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Diversity on Screen and the Superiority of Streaming

John Boyega, a 28-year-old Black actor, likely didn’t intend to capitalize on his success through Netflix when he began his career nearly 10 years ago. Disillusionment, though, can be a powerful force for change. After launching into stardom with a lead role in Disney’s 2015 blockbuster Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Boyega felt as though racism was a defining factor in his experience from fans and the studio alike for the four years he spent in a galaxy far, far away. He described his experience as breaking through into “an industry that wasn’t even ready for [him]” in a 2020 interview for British GQ. Frustrated by the Hollywood machine, Boyega turned his talents elsewhere, signing a deal with Netflix to produce non-English, African films that he likely couldn’t have done otherwise. 

Hollywood has historically lacked support and representation for creatives of color. There has been outcry against it for years, with actors, writers, and consumers alike clamoring for more diversity and representation on movie and television screens. However, little seems to change in any meaningful way when it comes to conventional Hollywood. Maybe a newer, less conventional branch of entertainment is where quality representation must be established. Enter streaming services. With streaming services embracing racial diversity on a scale that Hollywood isn’t keeping up with, it’s possible that streaming could overtake Hollywood. First, consider how important diversity is to the entertainment industry and how Tinseltown is behind the curve.

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 hide beneath 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 the aforementioned Star Wars: The Force Awakens made John Boyega’s 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 developed, technologically advanced fictional African society, 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. Boyega’s breakout role was one of the movie’s two lead characters, and Guatemalan actor Oscar Isaac played a smaller but still narratively important role. 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 and its sequels have diversity-related issues of their own. Some groups of fans threatened to boycott The Force Awakens because it featured a Black lead, and the actors of color expressed feelings of having experienced racism while working on the movies. Regardless of these problems, the proof of diversity’s attractiveness still stands. 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.

Clearly, diversity is an essential factor in audience reception and box office success, and Hollywood executives have to know that. The statistics are available for everyone to see. It’s reasonable to think that diversity would be their goal, if not for ethical uprightness then for a profit, 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 human 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.

Meanwhile, streaming services, such as Netflix and Hulu, branched off from Hollywood and acted on the evidence of diversity’s importance. To evaluate the successes and failures of streaming and Hollywood, though, “good representation” must be understood. Good representation is more than just including non-white characters. The existence of a non-white character does only so much good if that character is “stereotypical” and “one-dimensional” rather than “multi-dimensional” and “multi-faceted,” according to Maryann Erigha’s article “Race, Gender, Hollywood: Representation in Cultural Production and Digital Media’s Potential for Change.” Characters of color need to exist outside of a white lens. They need to hold their own narrative significance. They need to be main characters. As Rashad Robinson, executive director of racial representation organization Color of Change, stated in a Vox interview, the writing for non-white characters has to be “authentic, fair, and have humanity” for it to be good representation. Non-white characters are often written as comic relief or support for a more important white character, pushed to the sidelines without depth of their own. These common practices perpetuate harmful stereotypes and enforce the idea that people of color are less important than white people.

Another aspect of good diversity is what Maryann Erigha refers to as “centrality.” People of color should be “located in institutions that are in the core…of cultural production” in order for the industry to be truly diverse. If people of color don’t have access to core talent agencies or the inner circle of production companies, their stories remain on the periphery. When there isn’t diversity at the center of the industry- which there isn’t, given the unbalanced number of white people in power- diversity doesn’t reach a general audience.

These factors that work against meaningful diversity are all too prevalent in Hollywood. Ashley Nicole Black, a writer for “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” put it succinctly when telling Variety that “the system is racist.” Hollywood was built on white supremacy. White men controlled the business at its inception. White men dictated the structures and the unwritten rules within the business. White men did it all in such a way that allowed themselves to remain in power, so that even today agencies don’t adequately support people of color, locking them out of the business.

