/Hollywood Diversifies After Rebuke Over Racial and Gender Inequality

Hollywood Diversifies After Rebuke Over Racial and Gender Inequality

Major Hollywood studios, stung by recent criticism about racial and gender inequality across the film industry, have been implementing measures aimed at elevating talent from underrepresented backgrounds.

A Wall Street Journal analysis of movies released, or being released, this year by Hollywood’s major film studios shows that the film industry has increased diversity both on screen and in the director’s chair. After the #OscarsSoWhite campaign in 2015 called the industry out for inequality, all the major studios implemented policies geared toward increasing diversity, or they created executive roles to promote such goals.

Four years on, the percentage of nonwhite or Latino actors appearing in leading roles more than doubled, while the share of films with women playing leading roles increased to 61%, from 42% in 2015. During the same period, the number of women directing major motion pictures also rose to 16, from eight. That amounts to 20% of major features directed by women, up from 8% in 2015.

Live-action feature films with a nonwhite or Latino lead

2015

(20 out of 89 films)

2019

(36 out of 70 films)

Note: Lead actors classified as main protagonists. Tally doesn’t include films with large ensemble casts. Feature films by Motion Picture Association of America members, excludes subsidiary releases, documentaries and animated on-screen talent

Sources: the studios (demographics); IMDb (directors, titles)

The Journal analyzed the casts and directors of every live-action film from a major studio for 2015 and 2019, plus the directors of the studios’ animated features.

Academics and advocates have contended for decades that Hollywood had a diversity problem. Studios began to pay more attention after 2015, as questions about diversity and representation arose more broadly across society.

“External pressure on the industry has been a real positive and continuous force to help [major studios] understand the disconnect between what they were making and what the audience wanted,” said University of Southern California communications professor

Stacy L. Smith,

a vocal proponent of inclusion who manages a research initiative aimed at improving diversity. In a recent report, Ms. Smith showed studios made some gains in 2018, the latest year she analyzed.

Feature films with a nonwhite or Latino director

2015

(12 out of 97 films)

2019

(14 out of 81 films)

Note: Feature films by Motion Picture Association of America members, excludes subsidiary releases and documentaries

Sources: the studios (demographics); IMDb (directors, titles)

Of the 70 live-action films being distributed to theaters by Hollywood’s top six studios this year, 51% showcase a nonwhite or Latino lead, versus 22% in 2015, the Journal’s analysis found. The figures don’t include

Netflix
,

which released only one movie in 2015, and count Twentieth Century Fox as separate from

Walt Disney
Co.

In March, Disney acquired the studio and other entertainment assets from 21st Century Fox.

Feature films directed by a woman

2019

(16 out of 81 films)

Note: Feature films by Motion Picture Association of America members, excludes subsidiary releases and documentaries

Sources: the studios (demographics); IMDb (directors, titles)

Hollywood’s reputation as a bastion of liberal values took a major public beating in 2015 as advocates of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign targeted the movie business after all 20 acting nominations for that year’s Academy Awards went to white performers. Then, the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements helped to galvanize criticism of movie studios for industrywide racial and gender inequality that many critics say has persisted for several decades.

“I don’t give all the credit to #OscarsSoWhite, but that did sort of scare people,” said

Victoria Thomas,

a veteran casting director whose work has included “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” and “Straight Outta Compton.”

Director Greta Gerwig, left, and Saoirse Ronan during the 2018 Film Independent Spirit Awards in March 2018.


Photo:

Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

#OscarsSoWhite wasn’t the only event in 2015 to put Hollywood in the crosshairs. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began investigating whether major studios had discriminated against women directors, following such allegations, a person familiar with the investigation said. The status of that probe is unclear, and the EEOC declined to comment.

Studios also need to diversify internally to cement lasting change, said

Janine Jones-Clark,

Universal’s executive in charge of talent development and inclusion. “If you have an inclusive workforce, that’s going to organically inform different decisions in determining what content is created,” she said.

In a study released in January, USC’s Ms. Smith and her colleagues found that women held 22.8% of executive roles at major media companies, while only 6% of all executives were women of color.

Because movies can take years to produce, there is a delay before the changes Hollywood makes become visible. The biggest studio, Disney, for instance, has shown only minor gains in recent years, both on-screen and in the director’s chair. Yet its roster of future projects demonstrates it is moving toward increased diversity on and off screen.

From left, ‘Black Panther’ costume designer Ruth Carter, director Ryan Coogler and Winston Duke on set.


Photo:

Walt Disney/Everett Collection

Next year four of the studio’s nine movie titles will be directed by women. Disney had just one in 2015 and two in 2019.

Additionally, after raking in huge profits from Marvel superhero movies “Black Panther” and this year’s “Captain Marvel”—both showcasing black and female stars and directors—Disney at this year’s Comic-Con announced many movie and TV projects featuring women or nonwhite or Latino actors playing leading roles.

Disney is featuring African-American performers in leading roles in some of its live-action remakes of classic animated titles. Those include Will Smith in this year’s “Aladdin” and Halle Bailey in “The Little Mermaid,” set to begin shooting in 2020.

Live-action feature films with a female lead

2015

(37 out of 89 films)

2019

(43 out of 70 films)

Note: Lead actresses classified as main protagonists. Tally doesn’t include films with large ensemble casts. Feature films by Motion Picture Association of America members, excludes subsidiary releases, documentaries and animated on-screen talent

Sources: the studios (demographics); IMDb (directors, titles)

It is unclear whether the changes will prove to be long-lasting. Next year, for instance, the overall number of films directed by women is expected to decline to 11 from 16 this year.

Box-office receipts have been encouraging for studios as well as theater owners. Last year’s top-grossing film, “Black Panther,” with a predominantly black cast, made $700.1 million at the domestic box office. Warner Bros.’s comedy “Crazy Rich Asians,” which featured an all-Asian cast, was also in the year’s top 20 titles, with $174.5 million in the U.S. and Canada. The prior year, “Wonder Woman” made $412.6 million domestically, destroying any perception that women are incapable of fronting a superhero movie. So far in 2019, five of the 10 top-grossing live-action films have had a lead actor who was either female, nonwhite or Latino, led by “Captain Marvel.”

The female cast of ‘Little Women,’ directed by Greta Gerwig, includes Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan and Eliza Scanlen.


Photo:

Sony Pictures

Studios’ surging demand for diverse actors, directors, writers and cinematographers initially outpaced supply, according to several top talent agencies. That has sometimes allowed professionals from underrepresented backgrounds to command premium pay as rival producers compete for their services, according to a senior talent agent.

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Veteran costume designer

Courtney Hoffman,

who recently moved into directing, says the shifting landscape is providing more opportunities for women and minorities, but added there is plenty more work to be done.

“People keep saying things are getting better,” Ms. Hoffman said. “But until there’s a female Coen brothers, a female Tarantino, we’re not there.”

Write to R.T. Watson at rt.watson@wsj.com and Ethan Millman at ethan.millman@wsj.com

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