Do you see yourself on the Silver Screen?
For years, the film industry has been criticized for its lack of diversity, not only among the directors and producers but in the storylines that make it to a theater near you. A 2018 study funded by the Annenberg Foundation examined 48,757 characters in 1,100 films released between 2007 to 2017.
Despite the many efforts to increase diversity and inclusion in Hollywood, there has been little to no change in the percentage of female characters and characters from underrepresented racial groups.
Here are a few sobering statistics: Even though women make up half of the US population, only 30.6 percent of the roles were female. In another statistic, white actors were cast in 70.7 percent of all speaking roles. In the past three years, only 2.5 percent of all speaking roles were people with disabilities.
The story is even more bleak for LGBTQ characters on screen. Of the 4,403 characters examined for their apparent sexuality, only 31 were lesbian, gay or bisexual—less than one percent of the roles. Even worse, there has been only one transgender character out of the 400 popular films where members of our community were featured.
This report provides further evidence that bridging the diversity gap in the entertainment business is no different than in other industries. Moving the needle happens when organizations embed diversity and inclusion into their processes and hold everyone accountable for achieving sustainable outcomes. That means not only must the composition of creative and production teams reflect the demographic diversity of the today’s ticket buyers but also the types of films they choose to fund.
Major film studios have long argued that there was not a solid business case to justify making movies about Latinx, African American, and LGBTQ communities because they fail to earn enough profits. Thankfully, there is mounting evidence to the contrary as shown in 2018 with the whopping success of two films in particular.
The superhero flick Black Panther, which garnered more than $1.3 billion in global box office sales, had a predominantly African American cast. Jon Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians film broke records too, earning $235 million worldwide, becoming the sixth highest grossing romantic comedy of all time. Let’s take a closer look at the multitude of factors that may have contributed to these movies getting a green light.
Some might say that the MeToo and BlackLivesMatter movements helped tip the balance by shining an even brighter light on the slow pace of progress. This resulted in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences taking the intentional step of launching a global campaign to identify and recruit qualified new members who represent greater diversity.
Film festivals are doing their part by encouraging filmmakers from diverse backgrounds to make submissions. At Utah’s Sundance Film Festival this year, 40 percent of the 112 films were directed by one or more women and 13 percent were directed by one or more people who identify as LGBTQ.
Of all the films screened at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, 38 percent came from female directors. This in turn attracted more women to attend the annual event. The festival’s artistic director, Tricia Tuttle, said, “You need to create a program that feels inclusive and welcoming and accessible...the best way to do that is provide a range of films so people see themselves reflected in your priorities as a program team.”
The researchers of the Annenberg Foundation Report made specific recommendations on how to increase diversity in films. This included having A-List actors demand an inclusion rider be added to their contracts requiring directors and producers to hire underrepresented people for both on-screen and off-screen positions on the project. They also suggested local governments provide tax incentives for productions with greater diversity and for film companies to set specific inclusion goals.
For those who say these changes equate to setting quotas, I offer this analogy. In a manufacturing environment, there are rules and regulations in place designed to prevent accidents that can result in injury and even death. Companies like Chevron create a safety culture—upper management is committed to workplace safety and responsibility trickles down to all employees. If one person fails to follow the rules, the entire organization is at risk.
Making diversity and inclusion a reality happens when everyone has shared accountability. Take the upcoming Rehoboth Independent Film Festival for example. In 2017, the first-place documentary audience award winner was The Lavender Scare, and Moving Stories and Liyana tied for second-place.
All three films focused on underrepresented segments of the population, sending a loud message to organizers that the Rehoboth community places a high value on these themes. ▼
Wesley Combs is a diversity and inclusion expert and a passionate social justice advocate. He is the founding Principal of Combs Advisory Services where he works with clients who share his values of enabling equity, equality and opportunity in the workplace and the community.