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How BIPOC Audiences Drive Moviegoing: UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report

Study shows on-camera representation growing significantly but behind-the-camera representation lags

BIPOC Audiences Drive Box Office: UCLA

A study of the top 252 English-language movies released in 2021 demonstrates how significantly people of color drive box office revenue, particularly on opening weekends.

The ninth installment of the respected UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report chronicles the notable rise in on-camera representation in top films over the last decade. The report also documents the relatively slow growth in behind-the-camera roles for people of color, particularly women and particularly among Latinos.

“Last year, every time a big movie exceeded expectations or broke a box office record, the majority of opening weekend audiences were people of color,” said Ana-Christina Ramón, co-author of the report and the director of research and civic engagement for UCLA’s social sciences division. “For people of color, and especially Latino families, theaters provided an excursion when almost everything else was shut down. In a sense, people of color kept studios afloat the past couple of years. Studios should consider them to be investors, and as investors, they should get a return in the form of representation.”

Pandemic-battered 2020 marked a milestone achievement for representation in Hollywood as the mainstream film business reached what the study calls “proportionate representation” on screen, meaning that the casts of movies in aggregate reflect the general level of diversity among the U.S. population. The study found that movies with 21%-30% of cast members from BIPOC backgrounds tend to have the strongest returns at the box office, while films with less-diverse casts perform worse.

“Minorities reached proportionate representation in 2020 for the first time when it comes to overall cast diversity in films, and that held true again in 2021,” said co-author Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences at UCLA. “We suspect this is at least somewhat due to the outsize impact of the number of films we analyzed that were released direct-to-streaming.”

In 2011, 43.1% of actors in the top 252 movies came from BIPOC backgrounds. That’s a big gain from 2011 when representation stood at 20.7%. Some 31% of the top performing movies released last year had majority-minority casts. The multicultural rise accelerated in 2020 and 2021 in part by the sudden rise of direct-to-streaming and premium VOD offerings at a time when traditional theaters were shuttered by COVID.

Hunt notes that the level of diversity on screen rose as studios took more chances and were willing to experiment more with movies released directly to streamers rather than those that incurred the cost of a theatrical release. Six of the top 10 grossing movies from last year that had full theatrical distribution saw big contributions from BIPOC moviegoers. Leading the charge was Universal’s “F9: The Fast Saga,” with 65% of opening weekend business coming from people of color.

“We also think this dual-release strategy is probably here to stay and could have a lasting impact on diversity metrics in front of and behind the camera in the future as studios think about how to finance content for different platforms,” Hunt wrote.

The UCLA study offers nitty-gritty detail on how female directors and those from BIPOC backgrounds were more likely to sign on to projects with budgets of $20 million or less.

The study examined writers, directors and actors who identify as Asian American, Black, Latino, Middle Eastern/North African, multiracial and Native American. Those communities together account for about 42.7% of the U.S. population. “They form an important consumer bloc for entertainment,” the study states.

Among other insights from the study:

  • Among the directors in the 252 films analyzed, 21.8% were women and 30.2% were people of color. ‘
  • Among the screenwriters for those films, 33.5% were women and 32.3% were people of color.
  • Asian American actors made up 5.6% of lead roles, 6.4% of overall cast, 6.7% of directors and 4% of writers
  • Black actors held 15.5% of lead roles and 18% of overall roles, as well as 9.5% of directors and 10.4% of writers.
  • Latino actors held 7.1% of lead roles, 7.7% of overall roles, as well as 5.6% of writers and 7.1% of directors.
  • The study found no lead actors of Middle Eastern and North African descent.
  • Native Americans remain “virtually invisible,” per the study making up less than 1% of each job category in the study.
  • Women made up 47.2% of lead acting roles, nearly double the 2011 level of 25%.