As Hollywood gears up for the Academy Awards on Sunday, the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism has released a bombshell study about the lack of diversity in the business, concluding “the film industry still functions as a straight, white, boy’s club.”
The report, which serves as indictment of studio efforts not just in front of the camera but behind it as well, will likely only add fuel to a raging debate about inclusion in the world of film and television, which was reignited in earnest after the Oscars failed to nominate a single actor of color for the second year in a row.
USC, whose film school has produced cinematic legends like Ron Howard and George Lucas, has previously looked at inequality in 700 films released between 2007 to 2014, have now narrowed their focus to one year (2014) and included a look at the corporate side of studios, as well as television and digital content. The results, which are based on 109 major motion pictures and 305 scripted TV or digital series, should serve as yet another wake-up call for an industry that has historically prided itself in its progressive values, but has far too often not reflected their politics in their hiring choices.
According to the new study, women are wildly underrepresented across all platforms. Female characters possess only 28.7 percent of all speaking roles in film, and they get just 25.7 percent of the parts for actors age 40 or older, while men get the remaining 74.3 percent. The study also found that women are also more likely to be portrayed in sexualized circumstances in scantily clad clothing. Meanwhile, very few female directors are calling the shots behind the scenes. While evaluating hundreds of films and shows, the USC study found that men comprise 84.8 percent of directors, 71.1 percent of writers and 77.4 percent of show creators. And in perhaps the most telling metric, women hold an average of 39.1 percent of all the executive positions in the industry.
When it comes to diversity, the lack of representation of black performers and artists has been oft-discussed, but this study points out “at least half or more of all cinematic, television, or streaming stories fail to portray one speaking or named Asian or Asian American on screen.” And when people of color are portrayed, they are more often than not males (62.3 percent to 37.7 percent). Meanwhile, only 13 percent of the 407 directors evaluated were from an underrepresented minority group, and only two of those filmmakers were women – Ava DuVernay (“Selma”) and Amma Asante (“Belle”).
Arguably faring worst of all is the LGBT community, which is virtually non existent compared to other groups on screen. According to the USC study, “only 2 percent of all speaking characters across the 414 movies, television shows, and digital series evaluated were coded LGB.” And less that 1 percent of the characters in the films evaluated are identified as transgender, and four of the seven trans characters appeared in a single digital show. And when gay characters are included in Hollywood productions, they are disproportionately white and male and rarely are they seen in parental relationships.
While the Academy Awards have instituted new reforms to try to evolve their notoriously white, male and elderly voting population, the USC study has its own solutions in mind for what could be described as a #HollywoodSoWhite crisis. The authors encourage the industry to police itself by setting inclusion standards (not unlike what the NFL does with its “Rooney Rule,” which aims to diversify head coaching positions), and to work harder to disabuse themselves of preconceived notions about how films with a minority or female lead will perform and stereotypical concepts of the kinds of roles they should play.
Case in point, last year’s highest grossing film – the biggest domestic success in U.S. history (without adjusting for inflation) – “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” starred a woman and a black man. “People are still erased. It’s 2016 and it’s time for a change,” Stacy L. Smith, a USC professor and one of the study’s authors, told The Hollywood Reporter. “We’ve laid out concrete actionable steps because we don’t want to do this again in 10 years.”