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True Colors: Hollywood's Diversity Dilemma

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By Jack Feuer

Published Apr 1, 2015 8:00 AM


For the second year in a row, the Hollywood Diversity Report from the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA shows that the percentage of nonwhite and female talent and executives in the entertainment industry remains distressingly low, despite a direct correlation between diversity and bottom-line success.

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The 2014-2015 network television season’s top-rated new comedy — ABC’s black-ish — and its top two new dramas — ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder and Fox’s Empire — feature African-American stars and show runners. ABC’s new Fresh Off the Boat sitcom is the first predominantly Asian-American network sitcom to air in 20 years.

Over on the CW, Gina Rodriguez, Latina star of the comedy Jane the Virgin, won a Golden Globe Award. On the big screen, Selma, about the historic voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965, made the list of Best Picture Oscar nominees. The film was directed by UCLA alumna Ava DuVernay, the first female African-American director to win a Best Director Prize at Sundance (for the 2012 drama Middle of Nowhere) and to be nominated for a Golden Globe Award.

African Americans watch traditional television in significantly greater numbers than the population as a whole. According to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), while Hispanics are 17 percent of the total U.S. population, they represent 32 percent of all frequent moviegoers (one movie a month or more). And more than half of the total moviegoing population in America is female, per the MPAA.

The country has never been so diverse, and it isn’t even as diverse as it’s going to be. The U.S. is projected to become a minority majority nation by 2043. According to Nielsen’s Advertising and Audiences: State of the Media study, the number of African-American TV households increased by just under 40 percent — to 14.9 million — from 1995 to 2014, and Hispanic TV households more than doubled, to 14.7 million. The number of Asian-American households also rose by more than 20 percent, to 5.2 million.

Adding impetus to the trend is the critical role that younger viewers and moviegoers — the so-called Millennial generation — play in a studio’s success. “For many media companies, the 18-34-year-old demo, and particularly the 18-24 subset of it, is an important audience,” notes Sally Wolf, executive director of multicultural business initiatives at Time Warner Inc. “That population inherently skews multicultural. And the generation that follows the Millennials, those currently under 18, is even more diverse.”

Given all this, one might conclude that diversity is thriving in Hollywood. Think again.

According to the just-released findings of the 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report from the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, the percentage of nonwhite and/or female stars, show runners, writers and directors in U.S. television shows and motion pictures remains distressingly low. And the picture isn’t any rosier when it comes to awards — DuVernay and Selma star David Oyelowo, who plays Martin Luther King Jr. in the film, indirectly sparked a national debate on the topic of diversity in the Academy Awards in particular and Hollywood in general when they were left off the nomination lists for Best Director and Best Actor, respectively. Indeed, this year’s Oscar acting nominations were 100 percent white — for only the third time in almost two decades.

A New Look At An Old Problem

The Hollywood Diversity Report is part of the Bunche Center’s overarching and ongoing Hollywood Advancement Project, and it is the second in a series of reports to examine relationships between diversity and the bottom line in the Hollywood entertainment industry.

To document the degree to which women and minorities are present in front of and behind the camera, the 2015 report considers, among other films, the top 200 theatrical film releases in 2012 and 2013, and all broadcast, cable and digital platform television programs from the 2012-13 season.

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Infographic by Alicia Patel

“Much of what we know about diversity [in Hollywood] is anecdotal, and most is not good,” says Darnell Hunt, director of the Bunche Center and co-author of the study with Ana-Christina Ramon. “After talking with dozens of people in the industry, we concluded that something like this was long overdue. We found that people want to see shows that they can relate to. Shows with casts that roughly reflect the society do better.”

Indeed, last year’s research broke new ground when it revealed a positive relationship between the relative diversity of casts in TV and movies and bottom-line success. “I was not surprised at that finding, because it makes sense, given the demographics of our country,” says Allyson Nadia Field, a UCLA assistant professor of cinema and media studies who is supplementing Hunt’s research with her qualitative look at the subject of diversity in entertainment. “I was pleasantly surprised that the case was so airtight.”

This year’s findings also confirmed that multicultural storytelling sells. Films with relatively diverse casts enjoyed the highest median global box office receipts and the highest median return on investment.

“That is where the rubber hits the road,” observes Karen Williams ’87, M.B.A. ’93, executive director of the UCLA Anderson School of Management Center for Management of Enterprise in Media, Entertainment & Sports (MEMES), who spent two decades in top media and marketing posts at Disney-ABC, Time Warner and Viacom, among others, and served as vice president of sales and marketing for Essence magazine. “Everyone cares about making money.”

Dissecting The Disconnect

The good news from the 2015 report is that median 18-49-year-old viewer ratings (as well as most median household ratings among whites, blacks and Latinos) peaked for broadcast and cable shows that at least match the minority share of the population in terms of overall cast diversity. Median 18-49 viewer ratings were highest for broadcast and scripted shows in which minorities wrote between 21 and 30 percent of the episodes.

The bad news is that in front of and behind the camera, it’s still show business as usual. Although minorities have posted small to modest gains in several Hollywood employment arenas since the 2014 report, they remain underrepresented on every front by big margins.

Moreover, white males continued to dominate the positions from which greenlighting decisions are made in the Hollywood industry. Film studio heads were 94 percent white and 100 percent male. Television network and studio heads were 96 percent white and 71 percent male.

On the talent side, white male actors dominated the top credits. There were more than twice as many white male film leads as there were minorities in leading roles. The TV gap is even greater, with white males outnumbering minorities in leading roles by nearly six to one on broadcast scripted TV, and by almost two to one among cable scripted leads.

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