

Longoria and King are collaborating on the adaptation of a Chilean film for American audiences. She acquired the rights and found a receptive home at Macro. “Charles was like, bring it here,” she recalls. “The great thing about people like Charles is he’s putting his money where his mouth is and he’s making it happen.”

The vanguard of minority filmmakers, Longoria, Peele and others say, will hopefully inspire the next generation of storytellers. Before them, so few role models existed that Peele could only think of two African-American directors he looked up to — Spike Lee and John Singleton. Longoria, who has aspirations to be the next Steven Spielberg or George Clooney, chuckles when she names the two men as role models, implicitly noting the lack of Latinas who have accomplished what she’s hoping to do. “I want to be someone who does it all and does it well,” she says.

Sony Pictures recently signed Antoine Fuqua, director of 2001’s “Training Day,” starring Washington, to make a sequel to “The Equalizer,” also a collaboration between the two. “Antoine clearly has a sense of making a cool movie for the whole world and also has an understanding of domestic, diverse audiences,” says Columbia Pictures president Sanford Panitch.

Sony’s reboot of “Spider-Man,” produced by Marvel Studios, became one of the highest-grossing films of the year and earned praise for bringing a novel — and diverse — take to its casting. “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” which featured Zendaya and Donald Glover, grossed nearly $880 million worldwide, and its opening weekend audience was more than half minority, according to post-tracking data. “Diversity of gender and race is simply reflective of the world we live in, and I think movies, or content in general, require authenticity,” Panitch says.

Marvel and DC have seemingly clued into how to keep their ubiquitous films fresh, in part with diverse actors whose presence can appeal to fans of all backgrounds. “Thor: Ragnarok” featured Cate Blanchett as the first female villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Films that five years ago would have been considered “urban” and niche are now succeeding thanks to savvy marketing that not only targets loyal minority audiences but also finds a way to build on that base of filmgoers to include white or other filmgoers.

Fabian Castro, head of multicultural marketing at Universal, says that early on the studio realized that its “Fast” series, which has filmed in countries like Brazil, Cuba and Iceland, had global appeal. Featuring a roster of actors such as Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Dwayne Johnson, Gal Gadot and Tyrese Gibson, the films allow fans to see themselves reflected in blockbuster action pictures. “There’s this unifying quality, and relatability [to the films that] make them accessible to people around the world,” Castro says.

Castro’s team has turned to unconventional marketing strategies for movies like “Despicable Me 3,” in which post-track surveys reveal an outsize affinity by Latinos for the franchise. The opening weekend audiences for the previous two “Despicable” films were about 30% Latino. With that in mind, Universal collaborated with dance fitness company Zumba to make an original song and dance workout tied to the animated picture. “We try to identify the culturally relevant themes, actors or elements that exist in the film that we can leverage, and make a culturally relevant invitation,” Castro says.

Looking ahead to the end of this year and into 2018, a handful of releases will test whether audiences continue to gravitate toward films with diverse casts. Among them: Disney’s “A Wrinkle in Time” and “Black Panther.” But what’s notable is that in many of the diverse worlds created by storytellers like Barry Jenkins, Ava DuVernay, Shonda Rhimes, Peele and others, race becomes an afterthought because the pictures mirror reality.

As many inevitably point out: Don’t be mistaken in believing that diversity alone will guarantee a box office hit. It always boils down to simply telling a good story — and hopefully the money will follow. 

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