Film postcard: Hollywood expected to balance diversity and profit

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 April, 2015, 10:39pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 April, 2015, 10:39pm


The "Fast & Furious" series is often cited as an example of how diversity can work in Hollywood. With its multicultural cast and international settings, the franchise has generated more than US$2.4 billion in global earnings. The latest instalment, Furious 7, set US box-office records with its US$147 million opening.

"Usually, big studio tent-pole films are all very whitewashed," says Furious 7 director James Wan. "People need to learn from this because this is the way of the future." Wan says the films play well globally "because they have people from that part of the world in the movies and they're not treated like second-class citizens".

However, the dearth of diversity in Hollywood was heavy on the entertainment industry's mind during awards season, when the #OscarSoWhite hashtag went viral and host Neil Patrick Harris joked about honouring the "best and whitest - sorry - brightest" at the Academy Awards.

Yet despite the success of films such as Furious 7 and increased awareness of the industry's white male status quo, change won't be seen onscreen anytime soon.

A survey by the Associated Press shows that of about 170 films scheduled for release through the end of the year, only 32 feature actors of colour in prominent roles.

True, this year's movies were made before the Oscar outcry. But whether onscreen diversity improves as production catches up to new awareness remains to be seen. One thing's for certain, though: much work lies ahead.

Studies by UCLA and the University of Southern Calfiornia (USC) show vast underrepresentation of women and minorities in every aspect of filmmaking. "Recognising a problem and changing it are two very different beasts," says Cathy Schulman, the Oscar-winning producer of Crash and president of Women in Film.

In insular, high-risk, high-profit Hollywood, change has to be insistent and intentional, says Professor Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Centre for African American Studies at UCLA.

"It's not going to correct itself naturally," says the co-author of UCLA's annual report on minority representation in the industry. "I suspect we'll have more and more dysfunction and lack of alignment of people in the industry holding onto an approach they've had for generations and ignoring where America is."

His team's ongoing study of the entertainment industry aims to quantify the relationship between diversity and profitability. Their second annual Hollywood diversity report, released in February, shows that while women and minorities are underrepresented across entertainment relative to the US population, movies and TV shows with diverse casts tend to perform well in ratings and at the box office.

"There's a myth of people of colour not being viable internationally when the rest of the world is diverse," Hunt says.

Film and TV studio heads - found by the UCLA study to be overwhelmingly white and male - usually hire people they've worked with before, which reproduces the dismal ethnic and gender ratios.

People of colour have made incremental progress recently in some areas of the entertainment business, the UCLA study found. Lead roles for non-white actors in film and TV increased by about 1.5 per cent in 2013 over the previous year. But even with the success of minority-led TV series such as The Mindy Project, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, non-white show-runners account for fewer than 6 per cent of all broadcast scripted shows, the study found.

An AP analysis of American prime-time network programming last autumn found that three of the four major networks were whiter than the US population and that three of them also had a higher percentage of blacks in leading or supporting roles - but that other minorities lagged far behind.

Industry leaders are receptive to discussions about increasing diversity, Hunt and Schulman say. They've separately met with studio heads to talk about the disparity and how to fix it.

"Hollywood is not this monolithic beast," Hunt says. "There are people who are very committed to diversity."

But change is slow and profit is king.

"Let's put it this way: Hollywood is all about money," Wan says. "If having diversity equals box-office receipts around the world, they'll listen to it. That's the bottom line."

Associated Press