Message Received. Hollywood Acknowledges What Audiences Knew All Along: Diversity Sells

Written by Dana Sanchez

American consumers of film and TV are becoming increasingly diverse, voting with their dollars for content that looks like them and is produced by people who look like them, according to the 2017 Hollywood Diversity Report.

Diverse films and TV shows are profitable — proof that diversity sells, the study shows.

This has been borne out in the box office, where “Hidden Figures,” the story of three black women who worked at NASA in the segregated ’60s, overtook earnings of Academy darling “LaLa Land,” EW reported on Feb. 7. This happened weeks before the 2017 Academy Awards.

“The appeal of diversity for today’s audiences has everything to do with the storytelling, which extends beyond who’s in front of the camera to the earliest moments of the creative process, when ideas for films and television shows are first pitched to agents, studios and networks,” according to the 2017 Hollywood Diversity Report. “Diversity sells, first and foremost, because today’s audiences are themselves diverse and in search of stories and characters with whom they can identify. And these audiences are becoming more diverse with each passing day, meaning that the patterns identified in this report series linking diversity to the bottom line will only become more pronounced.”

Lack of diversity in the 2015 and 2016 Oscar nominations resulted in backlash and historic changes in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, USA Today reported.

Both years, all 20 actors nominated in lead and supporting acting categories were white. In response, BroadwayBlack.com managing editor April Reign created the Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.

Oscar voters were 94 percent white and 77 percent male, according to a 2012 Los Angeles Times report. Diversity was even more absent among film studio heads — 94 percent white and 100 percent male.

“Hollywood’s diversity problems begin at the very top of the studios and networks, in the executive suites, where decisions are made about what gets made and with what size production and marketing budgets,” according to the 2017 Hollywood Diversity Report. “Unfortunately, the individuals in these decision-making positions (typically white men) are not motivated to share their power with diverse women and men whose reservoirs of experience equip them with the perspectives necessary to connect more effectively with today’s audiences.”

Until 2017, only 14 black actors won acting Oscars in the Academy Awards’ 88-­year history. The first was Hattie McDaniel for “Gone With the Wind.” For other minorities, the numbers were more dismal: Five Latino actors, three actors of Asian descent and just one indigenous actor won awards.

A week after the 2016 nominations and the accompanying outrage on social media, the governing board of the academy unanimously voted to double female and minority members by 2020, USA Today reported.

What a difference a year makes.

“LaLa Land” had 14 Oscar nominations, but the 89th Academy Awards Oscar for best picture went to “Moonlight,” which was about a young black man growing up in Miami.

The 2017 Academy Awards saw a record number of wins by black stars, and made history by awarding the most diverse group of Oscar winners since the show began in 1929. Until this year, the most diverse Academy Awards was in 2009, when three black stars won an Oscar.

While the Oscars were less white in 2017, Hollywood isn’t off the hook when it comes to issues of race and diversity, Huffington Post reported.

The 2017 Hollywood Diversity Report showed that Hollywood has gotten better, but still has a long way to go. The study found that black people have made gains relative to their white counterparts in front of the camera, but lost ground in four areas — mostly behind the camera.

Latinos, Hispanics, African and Asian Americans are underrepresented onscreen, but are among the most loyal moviegoers in the U.S., according to the Motion Picture Association of America’s annual Theatrical Market Statistics Report.

Diversity is good for the bottom line of members of the National Association of Theatre Owners, the organization’s president John Fithian told Washington Post.

A bump in African American audiences in 2016 could have been driven in part by movies such as Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s “Fences,” and “Hidden Figures,” said Chris Dodd, chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America, according to a Washington Post blog by Alyssa Rosenberg:

Almost 18 percent of Americans are of Hispanic or Latino origin, but they make up 23 percent of frequent moviegoers, defined as people who buy a movie ticket at least once a month. African Americans and Asian Americans (as well as people of Middle Eastern and Native American descent) are slightly overrepresented among frequent moviegoers as well: African Americans are 12 percent of the population and 15 percent of frequent moviegoers, while Asian Americans and members of other ethnic groups are 8 percent of the population and 11 percent of frequent moviegoers. White Americans, by contrast, are underrepresented among frequent-moviegoers, even in a media environment where the characters we see on screen are overwhelmingly white: They are 62 percent of the population, but just 51 percent of frequent moviegoers.

All this, despite the fact that Latinos and Hispanics (as well as members of other racial and ethnic groups) continue to be underrepresented on-screen. In 2015, just 5.3 percent of characters in the top-grossing movies were Latino. Almost 4 percent of characters were Asian, and 4.9 percent were of Middle Eastern or Native American descent or were multiracial.

“Diversity is a great thing for our business, diversity in the movies, diversity in people making the movies, diversity in people attending the movies,” Fithian told the Washington Post. For example, the “Fast & Furious” franchise was a model for the global audience that movies can garner by embracing diversity, he said. “It was gigantic in part because it was a fantastically fun franchise, but also because the cast of the movie reflected the population of the world.”

Dodd said he is confident that “there is categorically an effort to provide more diversity in the creation of content,” driven in part by the reaction to all-white slates of nominations for acting Academy Awards in previous years.

“Sometimes there’s something of a lag time between getting the message and seeing a result,” Dodd said. “There’s no question in my mind the message has been received.”