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Diverse film and TV casting makes economic sense, study says

"Hidden Figures" is a recent example of a movie with a diverse cast that has succeeded at the box office.
Hopper Stone

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Diverse casting leads to higher ratings and increased ticket sales, but women and minorities are still underrepresented in film and TV, according to a new report on Hollywood diversity.

The report from the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA looked at the 2014-15 television season and the top grossing 200 film releases in 2015. 

The researchers found that women and minorities did make some gains in certain Hollywood jobs. Despite losing ground in fields such as film directing and writing, minorities were better represented in lead film and TV roles, and as scripted show creators. And women made progress in almost every employment area. 

But across the board, women and people of color remain woefully underrepresented on pretty much every front.

The "2017 Hollywood Diversity Report: Setting the Record Straight" is the fourth report from the Bunche Center, which is led by UCLA sociology professor Darnell Hunt. He spoke with The Frame's John Horn.

Interview highlights:

On the report's finding that diversity makes economic sense:

Movies that, on average, look like American society — that is to say, with casts from somewhere between 20 to 40 percent minority — those films on average have the highest box office sales. And in broadcast TV, it's even more pronounced. We found that for viewers 18-to-49, TV shows with casts that were from 41-to-50 percent minority had the highest ratings. And then among specific households, for African Americans and for whites, majority-minority cast shows on average had the highest ratings. So, clearly, diversity sells. I think diverse audiences want to see their stories reflected, they want to see characters they can identify with. And right now, people of color make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population, and even a larger share of TV and movie audiences because they watch more TV and buy more tickets per capita than do others.

On the reasons why movie studios aren't making more movies like "Hidden Figures" and "Fences," which feature diverse casts and are succeeding at the box office:

The issue is the same old issue that people have been complaining about for years: Hollywood is just not structured to take advantage of today's market realities. And what I mean by that is, we're looking at studios and TV networks where, in the executive suites, 90-something percent of those executives are white men. If you look at the talent agencies, who are the gatekeepers in the process, who package 90-plus percent of all TV shows — put those packages together with the lead talent, with the writers and showrunners — most of those agents are white and male and most of their talent rosters are white. And so you have a situation where, even if they wanted to do better, the way they're structured, it's hard for them to do so because they haven't been very good at bringing in people of color and women who have the sensibility to develop the stories and the ideas that are more likely to resonate with today's diverse audiences. And so instead what we get are a handful of diversity initiatives that give opportunities to maybe 10-to-15 talented writers of color and women. When in fact, having an impact on the industry as a whole, it's just not happening. We're tinkering around the margins as opposed to dealing with the core problem.

On whether more diverse studio and network moguls could begin to change the numbers:

I think that's going to help. I mean, look at Channing Dungey at ABC [a female African-American executive]. I think that was an important move at ABC. If you look at ABC's broadcasting, their slate of programs is arguably the most diverse on television, and I think that that's really the future. So I think that other studios and networks need to follow that example and mix it up a little in the executive suites.

To hear the full interview with UCLA's Darnell Hunt, click the blue player above.

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