Film equality starts at the box office

By Lindsay Wynne [Opinion]

Movies have the power to transport us to worlds we could otherwise not experience, but they also have a responsibility to help us see our own world more clearly. Their ability to connect people through shared experiences, human empathy and an appreciation for the variety of ways in which we are also unique has become a key part of our culture. Yet the film industry fails in this area repeatedly due to its lack of inclusion of many marginalized groups, which negatively impacts how we view ourselves and each other. The industry is enabled in this negligence by audiences who refuse to demand equality in film.

There are a variety of scholarly studies and statistics that prove the silver screen is not representative of our society’s composition. Despite the passage of over 100 years since the invention of modern cinema, white males continue to have majority control over content, cast and crew. This power imbalance often leaves women, people of color, the differently abled and the LGBTQ community underrepresented or worse, parodied. The industry’s continued failures in this area have led to trending hashtags in social media in recent years, including “#OsarsSoWhite” and “#LatinosLeftOut.” Yet the industry remains slow to change — why is this?

The answer largely lies within Hollywood’s profit obsession — movies have the potential to be big money-makers and like all sales, everything is about return on investment. But the economics are misguided; major and independent studios alike seem unable to shake their belief that only big-name actors can drive large profits. They seem convinced that marginalized groups have limited influence upon box office draws and therefore do not warrant a place in content or film production. Black director John Ridley summed up the issue in a 2017 article in Vulture: ”If someone would just say, ‘This decision is about the money,’ I’d have more respect for that than I do for people pretending to represent a diverse global world but only so long as it revolves around anglicized ideas of diversity.”

Film is too powerful a medium for this issue to be ignored. The pre-pandemic film industry generated $11.4 billion in revenue in 2019, just slightly below the record-high of $11.9 billion in 2018. These huge revenues reinforce film’s significance in our popular culture, but what is often overlooked is just how influential it can be on our society. Lack of diversity, the use of stereotypes in film content, casting white actors in ethnic roles —  each of these production decisions reinforce racism and dysfunction in our society by reducing our ability to see past our differences and to have all Americans accurately reflected in American culture.

We’ve created a vicious cycle. Audiences support studios by buying their products, which reinforces to the studios that the content they are creating is what audiences want to see, or in other words, that it is profitable. Then the same products with the same issues are created time and time again, continuing to negatively impact us as a society. Marginalized groups are given little choice but to support this system, since there is limited film content available that represents them directly or realistically. Non-marginalized people believe they have no reason not to support the system, because the content is already familiar to them and representative of their lives. It’s not their problem, right?

That seems to be the perspective of most Americans. A 2019 Morning Consult/Hollywood Reporter Survey showed that 51% of adults are not concerned about diversity in film. That’s why it’s important for audiences to understand why lack of inclusion is such a pervasive and ongoing issue. Supporting a medium plagued by inequality sends a message to marginalized groups that their history, culture, stories and contributions to the world are somehow less than those of people of higher socioeconomic status. Conversely, it reinforces to those with higher socioeconomic standing that marginalized groups somehow matter less than they themselves do.

There’s a laundry list of changes the industry can and should make, including smarter casting, being more inclusive, and advocating for “intersectional identities” where more than one marginalized demographic is represented within the same character. But American audiences need to accept their share of the liability in continuing to support an enterprise rife with exploitation, sexism and oppression. The white male power imbalance is enabled by audiences who continue to buy tickets at the box office and stream movies from studios that lack diversity in both subject matter and production.

So how can we fix this? First, we should not be asking the film industry for change, we should be demanding it with our viewing behavior. Audiences need to be more open to films we don’t directly relate to or that do not specifically define our own experiences. We need to actively seek out and support a wider variety of diversity films instead of only embracing them when they receive rare mainstream media attention. This doesn’t mean shunning all mainstream films, but the studios need to be convinced that there is a market for all kinds of content created by all kinds of people. We do that by watching those films.

Second, we need to broaden our horizons and watch films with lower production values and lesser-known talent that may not be as glossy and visually perfect as higher budgeted films. This will help make the medium more accessible for all filmmakers, opening doors that have traditionally been closed to those without significant financial backing and influential filmmaking contacts. The future of film and its attainment of equality in both content and production is in low-budget film, whether the studios like it or not.

Lastly, we need to continuously remind ourselves of the influence we can exert over film production. We are not silent bystanders — true to Keynesian economics, our demand is what creates the supply. There is one specific and guiding principle about consumer choice that applies here and should be kept top of mind: Hollywood and the independent film system cannot sell you what you refuse to buy.

“By the Numbers…”

A 2020 USC Annenberg Review of the top 100 films of 2019shows rampant inequality in the film industry:

  • 15.7% of speaking characters were Black
  • 4.9% of speaking characters were Hispanic/Latino
  • 7.2% of speaking characters were Asian
  • Less than 1% of speaking characters were Indigenous peoples
  • There were more than twice as many male characters as female
  • 6.1% of directors were Black
  • 19.4% of screenwriters are female
  • 10.7% of directors are female
  • 24.3% of producers are female
  • 22% of the top films had at least one LGBTQIA+ character
  • 6% of the top films had at least one female-identified LGBTQ character
  • 2.3% of speaking roles were differently abled characters