NEW YORK (AP) – As Hollywood seeks an answer to the reckoning caused by George Floyd’s death and move the Academy Awards to make Oscar nominees more inclusive, a new study documents how the film industry has improved in diversity and how this one is still lagging behind.
In the most popular films of 2019, protagonists were more diverse than ever and there were more women behind the camera. But in many other areas – speaking roles, behind-the-scenes jobs, LGBTQ representation, sharing for people with disabilities – Hollywood is far from reflecting the makeup of its American audience, according to the latest report by the USC Annenberg’s Inclusion Initiative. School of Communication and Journalism.
“There are a few bright spots in this report, but the background to that is really problematic,” said Stacy L. Smith, director of the Inclusion Initiative in an interview. “It reflects a lack of seriousness, some ambivalence and apathy on the part of the creative community, and the inability of various companies to truly implement policies and procedures that would change the status quo.”
“The data does not reflect an overall ecosystem shift,” Smith added.
For the past 13 years, USC researchers have tracked Hollywood’s progress, or lack thereof, in the equality of on-screen and off-camera roles. During that time, there have been some marked improvements. Last year, the top 100 films at the box office featured 32 protagonists of under-represented groups, an increase of five from 2018. In 2007, there were 13. Twelve of the top 100 films were directed by women, four times as many as in 2007 and more than twice the five films of 2018. There were 43 films starring a woman or girl, an increase of four from the year before and more than double the number from 2007.
Those numbers show clear progress, but are still not the overall demographics. Digging further into the data only reveals larger blind spots. Only three of the top films of 2019 had a lead, played by a woman 45 or older; one was played by a woman of color.
Many films were completely devoid of roles from under-represented groups. There were no Spanish-speaking characters in 44 of the movies; no speaking African Americans in 15 of them; and no speaking Asian characters in 36 movies.
Female speaking characters have increased only marginally over the past 13 years, to 34% in 2019. For every woman who talks on screen, there are nearly two men. People with color-speaking characters are also still lagging behind the US population at 34.3% in 2019. There were three movies with speaking transgender characters, accounting for about two minutes of screen time. Only 1.4% of the speaking characters were LGBTQ, and 2.3% were characters with disabilities. Of the 112 directors of the top films of 2019, 80.4% were white.
“The graph really shows that there is no procedure to counteract bias in decision-making,” said Smith. “That’s really what is most needed as a way forward, especially at the moment of racial justice we are in as a country.”
The study sheds light on the inclusiveness of the film industry, while the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is taking more sweeping measures than before to encourage the industry. The academy announced new rules this week to impose a certain level of diversity in nominated films and in the studios behind them. Smith, among others, has criticized those criteria as not being strict enough. All but five of the top 100 films of 2019 would meet the Oscars standard for on-screen display.
“I wish they had gone further because it is more business as usual than we need to encourage the industry to think more critically about who they hire.”
Some companies have been more proactive. Half of Universal Pictures’ 2019 releases, including ‘Us’,’ Queen & Slim ‘and’ Ma ‘, featured female protagonists. The studio, the only major woman-led studio in Donna Langley, also led in female directors, writers and producers, as well as lead roles from under-represented groups. The Walt Disney Co., which dominated the box office in 2019, was arguably the biggest impact with blockbusters like ‘The Lion King’, ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’.
Netflix, which only releases its films in short theatrical runs, was beyond the scope of the study, but still received praise for Smith for “ ushering in a different reality ” by hiring female directors at a pace well above that of the studios over the past decade.
Other companies have reorganized themselves at the top. This summer MGM revamped Orion Pictures as a center for several films with producer Alana Mayo (formerly head of Michael B. Jordan’s production company) as president.
“That represents what we need to see,” said Smith. “That reflects exactly what needs to be observed quickly if we see 2021 or 2022 look different from this 2019 report.”
An investigation into 2020, Smith acknowledged, is unlikely to be possible as the box office was closed for much of the year and most major releases have been delayed.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP