Ahead of the annual Academy Awards ceremony, the attention in Hollywood turns to the lack of diversity in the entertainment industry. Ever since #Oscarssowhite trended in 2015 and 2016 when there were no people of color nominated for the 20 acting nominations each of those years, the industry has been reckoning with how a lack of diversity in front of and behind the camera is, among other things, a missed business opportunity. UCLA just released its annual Hollywood Diversity Report to address gender and racial diversity gaps, and efforts to close them.
The UCLA study found that women held the gains they've made on-screen, representing 47% of film leads and 42% of actors. Women and people of color have made progress in the key, powerful roles of director and film writer, but are still vastly underrepresented. Women are less than 22% of directors and 33% of film writers. And both male and female people of color represent 30% of directors and 32% of film writers.
"There's a lot more work that needs to be done, particularly for women of color," says Ana-Christina Ramon, UCLA's director of research and civic engagement. "They again lag behind, in getting those major jobs as directors of top films."
A ripple effect
This lack of diversity at the top has a ripple effect across productions: the study found that films written or directed by women last year had casts that were significantly more diverse than those written or directed by white men. But the study also found that women and people of color have a harder time raising financing for a film, and when they do, raise less funding for their films – they're more likely to helm a film with a budget of less than $20 million than white men are.
"There is definitely this inequitable system that's working against women. When you have a higher budget, you can obviously do a lot more and [the film] is definitely going to get a lot more marketing, more backing from the studio," says Ramon.
All this data, Ramon says, points to a massive opportunity for Hollywood: films with more diverse casts perform better at the box office. Eight of the top 10 theatrically-released films in 2021 featured casts that were greater than 30% minority, while films with less than 11% minority actors were the lowest box-office performers.
With attention to that data (and a 2021 McKinsey study about the $10 billion opportunity in addressing anti-Black bias), Hollywood's been taking steps to address these gaps. Another factor driving change: The Academy set representation and inclusion standards for films to qualify for the 2024 awards.
These standards address on-screen representation, themes and narratives – films can qualify if they either have a lead actor from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group, 30% of secondary and minor roles from at least two underrepresented groups, or a storyline or subject matter centered on an underrepresented group. Films must also meet certain criteria in terms of the diversity of creative leadership and project teams, marketing, as well as the production company's access to opportunities.
Studios are already starting the process of measurement to address the transparency disclosures, and working to ensure they already meet those standards. And they're doing so by working with a number of nonprofits.
Creating a pipeline for diverse talent
One of those organizations, Free The Work, helps place diverse talent on movie sets, working with nearly 10,000 companies that hire and 13,500 creators. It also helps companies understand the diversity on their sets to accurately assess their representation, to be able to submit an independently-verified assessment of a production's diversity.
"What we try to do is actually bring these underrepresented creators who are amazing storytellers and super talented to the forefront, and say, this is just somebody you haven't discovered yet. This is somebody you haven't met yet. You could be discovering the next Spike Jonze The next Spike Lee," says Free The Work Executive Director Pamala Buzick.
One woman who has found jobs through Free The Work's platform is writer and director Maureen Bharoocha. The film school graduate listed her availability on Free the Work's platform when she wanted to get into the industry, and since then has directed a range of content, from "Jimmy Kimmel Live!", to a Jonas Brothers special, to a thriller that aired on Lifetime — and is now directing features.
"It was just a way to kind of put myself out there – another platform to let the world know what I was doing, and what I was capable of," says Bharoocha, who identifies as half-Irish and half-South Asian. "It's really important for me to work with partners that are open and are looking for new stories, or fresh angles on stories that we've seen a million times. And I think you only get that if you have underrepresented voices or seeing a story from a different vantage point."
Studios, increasingly, seem to agree. Warner Media's Chief Inclusion Officer Christy Haubegger said, "Diversity is not the moral thing to do. Diversity is going to be how we win, especially in a global marketplace. Where we're trying to go directly to consumers and appeal to them around the world."
The Academy explained its initiative to push the studios to embrace greater diversity in the next few years with this statement: "Our values at the Academy are based on the belief that arts and sciences, including the arts and sciences of filmmaking, thrive from diversity. This belief, coupled with our mission to recognize and uphold excellence in the motion picture arts and sciences, inspire imagination, and connect the world through the medium of motion pictures, requires a commitment to representation, inclusion and equity. There are so many stories that need to be told and have not yet been told – we want to encourage this across the industry."
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