Why Hollywood Refuses to Embrace Diversity — Even Though It Makes More Money


The Oscars made headlines this year, and it was for all the wrong reasons. 

"The Oscars Haven't Been This White in 19 Years," declared the Atlantic. "And the Oscar for Best Caucasian Goes To..." the Oakland Tribune blared bitingly. "Why It Should Bother Everyone That the Oscars Are So White," argued Huffington Post

The outcry was a direct response to this year's crop of gold statuette candidates, who were overwhelmingly white. There were no actors of color nominated in any of the four acting categories, and while Selma — critical darling about a topic that's ostensible Oscar bait — received a best picture nod, it was left out of the race for best screenplay. Its director, Ava DuVernay, was snubbed in the best director category, an oversight made worse by the fact that she would have become the first black woman ever nominated for the award.

The shortcomings didn't stop there. As David Sims at the Atlantic wrote in January, every single person nominated in the best director and best writing categories was male — all 19 of them. That, it should be noted, hasn't happened since 1999.

It may be 2015, but Hollywood's diversity problem is as staggering as ever.

It's more than just the Oscars. This year's Academy Awards were an excellent snapshot of the industry's current makeup, but the problem exists on a macro level. According to the 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report, which was produced by the Bunche Center for African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, women and minorities remain underrepresented in almost every single entertainment category industry.

"For the most part, across the board, women and minorities: underrepresentation," Dr. Darnell Hunt, the Bunche Center's director and the report's co-author, told Mic. "The only question was the degree of underrepresentation. There were some incremental increases for minorities, but not a lot." 

Matt Sayles/AP

The numbers: The report looked at 200 of the biggest theatrical film releases for 2012 and 2013 and over 1,000 "broadcast, cable and digital television programs from the 2012-13 season," according to a UCLA news release.

Despite the fact that minority groups make up nearly 40% of America's population, they were underrepresented by nearly 2 to 1 as film leads, film directors and cable scripted leads. They were also underrepresented by more than 6 to 1 as broadcast scripted leads and 3 to 1 as the creators of broadcast scripted shows.

Among leadership roles, such as executives, senior management positions and studio heads, the numbers were far more distressing. Film studio heads were 94% white, and TV network and studio heads were 96% white; senior management in the film industry was 92% white, and senior management in the TV industry was 93% white.

Things weren't rosy for women, either. Like minorities, the population of the U.S. isn't lacking a female contingent —  over half of it, in fact, is female. But unlike minorities, who made some minor strides compared to the results of last year's report, women actually took several steps back when it came to their representation in the industry.

They were outnumbered 2 to 1 when it came to film leads, 8 to 1 when it came to directing jobs and 4 to 1 as film writers. In the television landscape, they were underrepresented 2 to 1 among cable scripted leads and broadcast scripted leads. 

Film studio heads were an astounding 100% male, and TV studio heads were 71% male; senior management in the film industry was 83% male, and senior management in TV was 73% male.

2015 Hollywood Diversity Report

Though things have certainly gotten better, we're not where we need to be. Hunt noted that things have improved since the 1960s, for example, when the race and gender proportions were even more skewed than they are today. 

The problem is that Hollywood isn't keeping pace (at all) with America's explosion of diversity. 

"Year in and year out, we see the same types of numbers," Hunt told Mic. "We've been having this conversation for decades; it's nothing new. The difference is that America is becoming much more diverse: We're almost 40% minority now, and we'll be majority-minority in a couple of decades."

2013 may have seemed like a new beginning for Hollywood — 12 Years a Slave won an Oscar for best picture, Lupita Nyong'o won for best actress and many hailed it as a "historic" year — Hunt took the opposite view.  

"The Oscars last year, in retrospect, were kind of an outlier year," he told Mic. "You had all these high-profile black films that got a lot of attention and nominations, and that was unusual. [2015] was more typical. I wasn't really surprised. For me, this year was a reflection of the Motion Picture Academy, which is 93% white, [about] 70% male, and an average age of 63."

But audiences are clamoring for more. One of the more interesting tidbits to emerge from Hunt and co-author Ana-Christina Ramon's report is the disparity between what the industry is producing and what audiences actually want to see.

 "Audiences, regardless of their race, are clamoring for more diverse content," Ramon told the Hollywood Reporter. 

According to the report, the 15 films with 41% to 50% minority casts in 2012 received the highest return on their investment. The story was the same on TV: Both black and white households responded better to diverse casts; median ratings were the highest for shows that had 41% to 50% minority casts.

Hunt highlighted some recent entries that fit this mold. "New shows this year, like Empire, Blackish [and] How to Get Away With Murder illustrate just how hungry audiences are for something different," he told Mic. "Not only do they have people of color in front of the camera, but they have people of color behind the camera, writing the stories, doing the casting, making the decisions about story lines." 

So what's the problem? The fact that audiences — the ones who pay the money that fuel the industry — want more diversity and still aren't getting it is as puzzling as it is troubling. Money drives many things in this world, but apparently even dollar signs aren't enough to improve the balance of faces in Hollywood.

Hunt partly attributed it to a disparity between individual players and the industry as a whole. "It's a very lucrative industry, people make a lot of money in it, it's very high-risk," he told Mic. "I think when you have these individual stakeholders — typically white men — who are trying to give themselves what they perceive to be the best chance for succeeding, they surround themselves with people they feel comfortable with, or who are 'seasoned,' who often look like them and think like them." 

In the end, he said, these two opposing forces create stagnation. "What's rational from the perspective of the independent producer or writer, and what's rational from the perspective of the studio or network or industry, they don't always align, and I think that's part of the problem," he said. 

"That pattern makes it hard to break out and do anything differently, unless there is a deliberate attempt to force those interests to align. And we haven't seen that so far," he added.

Stacy Smith, the founder and director of Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern Carolina, Annenberg, argued that the fear of an inverse relationship between diversity and profit helps fuel the problem. 

"In short, content with diverse leads or diverse directors isn't perceived to be bankable in Hollywood," she told Mic in an email. "Underrepresented directors telling stories focusing on different cultural groups may be disproportionately disadvantaged within a system that relies on stereotypes and conventional knowledge when awarding finance." 

Jordan Strauss/AP

A whole lot of people need to change a whole lot of things. Diversity in Hollywood is a deeply complicated problem, and there's no one-size-fits-all solution. There are holes that need patching on every level, and until we start plugging those holes one at a time, things won't change. 

"Unless on every front people are working to rectify their part in the problem, it's going to be hard to turn this huge battleship in the middle of the ocean around," Hunt said. 

"Individual producers and writers have to finally accept the notion that, you know what, my project will be better if I have diverse voices in the room, if I have other perspectives," he added. "Meanwhile, the networks have to demand  to the studios: Don't bring me any homogeneous projects that don't look like America — we don't want that."

Smith agreed. "We need solutions that address all of these issues not only for directors, but writers, producers, actors and folks working below the line," she told Mic. "The lack of inclusion is problematic in many facets of the industry."   

The good news, however, is that the bottom line matters. The perceived risks of hiring diverse faces may still be king in the industry, but according to the report, this may well soon change. "What's new is that business as usual in the Hollywood industry may soon be unsustainable," the report cautions in its conclusion.

In the end, that sobering fact — along with a willingness to deliver change across every facet of the industry — might just be enough to improve things.

"The clock is ticking," Hunt told Mic. "I don't think the industry can continue to do business this way."