Movies, music, TV, arts and entertainment, straight from Southern California.
Hosted by John Horn
Airs Temporarily on hiatus so that our staff can help out our colleagues in the KPCC newsroom and on our other shows.
Arts & Entertainment

New study breaks down the numbers behind Hollywood's diversity problem

The cast of the Fox series
The cast of the Fox series "Empire," which is one of the biggest breakout hits in the current TV season.

Listen to story

Download this story 5MB

The Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA just released its "2015 Hollywood Diversity Report: Flipping the Script," which examines diversity — of the lack thereof — in the film and TV industries.

The study focused on the top 200 theatrical film releases from 2012-13, as well as all broadcast, cable and digital platform television shows from the same years.

Here are some of the more startling statistics from the study:

Darnell Hunt is director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center and a co-author of the diversity report. He spoke with The Frame's host, John Horn, about the cycle behind underrepresentation and the silver lining that his study found.

Interview Highlights:

Looking at the people in positions of power — and I'm not even counting the executive suite — like writer, director or producer on movies, especially those with big box office appeal, where do you see minorities working or not working?

You tend to have a revolving door of opportunity for the names we know, the seasoned writers and directors. There are many women and minority directors/writers who have quite a bit of talent who just don't get the opportunity, so we tend to see these numbers reproduced year in, year out.

Because this is a high-risk industry, the people who make these projects tend to surround themselves with people who look and think like them, or people with whom they feel comfortable, so that reproduces the stalemate we talk about.

And that's a huge issue. We've had other guests who have said the same thing, that the "safe" talent pool for big-budget movies is mostly made up of white males. And when the studio's risking hundreds of millions of dollars on one of those projects, they tend to go where they've gone before. It becomes a cycle where there's no precedent for hiring people outside that very limited talent pool.

You're talking about a catch-22, and that's what we're confronted with. The problem is that all the data are beginning to show that audiences and the market really want diversity, in front of the camera and behind the camera. That's precisely what Hollywood's not delivering, and so you have a situation where, even though studios may be risk-averse, most films under-perform.

There are certain tent-pole films that we know will do well... but then there are all these other films that don't do as well as you might think, and most new TV shows fail. I guess our point is that if most projects are failing anyway, and we know the market wants diversity, why not try something different?

Why not take a smart risk on talent that — while they might not have a track record due to the catch-22 we're talking about — has shown in other ways that they're capable? Why not take that risk? That's where the market's going.

Are there any specific examples of what you're talking about?

The classic example that everyone points to is the "Fast and the Furious" franchise, which is up to seven [titles]. [It features a] majority-minority cast, a minority director, and not only does it make money in the U.S. but it makes a ton of money overseas, proving that you can make those types of films.

That would be a great example of what's possible were the industry more committed to really aligning what they do with where America is and where America's going. One of the things that we found in our study that's quite telling is that most films have less than 10 percent diversity in their cast. And as it turns out, those films don't do as well at the box office when compared to films that are more diverse.

Conversely, you say that films with relatively diverse casts have the highest median global box office results and the highest median return on investment, so are you saying that there's a causal relationship between those things and having a diverse cast?

You can't say there's a causal relationship. In fact, the relationship isn't linear; it's sort of curvilinear, and when you get to films that are majority-minority, box office goes down somewhat.

Those are niche market films, so for the black market those are Tyler Perry films and that type of thing, and they do pretty well on return on investment because they don't spend a lot of money to make those films. But they're not at the box office making the same amount of money as some of these tent-pole films.

So we're not saying it's causal; what we're saying is that diversity is something that is marketable, it's something that people want, and it stands to reason that, given where the audience is and where the market is, films that are diverse give you a greater chance at doing well than those that aren't. Quite frankly, it's pretty clear from our numbers that diverse audiences tune out some of these projects that don't at all reflect their experiences, don't reflect the stories they might relate to, or don't reflect the characters they can identify with.

Get more stories like this

Delivered every Thursday, The Frame weekly email features the latest in Movies, music, TV, arts and entertainment.