Diversity Sells–But Hollywood Isn’t Selling It
Hollywood has led the entertainment industry in America for over a century, playing the vital role of not only entertaining the masses but also shaping our social climate through storytelling. The images and stories we take in sway the way we view ourselves and others as well as our ideologies. Given the power of storytelling, people understandably want stories to represent them and the beliefs and experiences they hold dear. Others want stories that detail experiences and ideologies different from their own in order to expand their worldview. Basically, audiences want diversity. America grows less tolerant of racism and a lack of inclusion by the day, and many expect entertainment to reflect that social climate. Puzzlingly, though, Hollywood continues to stay behind the curve when it comes to racial diversity.
One long-held belief in Hollywood is that diversity doesn’t sell. Any studio executive would likely say that diversity and inclusion is a noble pursuit, but might add that it’s not the most profitable one. Executives clutch onto concerns about diverse movies not performing well overseas. Granted, the concerns are not entirely unfounded, even in recent years. For example, in 2015, the Chinese poster for Star Wars: The Force Awakens made a prominent Black character smaller and took out a Latino character entirely. Other similar incidents allow studio executives to say that while America is surely not racist, the rest of the world just might be, and therefore making non-diverse films to rake in money at both domestic and worldwide box offices is the wisest business practice.
This belief, however, is a misconception. Diversity sells, and not just domestically. In UCLA’s 2020 Hollywood diversity report, the numbers pointed to diverse films attracting audiences around the globe. The study, which accounted for 286 theatrical films released over 2018 and 2019, showed that films with diverse casts performed better overseas than non-diverse films. Films with casts made up of 21-50% minorities performed the best overseas, and the trend holds up even at the extreme ends of the spectrum; films with over 50% minority casts performed better than films with less than 11% minority casts.
The overwhelming individual successes of diverse films make the truth even clearer. Take, for example, Marvel’s 2018 hit Black Panther. The superhero film, which featured a predominantly Black cast and a fictional African society that was developed and technologically advanced, was both a critical and commercial success. Not only was it the first superhero movie to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, it grossed over 1.3 billion dollars at the global box office, making it, currently, the twelfth highest grossing film of all time according to Box Office Mojo’s data. Black Panther also outperformed similar blockbuster films, such as Aquaman and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, that were released in the same year and featured predominantly white lead casts. Furthermore, Black Panther was well-loved enough to break cultural barriers, and not just cultural barriers in America or even ones related to race. In order to host a special screening of Black Panther, Saudi Arabia lifted a ban on movie theaters that had gone on for 35 years. To make the impact even greater, men and women were allowed to sit together, and according to NPR, it was the start of a more widespread reopening of movie theaters in the country. Black Panther was a success in every sense not despite its diversity, but because of its diversity, if the reactions of critics and fans alike are any indication. The world ravenously adored this movie and the groundbreaking diversity it brought to the table, clearly illustrating that diversity is attractive and does, in fact, sell.
Another considerable success is 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. One of the two lead characters was played by a Black man and a supporting but still narratively important character was played by a Latino man. Despite China’s theatrical poster seeming to suggest an issue with these characters, the film went on to gross over 2 billion dollars globally, becoming the current fourth highest grossing film of all time as shown by Box Office Mojo’s data. Granted, The Force Awakens did face considerably greater backlash from fans regarding its diversity, with some groups threatening to boycott the movie because it featured a Black lead. While these pockets of backlash may seem to suggest that diversity is a risk, they actually prove the opposite. The numbers don’t lie. The movie was an overwhelming success at the box office, proving that diversity did not actually hinder the movie’s success.
The success of diversity is no secret to Hollywood executives. It’s reasonable to think that diversity would be their goal, if not for ethical uprightness then for a profit, and especially when the desires of the consumer are this clear. Since catering to the desires of the global audience cannot reasonably be the rationale behind inhibiting diversity, perhaps Hollywood executives are withholding some truth. Perhaps the real motivation lies within the Hollywood hierarchy.
As of early 2020, the overwhelming majority of Hollywood studio CEOs, senior executives, and unit heads were white, according to the UCLA study. White people have held the power in Hollywood since its conception over 100 years ago, they still hold it today, and when people have power, it’s not in our nature to easily relinquish it. With white executives making the biggest decisions about what stories to tell and who should tell them, it’s no surprise that white stories are overrepresented. In Hollywood, where risk is inherent in every decision, executives “surround themselves with people who make them feel comfortable, who are a lot like them,” according to Darnell Hunt, the leader of UCLA’s study. Hollywood’s history of over-representing white people has tricked executives into thinking that less diversity equates to less risk, allowing them to rationalize the white monopoly on power in the business. Hiring white people and telling white stories makes white executives feel secure, and they use a disproven economic excuse to cover for their true desire- to remain in power.
Deggans, E. (2014, February 13). Redefining Hollywood: ‘Diversity Makes More Money’. Retrieved November 05, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/02/12/275907930/redefining-hollywood-diversity-makes-more-money
Hunt, D., & Ramón, A. (2020, February). Hollywood Diversity Report 2020: A Tale of Two Hollywoods [PDF]. Los Angeles: UCLA College of Social Sciences.
Top Lifetime Grosses. (2020, November 04). Retrieved November 05, 2020, from https://www.boxofficemojo.com/chart/top_lifetime_gross/?area=XWW
Wolf, J. (2020, October 22). 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report: A different story behind the scenes. Retrieved November 05, 2020, from https://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/2020-hollywood-diversity-report