Some gains, many lags among women, minorities on screen
LOS ANGELES — The news is good but not great. Women and minorities have made modest gains in front of and behind the camera but remain significantly underrepresented as leading actors in films, as TV show creators, as writers who sweat out the dialogue — just about every part of the entertainment industry, according to a report to be issued Tuesday by UCLA.
The "2017 Hollywood Diversity Report," set to be released by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, analyzed 168 theatrical films released in 2015 and more than 1,200 television programs released during the 2014-15 season on broadcast, cable, digital and via syndication.
What few gains the report found came from television.
"Television is looking up; it's moving in the right direction," Darnell Hunt, director of the Bunche Center and the report's lead author, said in an interview. "Film, however, that hasn't really progressed."
Hunt, a sociologist who has worked in entertainment diversity for more than two decades and helped to launch the annual "Hollywood Diversity" report four years ago, said the massive scale of the TV industry simply offers actors and creators more breaks.
"There is so much original television production," he said. "It used to be the big four networks, then you got the smaller networks, then the 60-plus cable networks. Now there are all the digital networks. We looked at 1,206 shows, most of them reality, but there is a ton of scripted television out there too. And on some level, the industry has to fill the space, so they can't go back to the same 15 white guys. It's created opportunities."
Minorities: Minority actors, for example, landed 11.4 percent of the lead roles on broadcast scripted television, an increase of more than 3 percentage points over the previous year. In addition, the share of broadcast television shows whose casts are primarily people of color, such as Fox's "Empire" and the CW's "Jane the Virgin," more than doubled — from just 3.3 percent of all shows in 2013-14 to 8.9 percent in 2014-15.
The number of minority writers also increased during that period. In last year's report, no scripted broadcast TV programs had minorities constituting a majority of credited writers. The dawn of shows such as "Fresh Off the Boat" and "Empire" have shifted those statistics. For the 2014-15 season, 3 percent of broadcast scripted shows had a majority of minority writers.
Women: Women saw modest gains as leads in scripted broadcast and cable TV shows with increases of 2.4 percent in both categories.
More significant, women posted gains as the creative forces behind popular programs. In scripted cable shows, women now account for 20.9 percent of show creators, an increase of 2.7 percentage points over the year before. (Showtime's "Masters of Sex," created by Michelle Ashford, and HBO's "Girls," by Lena Dunham, are two such programs.)
There was also significant growth in digital programming, with women listed as creators of 20.4 percent of scripted shows on streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon. (Think Jill Soloway's dramedy "Transparent.") That represents a jump of nearly 5 percentage points from 2013-14.
Even so, women and minorities remain underrepresented onscreen. White actors, for example, account for about three-quarters of the scripted roles on cable and broadcast. And men are the ones who get the majority of scripted roles on these platforms as well.
Movies: Film is far worse — not surprising to anyone who followed the #OscarsSoWhite controversy last year. Hunt cited a decrease in the number of films produced after the 2008 financial crisis.
"The Great Recession really affected things," he said. "When there is scarcity, it's even more difficult to make a film."
There have been some minor advances. Women directed 7.7 percent of the top films in 2015, including "Pitch Perfect 2" (Elizabeth Banks) and "Fifty Shades of Grey" (Sam Taylor-Johnson). That's an increase of 3 percentage points over 2014. And women also saw their numbers increase in the area of film writing by 3.8 percentage points.
But the general presence of women in film has been so bad that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been investigating the studios for systematically discriminating against female directors, and last week, Deadline Hollywood reported that the EEOC is in settlement talks with studios regarding this issue.
Minorities saw dips in film writing credits (2.7 percentage points) and film directing credits (2.8 percentage points) compared with last year's report. In the meantime, the number of people of color in leading roles remained stagnant — despite the release of pictures such as "Straight Outta Compton" and "Furious 7" in the study year.
Results: Hunt said that ideals of gender and racial parity shouldn't be the only motivations for studios to improve their hiring, given that diverse entertainment often performs well financially.
"The shows and films that look more like America have the best bottom line," he said. "The numbers shift, but the basic relationship holds."
That's a result he's seen over the four years that he has worked on the diversity report.
"The way we end the report is, 'Quality storytelling plus rich, diverse performances equals box office and ratings success,'" he said. "Diversity is not everything. But it's a plus factor. That's what we've seen over the years."
He added, "It's creating all of these avenues for audience members to connect with what you're doing. So if you're in business, why not increase the odds?"