Movies

New USC diversity study shows paltry progress for inclusion in a dozen years of Hollywood movies


A new study shows Hollywood movies continue to lack inclusive representation of racial and ethnic groups, girls and women, LGBTQ people and people with disabilities, according to the University of Southern California.

The report, “Inequality in 1,300 Popular Films,” was issued Thursday by Stacy L. Smith and the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Smith, whose team produces multiple annual studies of the film industry, describes her latest as the most comprehensive analysis of Hollywood films, examining 57,629 characters in 1,300 top films from 2007 to 2019.

The findings, coming amid ongoing protests about racial justice across the nation and efforts to improve inclusion in the Academy Awards nominations with new standards for best picture, show only paltry progress in achieving inclusion of underrepresented groups.

“This is a critical moment for the industry to commit to real and substantive change,” Smith said in a prepared statement. “Too often the results of studies like this one garner attention without action.

“As protests for racial justice continue, it is imperative that companies move beyond performative statements and commit to take actions that will result in inclusive hiring practices on screen and behind the camera.”

Smith said the study shows the overall “ecosystem of cinematic storytelling” is still one in which girls, women, and people of color are marginalized and minimized.

“After 13 years, it is not clear what might convince entertainment companies to change,” she said. “Despite public statements, the data reveal that there is still apathy and ambivalence to increasing representation of speaking characters overall in popular films. This is both the easiest representational gap to address and one that is essential to strengthen the pipeline to more prominent roles.”

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Among the findings on gender:

1. An increase in leading and/or co-leading characters from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, from 27 films in 2018 to 32 films in 2019.

2. An increase in movies that featured a girl or woman from an underrepresented group as a lead or co-lead character: 17 movies in 2019 compared to 11 in 2018, 4 in 2017 and 1 in 2007.

3. A slight uptick in the number of films featuring a girl or woman in a leading or co-leading role: 43 of 2019’s 100 top films, compared to 39 in 2018. The gain was larger compared to 2007, when only 20 films featured a girl or woman. 

4. But only 3 films in 2019 had a leading or co-leading role filled by a woman aged 45 or older, and only one of these roles went to a woman of color, the study found.

The study also showed two other on-screen areas continue to lag: Of the 100 top films of 2019, just 2.3% of characters were shown with a disability, a number that’s held steady the last five years.

Another finding is that a mere 1.4% of all characters in the top films of 2019 were from the LGBTQ community. 

Across 600 films from 2014 to 2019, only 4 characters were transgender and all were inconsequential to the plot, appearing on screen for only two minutes total, the study shows. And transgender characters appear on screen for roughly the runtime of a film trailer.

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The study also produced an “invisibility analysis” to determine how many movies were missing girls and women speaking characters from underrepresented groups.

Across the 100 top films of 2019, the researchers found that 33 films were missing Black/African American girls and women on screen; 55 were missing Asian or Asian American girls or women; 71 were missing Hispanic/Latinas; and 45 were missing girls or women from multiracial/multiethnic backgrounds.

Girls and women from other groups were also excluded, including American Indian/Alaskan Native characters (97 movies), Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander characters (99 movies), and Middle Eastern/North African characters (92 movies). Also, 77 films did not portray a single girl or woman with a disability and 94 films were devoid of even one female-identified LGBT character.

“The erasure of girls and women from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, the LGBTQ community, and those with disabilities remains a hallmark of top-performing Hollywood films,” Smith said in her statement.

The report also examines the inclusion picture behind the camera.

For instance, it found that of 1,447 directors over 13 years, 4.8% were women, with 2019 being a high point.  But only 6.1% of directors were Black, 3.3% were Asian, and 3.7% were Hispanic/Latino.

In 2018, the percentage of Black directors increased, then fell back to 2017 levels in 2019.  But only 13 women of color have directed a top film across 1,300 movies and 13 years.

Smith’s report nudges the industry’s major “legacy” studios to pay attention to what Netflix has accomplished on the issue.

“In contrast to our findings on top-grossing films, 20.7% of Netflix directors of U.S.-based films in 2019 were women,” Smith said. “The legacy studios may want to take a note out of the streaming giant’s playbook on how to hire more inclusively behind the camera.”

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The report looked at how the studios and mini-major distributors performed across each inclusion indicator. Universal Pictures and Paramount Pictures both led on 6 or 32% of the 19 indicators in the study. Walt Disney Studios did not lead on any inclusion indicators in 2019.

But when global box-office earnings were examined, Disney’s female-centered films and stories driven by underrepresented leads/co-leads were far and away the box-office front-runners, outpacing other studios with more than $4 billion earned globally on stories featuring girls and women and an additional $2.7 billion for stories with underrepresented leads/co-leads.

“While the studios still have room to improve on inclusion overall, it is clear that an economic incentive may be one reason to do so,” Smith said. 



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