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Women and People of Color Still Underrepresented Behind the Scenes, Study Says

Representation of women and people of color in feature films has never been better in Hollywood — if it’s on screen.

The film industry’s efforts to diversify leading roles and especially a movie’s main cast have paid off admirably over the past decade, according to a new study from UCLA’s social sciences division and the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, authored by Dr. Darnell Hunt and Dr. Ana-Christina Ramón. But those efforts remain stagnated when it comes to directors, writers, and top studio executives.

The study, titled “Hollywood Diversity Report 2020: A Tale of Two Hollywoods,” looked at the top 200 theatrical releases in both 2018 and 2019. (A separate study covering television will be released later this year.)

The most troubling finding is the lack of progress for people of color trying to secure directing jobs. In 2011, people of color made up 12.2% of directors of theatrical films. While that percentage has spiked in the ensuing decade — to 17.8% in 2013, and 19.3% in 2018 — the overall trend line has remained flat. In 2019, just 14.4% of directors of theatrical films were people of color.

Drilling down further into the demographics, among directors of color, black filmmakers had the highest percentage of overall feature directors in 2018 (10.7%) and 2019 (5.5%). Only 4.3% of directors in 2018 and 3.4% in 2019 were Asian, and only 0.7% in 2018 and 2.1% in 2019 were Latinx. In both years, zero feature films measured by the study were directed by indigenous peoples.

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Women directors, by contrast, have seen some appreciable growth in the past decade, from 4.1% of all directors in 2011 to a record high of 15.1% in 2019. Women of color, however, were far less well represented, and as Hunt and Ramón state in the study, women as a whole “remained underrepresented by a factor of more than 3 to 1 in this employment arena in 2019.”

After remaining largely stuck under 10% for most of the decade, screenwriters of color did at least enjoy a rather large uptick in the last two years, from 7.8% in 2017 to 13.9% in 2019. The percentage of women writers also grew over the same period, from 12.6% in 2017 to 17.4% in 2019 — but almost all of those women were white. And in both cases, screenwriters in 2019 were still considerably whiter and more male than the general population. Hunt and Ramón note that it’s impossible to conclude whether the increasing diversity within screenwriters is part of a trend or “just a momentary spike in an employment arena that has been notoriously resistant to change.”

And then there are the executive ranks. According to the study, 91% of studio heads are white and 82% are male. Senior management is similarly monolithic: 93% white and 80% male. And while execs who oversee core studio operations — marketing, casting, legal, etc. — are approaching gender parity, with 59% male, they are still 86% white. Hunt and Ramón note that these figures are “a slight improvement” over figures from the 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report, when studio heads, for example, were 100% male.

On camera, however, the story is much different. According to the study, people of color made up 27.6% of leading roles in the top 200 films of 2019, a massive leap from 2011, when people of color made up just 10.5% of leads. Women in lead roles increased to 44.1% in 2019, way up from 25.6% in 2011.

Those figures are similar to other recent studies charting the growth in diverse representation for leading roles, but the UCLA study also looked at the diversity within entire main cast of a film. In 2011, casts that were predominantly white — 89% or more — made up 51% of all films released that year. By 2019, predominantly white casts made up just 15.9% of films released. Films with casts that had over 50% people of color, meanwhile, grew from 9.9% of all features in 2011 to 17.2% in 2019.

Most tellingly, the study reveals that having a diverse cast makes a substantial impact at the box office. Films with a predominantly white cast posted the lowest median global grosses in 2019, whereas films with a cast between 41% to 50% people of color performed the best in 2019. Box office performance favored diversity internationally and domestically, as well: For eight of the top 10 highest grossing films worldwide in 2019, the majority of domestic audiences were not white.

Despite the clear financial advantage in a diverse cast, the study also noted that films with black leads were the least likely to earn distribution in China in 2019, and international distribution overall. And at the Oscars, films directed by women haven’t won an Academy Award since 2015.

The increasing — and lucrative — diversity on screen and the lack of it behind the scenes was impossible to ignore for Hunt and Ramón.

“It’s as if the White men dominating Hollywood have opted to pursue a strategy of trying to appease the increasingly diverse market with more inclusion on the big screen,” they wrote, “but without fundamentally altering the way they do business behind the camera.”

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