The report, titled “I Want to See Me: Why Diverse On-Screen Representation Drives Cinema Audiences,” was based on films and audience demographic data for the top 100 films released theatrically in the U.S. in 2018 and 2019.
“As we’ve said before, our goal is very simple: that the characters on screen reflect the population, which is half female and incredibly diverse,” said Geena Davis, chair of the institute. “We know that increasing the presence of underrepresented groups in media can have a very powerful impact on shifting cultural perceptions. Our industry has a tremendous opportunity to foster inclusion in society by taking action to diversify who shows up on screen. As this new research shows, we have made progress, but we need to do better.”
Researchers were attempting to explore if what’s presented on cinema screens affects who shows up for a film during its theatrical run. Their report found a correlation between the representation of various demographic cohorts on screen and their share of the total audience to a particular film.
“The relationship seems to be stronger for race/ethnicity cohorts than age or gender cohorts, where a higher percentage of characters of a given Race/Ethnicity on screen results in a higher percentage of moviegoers of the same race/ethnicity in the audience,” the report said. “Within race/ethnicity it does seem to be most apparent for the Black cohort than other race/ethnicity cohorts.”
The report also found potentially negative portrayals of a group represented on screen did not have a significant impact on attendance by that group.
“Moviegoers being able to identify with the characters in a movie drives their attendance behavior,” the report said. “When there are characters of a certain cohort (group) this is likely to drive more moviegoers of the same cohort.”
The report also found several movies with 100% of their characters being white with the majority having over 50% white characters. For the remaining race/ethnic groups, the majority of films are clustered at below 25% representation on screen. “This is significant considering people of color (Black, Asian and Latinx) comprise 37.8% of the U.S. population,” the report noted.
“As the movie industry begins to recover from the effects of the pandemic, this research carries even more weight,” said William Palmer, chief executive of Movio. “Diverse audiences can go elsewhere to find entertainment options that speak to them and their lives so if cinema is to remain relevant and continue having a cultural impact, it must attract these audiences by delivering more representative content.”
The report also found films aimed at children have male and female leads evenly split in terms of on-screen representation for films but found less of balanced in race/ethnic representation. White characters are very well represented in children’s films, with the majority of films having 50% or more White characters while the vast majority of children’s films have no Asian and Latinx characters. Only six titles had over 18% Latinx characters, despite Latinx comprising 18.4% of the US population.
“When we consider the impact that the media children are exposed to can have, including in the cinema, it is vital for them to see from the beginning that fictitious worlds reflect the real world, and that they see themselves reflected on screen,” Davis said. “When you see someone like yourself reflected, you take in the message: ‘There’s someone like me, I must belong.’ It’s encouraging to see the progress we’ve made with gender representation, but we must show more diversity on screen, if we don’t show more diversity, we are contributing to the serious problem of racial inequity in our society today.”