Hollywood's diversity gap is still wide, report finds
THE BOOK OF LIFE Diego Luna and Zoe Saldana
Credit: Reel FX

A new study on diversity in popular movies helps quantify a fact that any attentive moviegoer has likely noticed: The world as portrayed on the big screen is still overwhelmingly young, white, male, and straight.

But the numbers are gobsmacking.

Last year’s 100 top-grossing films featured more than 4,600 characters with speaking parts, but only 19 were gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and none were transgender. And nearly three out of four of those 4,600-plus characters were white.

The study, produced by the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, highlighted equally striking facts about the behind-the-scenes demographics. For example, out of the top 100 films of 2014, only 21 featured a woman in a leading role, and not one of those actresses was over the age of 45. Out of 107 directors, five were black; only two were women.

“It’s a representational crisis,” says study co-author Stacy Smith, director of the USC program. “Everyone deserves to see their story heard and told.”

But the report — the latest installment in a study that began in 2007 — found a smidgen of hope in a sometimes-overlooked corner of Hollywood: animated films.

For the first time since the study began, Smith and her team documented a sizable increase in the number of characters from underrepresented groups portrayed in animated movies. The 25.4 percent spike is somewhat inflated, because over half of those characters appeared in one film, the Annie Award-winning romantic adventure The Book of Life. But even without that film, there’s still a significant increase since 2007.

“It makes sense that we should see a shift in what’s on-screen in animation,” Smith says, noting the shifting demographics in the U.S. and pointing out that roughly half of children under the age of 5 are from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group. “I think it’s extremely encouraging. So our question is: Is 2014 atypical? Or is this a real push towards inclusivity by the animation community?”

If the latter is true, animated films might become leaders when it comes to closing Hollywood’s diversity gap.

“If it is an intentional effort, it shows the industry cares, they can change and they will change,” says Smith. “If that change is sustained … then animation can serve as a role model to other aspects of storytelling in the film industry.”

Equality, for filmmakers behind the scenes as well as characters on screen, will require “that the ecology values inclusivity, and that they have checks and balances in place to help accomplish that goal,” Smith says. And there’s plenty that filmmakers — and moviegoers — can do to make the demographics of the big-screen world look a little more like the one we live in.

Smith has suggested that Hollywood adopt a version of the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which prioritizes considering people of color for coaching jobs. She also suggests that actors demand on-screen equity in their contracts. Study co-author Marc Choueiti, project administrator for the USC initiative, says he’s a proponent of an “add five” plan; if every film committed to add five female characters, it would take only four years to reach parity on screen. “It’s not a big ask,” says Choueiti, noting that 76 percent of speaking characters are inconsequential to a film’s story. “Have five background characters who say one word on screen. … We can transform the landscape.”

As for consumers, study co-author Katherine Pieper encourages voting for inclusive films with dollars at the box office. “If you’re going to the movies this weekend,” Pieper says, “You should make your ticket buying count.”