More diversity, more money: Theater owners want more inclusive films

Key Points
  • At the annual CinemaCon in Las Vegas, theater owners say they want to see more diversity in films.
  • Films such as "Black Panther" and "Crazy Rich Asians," which were lightning rods at the box office, prove that films with a large minority cast can be successful globally.
  • Diversity in Hollywood films doesn't just mean a wider swath of race representation but also the inclusion of different genders, political affiliations, religions and sexual orientations.
The entire cast of 'Black Panther' was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award, but the film did not receive an individual acting nomination from the Golden Globes. Heath Ledger as The Joker in 'The Dark Knight" is the only actor to win an Oscar for a superhero role.
Ian West - PA Images | PA Images | Getty Images

At the National Association of Theatre Owners' annual CinemaCon in Las Vegas one thing rang true with movie distributors and theater owners alike — more diversity means more money.

The annual convention is a chance for Hollywood executives and local cinema owners to mingle, celebrate the successes of the year prior and prep for the year to come. 2018 was a banner year for the industry, as ticket sales in the U.S. and abroad smashed records.

The year also marked a changing tide in the types of films that can now be considered blockbuster-worthy. In the past, diverse casting has been reserved for low-budget indie films and Oscar-aspiring period pieces and biopics.

"Black Panther" changed that tune.

The superhero flick, which had a predominantly African American cast, garnered more than $1.34 billion at the global box office.

Its director, Ryan Coogler, was the second black director to direct a film that has crossed the billion-dollar mark, and now holds the title for highest-grossing film by a black director. F. Gary Gray was the first black director to reach that distinction with "The Fate of the Furious" in 2017.

And "Black Panther" isn't an outlier.

"The reason we do diversity and inclusion is not just that it's the right thing, the right thing should certainly always lead us, but second of all it's right for business," Rolando Rodriguez, chairman, president and CEO of Marcus Theaters, said during a panel Tuesday. "And we are starting to see that."

Jon Chu's "Crazy Rich Asians" film, based on the best-selling book of the same name, smashed records at the box office, becoming the highest-grossing romantic comedy from a major Hollywood studio in a decade.

"It has changed culture forever," Chu said at CinemaCon's "State of the Industry" panel. "Showing how Asians from all around the world are not the same and, yet, we are also the same. Constance Wu on the cover of Time, Awkwafina hosting ['Saturday Night Live'], Henry Golding GQ's 'Man of the Year,' Michelle [Yoh] getting her own 'Star Trek' spinoff, I'm still processing everything that's happening."

The film secured $238.5 million at the worldwide box office, making it the sixth-highest-grossing romantic comedy of all time. Chu is expected to return to direct a sequel to the film.

And diversity in Hollywood films doesn't just mean a wider swath of race representation but also the inclusion of different genders, political affiliations, religions and sexual orientations.

"There's an audience out there that's always been there," said Moctesuma Esparza, founder of Maya Cinema.

Esparza, a film industry veteran, spoke about the Latino community in particular during the panel, noting that for the most part this community has only really had one film per decade that was a big blockbuster. He pointed to "Spy Kids" and "Selena" as examples.

For the most part, he said, the movies that are about the Latino experience are about immigrants and are often Spanish-language films.

"There's 60 million Latinos in the United States, 18 percent of the population," he said. "Twenty million are immigrants. Forty million are native-born. The native-born really don't watch Spanish-language cinema."

These films don't resonate with a significant portion of the population that they are intended for, he said. Instead, the native-born Latino community are lining up to go see other films.

"The native-born, they went to go see 'Black Panther,' because they related to it," Esparza said. "They related to the historical issues that African Americans have had in the United States, because they've had a similar history ... They relate to those movies, and they go to them. So if you give them something that they can relate to, where they see themselves, well, we're going to make a lot more money."

One blockbuster the Latino community will see in the next year is a filmed version of Lin-Manuel Miranda's "In the Heights" musical directed by Chu. The entire cast of the film is Latino, Chu said.

"In a time when we need shared experiences more than ever to help see each other, this can be our most important, potent tool," he said. "It can help bridge the divide that keeps us apart."