Every year, UCLA releases a report on the representation of women and people in color in film and TV. This year’s Hollywood Diversity Report will address film and TV separately, and so far, only the film report has been released. I’ll be curious to see if the numbers look better for TV (and I suspect they might), but the numbers reported for diversity in film in 2019 point to a troubling trend. While the onscreen representation of women and people of color has consistently improved, behind-the-scenes representation — particularly at the studio level — hasn’t quite kept up.
Before we get into why that’s so troubling, let’s take a look at the numbers this study revealed. UCLA looked at the highest-grossing films of 2018 and 2019 and compared the percentage of lead roles that went to women and minorities, as well as the percentage of overall roles.
There was an improvement in the diversity of lead roles for both women and minorities: In 2018, 41% of lead roles went to women; in 2019, 44.1% of lead roles went to women. In 2018, 26.6% of lead roles went to minorities; in 2019, 27.6% of lead roles went to minorities.
Minorities were better represented across all roles in film, rising from 30.9% in 2018 to 32.7% in 2019. Women saw a slight dip in overall representation, from 40.4% to 40.2%. Nonetheless, these numbers are considered net positive: the movies we watched in 2019 were slightly less dominated by white, male faces. Yay!
Another win: Not only were more movies featuring diverse casts, but those movies were out-earning their less-diverse companions. Films with non-diverse casts (defined as less than 11% minorities) only accounted for 15.9% of the top-grossing movies in 2019. In 2011, films with similarly non-diverse casts accounted for over 50% of the year’s highest-grossing films. But in 2019, seven out of ten of the top 10 highest-grossing films had casts that were over 21% minority.
That outcome is huge — but it could also explain why onscreen diversity has been rising while behind-the-scenes diversity lags behind. Hollywood is notorious for green-lighting any project they think will make them money, and relying on increasingly data-driven models of success (hello, ten million Marvel movies and remakes). It seems Hollywood execs have caught wind of the fact that we like to watch diverse characters and actors, and that they’re designing their content in accordance with that.
But when we look at who’s designing that content, my heart still sinks. When it comes to writing and directing roles, there’s notable progress. From 2018 to 2019, the percent of high-grossing films directed by women rose from 7.1% to 15.1%; the percent written by women rose from 14.8% to 17.4%. For minorities, there was a dip in directing representation (from 19.3% to 14.4%), but a rise in writing representation, from 10.4% to 13.9%.
Looking at the workplace analysis of movie studios is where things get really hairy. In 2019, only 9% of C-level positions at major and mid-major studios (think Universal, Paramount, Warner Bros., Disney) were held by minorities; only 18% were held by women. At the next level down, looking at film unit head positions, 14% are minorities, and 31% are women.
The report’s co-author Ana-Christina Ramon spoke to why these numbers need to be taken seriously: “What’s being green-lit matters,” she said. “And although the industry is changing in front of the camera, white men are still doing the overwhelming majority of the green-lighting and making the major decisions behind the scenes at the studios.”
Not only is it problematic to have white men as the primary orchestrators of increasingly diverse stories, but this discrepancy allows deep-rooted imbalances in Hollywood to go unchecked. To audiences, everything in Hollywood looks more diverse in recent years. But until there’s more diversity among those with the real power, decisions about who gets acting, writing, and directing jobs still lies in the hands of white men. We need to make a more permanent change.