Hollywood, amid all the glamor and glitz of an industry whose global box-office sales reached $38.3 billion in 2015, is under increasing scrutiny to improve its diversity practices. Many believe Hollywood should be doing a much better job with diversity and that adopting best practices successful in other industries would be a good start.
Hollywood’s diversity problem was in full bloom in January 2016 when the Oscar nominations were announced. For the second year in a row, no minorities—African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans—were nominated in any of the four acting categories. In protest, filmmaker Spike Lee and actress Jada Pinkett Smith both declined to attend the awards ceremony.
In 2016, statistics from the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) -- which studied diversity in theatrical releases and broadcast, cable, and digital-platform television shows from the 2013–14 season -- paint a portrait of a not-so-diverse Hollywood:
- Minorities claimed the lead roles in 12.9 percent of 163 films examined in 2014, down from 16.7 percent in 2013.
- Women claimed the lead roles in 25.8 percent of 163 films examined in 2014.
- Minorities directed 12.9 percent of 163 films examined in 2014.
- Minority actors claimed 8.1 percent of the lead roles in broadcast scripted programming in 2014, compared to 80 percent for white actors.
The Bunche Center’s “2016 Hollywood Diversity Report: Busine$$ as Usual?” states that its statistics present a huge contradiction for Hollywood, given that, in 2014, people of color purchased 46 percent of all movie tickets sold in the United States. The report also noted that minorities collectively accounted for 37.9 percent of the U.S. population in 2014.
What is ironic about the Hollywood diversity issue, according to the report, is that films and television shows with diverse casts sell more tickets and earn higher ratings, highlighting a disconnect between reality and fairness. “What we’ve found…is that audiences prefer content that looks like America,” said Darnell Hunt, lead author of the study, a UCLA professor of sociology and director of the Bunche Center.
A recent New York Times article reported on a new social media project that puts a different but engaging spin on Hollywood’s diversity problem. The project is called #StarringJohnCho, and activists calling for greater diversity use actor John Cho “as a meme to break down the archetype of a Hollywood leading man.”
Cho, 43, is an American actor and musician who was born in South Korea, best known as Harold Lee in the Harold & Kumar films. He also portrayed Hikaru Sulu in the rebooted Star Trek film series.
The social media project is seeking to call attention to Asian Americans being passed over for traditional leading roles in Hollywood. So what the creators of the project did was “cast” Cho in films that had white male leads.
It asks, for instance, what films like The Martian, Spectre, and London Has Fallen, starring Matt Damon, Daniel Craig, and Gerard Butler, respectively, would look like if Cho had starred in them instead. Interestingly, the project produced film promotional posters showing Cho in the leading role, affording a powerful image to the protest.
Another study on Hollywood’s lack of diversity—this one from researchers at the University of Southern California (USC)—suggests that Hollywood is plagued by an “epidemic of invisibility.”
The study’s authors at the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism analyzed more than 21,000 characters and behind-the-scenes workers on more than 400 films and TV shows released from September 2014 through August 2015. The study found that just one-third of speaking characters were female (33.5 percent) and just 28.3 percent of characters with dialogue were from non-white racial/ethnic groups.
Across the Hollywood landscape, according to Stacy L. Smith, one of the study’s authors and the founding director of the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative, there is an “erasure of certain groups: women, people of color, the LGBT community...that points to a lack of inclusivity across [film and TV].”
Indeed, Hollywood has a long way to go to improve diversity and inclusion in the film, television and digital entertainment industry. While a concerted effort will be needed throughout all segments of Hollywood, looking at diversity and inclusion best practices from other industries will provide a good starting point.