At the Academy Awards earlier this month, a relatively small indie film with a predominantly Asian cast that became one of the surprise box office hits of 2022 won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and a historic Best Actress win for the legendary Michelle Yeoh.
Hollywood executives likely want to herald the success story of “Everything Everywhere All At Once” as another indicator of progress on diversity. But that progress is never guaranteed — and it’s up to them to make sure it’s not a blip.
In a time when many companies in Hollywood are making huge cuts, a new report is once again warning them that diversity in front of and behind the camera is essential to the industry’s survival. However, progress has been uneven at best, as documented by the Hollywood Diversity Report, released Thursday by UCLA scholars Ana-Christina Ramón and Darnell Hunt.
Now in its 10th year, the annual report has consistently found movies with more diverse casts perform better with audiences across the board, earn a bigger return on investment for their studios and distributors, and generate more buzz on social media compared to movies with predominantly white and male casts.
But as the title of this year’s report, “Exclusivity in Progress,” suggests, while progress has been made, it has not been consistent. Analyzing the race/ethnicity, gender and disability status of the actors, writers and directors of major theatrical and streaming movies in 2022, the researchers found that in nearly every job category, women and people of color remain underrepresented relative to the U.S. population.
They’re also still likely to receive inequitable economic opportunities compared to white men. For instance, when examining the lead actors of major films and what budgets they were allocated, “films with white male leads enjoyed the largest budgets of all,” the researchers found.
Similarly, when looking at who’s behind the camera, few women and especially few women of color get to direct big-budget movies with splashy theatrical releases. “Although the film industry has had to quickly evolve the past few years, at its core, it remains the same exclusive club for white male directors,” the report said. “In the end, women and people of color have to be exceptional to survive in the industry, while white men are afforded many more opportunities to thrive.”
For the first time, the report also includes disability among the demographic categories, finding that unsurprisingly, disability representation is disproportionately low compared to the U.S. population. While at least 26% of Americans report having a disability, disabled actors made up only about 9.1% of leads in theatrical films, and just 6.1% of leads in streaming films in 2022.
Also new to this year’s report, the researchers analyzed theatrical and streaming releases separately to better distinguish between movies released primarily in theaters vs. primarily on streaming. They found that actors, writers and directors of color have generally found more opportunities in streaming.
But those opportunities remain unevenly allocated. According to the report, “top streaming films directed by people of color were most likely to have the smallest budgets.” Some 76.2% of the films on streaming services directed by people of color had budgets smaller than $20 million, compared to 70.6% of films by white women and 56.9% of films by white men. (Not coincidentally, women of color were more likely to direct movies with the most diverse and gender-balanced casts — and then get a lower budget.)
“Although the film industry has had to quickly evolve the past few years, at its core, it remains the same exclusive club for white male directors.”
The researchers also compared the report’s 2022 data to that of films released in 2019, the last full year of data prior to the coronavirus pandemic. They found decreases in many measures of diversity from pre-pandemic levels, which illustrates Hollywood’s inconsistent progress. For example, in 2022, 21.6% of lead actors in theatrical releases were people of color, down from 27.6% in 2019 and 26.6% in 2018. The percentage was higher for lead actors of color on streaming, but still below proportional representation.
“In an era of economic uncertainty intensified by the pandemic, studios pushed for theatrical ‘surefire hits’ that relied on nostalgia and previous intellectual property. Instead of forging ahead with more inclusivity and new narratives, studios seemed to limit their theatrical offerings in 2022, which also limited the opportunities for certain filmmakers,” the researchers wrote. “The idea that diversity on the big screen is somehow an inherently ‘riskier’ business proposition — which this report series debunked years ago — seemed to rear its ugly head again in 2022.”
Time and time again, the UCLA report has revealed the relationship between diversity and box office success, proving that audiences want to see movies with more diverse representation. For example, this year’s report once again debunks the pervasive Hollywood myth that movies starring people of color “don’t travel,” which has been used to justify prioritizing movies with white movie stars when trying to attract Hollywood’s increasingly international audience.
Among the biggest theatrical releases in 2022, casts in which 31% to 40% of the actors were people of color “were released in the most international markets, on average, and had the highest median global box office earnings,” according to the report. In addition, for six of the top 10 films at the global box office, “people of color accounted for the majority of opening weekend domestic ticket sales.” Similarly, “households of color” dominated the viewership for each of the top 10 films released to streaming platforms, the researchers found, citing data from Nielsen. The most-watched movie released via streaming in 2022 was Disney+’s “Turning Red,” which, not coincidentally, features an Asian girl as its protagonist.
It all proves that Hollywood gatekeepers shouldn’t be imagining the default audience as white or catering to a white gaze when making decisions about which films to greenlight. But as the report warns, in times of economic belt-tightening, studio executives often see diversity as expendable.
“Industry uncertainty, history suggests, does not bode well for diversity when it is treated as optional instead of essential,” the researchers wrote in the report. “Reversing the progress observed on streaming platforms during the pandemic would be misguided given the risk of losing diverse audiences that are now accustomed to seeing themselves on screen.”