If you watched a movie in 2019, chances are that it was a story about a straight white man made by a filmmaker who was also straight, white, and male.
A survey of the top 100 highest grossing movies from USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, found that only 32 featured leading or co-leading characters were from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, a modest increase from 27 films in 2018. Forty three of the 100 biggest box office hits had a female in a leading or co-leading role, a slight bump from 39 in 2018. However, only three of these movies films had a leading or co-leading role filled by a woman over the age of 45, suggesting that studios struggle with ageism when it comes to casting actresses. More than 65% of speaking roles or characters with names were played by men, while just 34% were female parts — that’s a gender ratio of roughly two men to every 1 woman appearing on screen.
Other underrepresented groups fared worse and were virtually erased from the movies that Hollywood produced last year. Only 2.3% of characters were shown with a disability, while 1.4% of all characters in the top films of 2019 were from the LGBTQ community. Only four characters in the top 600 highest grossing films between 2014 to 2019 were transgender, and these characters appeared on screen for two minutes in total. As the study notes, that means that over hundreds of hours of content, transgender characters were only on screen for roughly the length of a trailer.
The status quo on screen doesn’t appear to reflect a country that’s becoming increasingly diverse. In 2019, there was no meaningful increase in the number of Black, Hispanic/Latino, or Asian characters from 2018 or, even farther back, in 2007. Fifteen of the top 100 movies lacked any Black speaking characters, 44 had no Hispanic/Latino speaking characters, and Asian speaking or named characters were missing altogether from more than a third of all movies surveyed.
“There doesn’t seem to be a real policy or process of creating an ecosystem of inclusion onscreen,” said Stacy L. Smith, one of the report’s authors and the founder of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. “It’s remarkable how resistant to change the industry is. When you look at the whole ecosystem, things really haven’t budged.”
Perhaps that has something to do with the composition of the people calling the shots behind the scenes. Of the 1,447 directors responsible for the highest grossing films over 13 years, 4.8% were women, 6.1% were Black, 3.3% were Asian, and 3.7% were Hispanic/Latino. A mere 13 women of color have directed a top-grossing film across 1,300 movies and 13 years.
Concentrating on the highest-grossing films rather than smaller, independent-focused productions is instructive, because it helps illustrate what kinds of projects major studios and, by extension, their corporate parents are choosing to back. The report comes at a time when social justice movements around the country and the world are putting pressure on media conglomerates to diversify their workforces and to finance more stories featuring Black protagonists, as well as films about women, the LGBTQ community, and other groups that have historically been overlooked.
It is also being released on the same week that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group behind the Oscars, announced new inclusion requirements for best picture contenders. Beginning in 2024, eligible films will need to meet two of four standards — these range from having two or more department heads who are female, LGTBQ, disabled or part of an underrepresented racial or ethnic group, to having at least 30% of the cast comprised of actors from at least two of those four underrepresented categories.
It may be an important signal of the Academy’s intentions to champion a more diverse set of movies and moviemakers, but as a practical matter, it may not do much to make hiring more equitable or to fundamentally alter the types of stories that populate cinemas. After reviewing the data, the study’s authors found that 95 films out of the 100 top-grossing movies of 2019 would meet one standard, while 71 would meet the second set of criteria.
“It’s fair to say that the industry has already met the criteria outlined by the Academy so this doesn’t move us farther in the conversation or alter access and opportunity, it reflects the status quo,” Smith said. “These standards aren’t aspirational or transformative, which is what would be necessary to move inclusion forward in this industry. My concern is that the standards create false hope that things will change when they reflect business as usual.”