Attempts at giving centrality to creatives of color often contribute to mere tokenism. A television show will hire only one writer of color and only one director of color and think that’s good enough. Once creators of color get hired, companies don’t care “how quickly they’re promoted and elevated,” according to Black, which leaves them struggling to rise past low-level positions. Hollywood checks boxes for doing the bare minimum and pretends tokenism is sufficient diversity without making any real change. It’s a struggle for people of color to even tell their own stories, as director Matthew Cherry explained to Variety. It’s common that a story centering on characters of color will be told by a white director or writer because companies want a recognizable name or impressive resumé behind the camera. The problem with that is “you can’t get credits if you don’t get opportunities,” and white people have historically been the ones getting opportunities, says Cherry. Since the current status quo benefits the white Hollywood executives in power, they won’t try to change the system in meaningful ways. It might not be worth hoping for. A structure with rot running that deep cannot be salvaged. A new structure, though, could be the solution.

Netflix changed the entertainment game when it launched a video streaming function in 2007. Streaming evolved from being merely a convenient way to access pre-existing content to being on the cutting edge of original content. Streaming has changed the face of the entertainment industry with services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Disney+ offering scores of original TV shows and movies that garner audience and critical approval alike. Streaming is an entirely new branch of TV and film, which means its structure is more malleable as far as diversity and inclusion. The system isn’t mired in a century of white supremacy.

Already, the difference between streaming and the more conventional side of Hollywood is clear. Streaming services have more characters of color in their shows, largely in part because it’s easier for creators of color to tell their stories. The people behind streaming platforms seem to better understand that diversity isn’t just about quantity, but quality as well. Their effort is reflected in positive audience responses, where as much as 65% of consumers of color feel that streaming shows are “more reflective of America’s diversity” than their network cable counterparts according to a recent Horowitz Research survey quoted by Multichannel News. Streaming services can deliver the diversity that Hollywood is too far gone to incorporate.

The progressiveness of streaming services could significantly put companies such as Netflix and Hulu ahead of the game. A forward-thinking business listens attentively to what younger audiences want and finds out how to deliver it in the most satisfactory way possible. The coveted 18-34 age demographic wants diversity, and teenaged audiences want it even more. Knowing that today’s youth are tomorrow’s primary consumers, it’s logical for streaming services to create content that will please the younger demographic, gain their trust, and make them long-term customers. The digital nature of these platforms makes staying on top of trends more intuitive and also more naturally establishes a connection with younger, tech-oriented audiences.

Given their social advantage, streaming services could grow larger than Hollywood and cause the old Tinseltown machine to fizzle into irrelevance. Audiences trust streaming services with diversity, but streaming wins audiences over in more ways than that. The technological advantage streaming has in our increasingly technological world cannot be denied. People are drawn to “on-demand” entertainment, described by media scholar Amanda Lotz in her book The Television Will Be Revolutionized and quoted in the journal Popular Communication as programming “produced in any decade” that can be watched anywhere, from “‘living room’ sets” to “portable devices.” Also, as far as specifically television programming is concerned, consumers are cutting the cord according to Benjamin Burroughs’s article “House of Netflix: Streaming media and digital lore.” Between the prices of cable and the fact that streaming offers not only more diverse content but more content in general, people are ditching cable and switching to non-wired, non-network content delivery. Granted, the cable industry is stable, but its allure is coming into question. It no longer has complete control over consumers’ television habits. In the future, streaming could very well become the dominant television industry. It could become the dominant film and TV industry in general. 

Also consider how streaming services have the ability to not only keep tabs on what audiences want but to deliver content tailored to an individual through algorithms- a luxury film and television don’t have as they are not digital platforms. Algorithms give a content provider “insight into every second of the viewing experience,” says Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s Chief Content Officer, in the book Distribution Revolution: Conversations about the Digital Future of Film and Television as quoted in Popular Communication. Content providers can see exactly what people are watching, how many people are watching it, how long an individual watches a certain program, which shows and movies are popular in a given part of the world with a given demographic, and more. Relate this back to diversity. Not only do streaming services know how diverse their audience is, they also see firsthand that content with diverse casts and writers is watched by a lot of people. The knowledge delivered by the algorithms leads to action. If audiences want diversity, then streaming services will deliver the highest quality diverse content they can in order to win over customers, thus gaining an edge over Hollywood.

Another factor worth mentioning is the COVID-19 pandemic. When the world had no choice but to stay inside, many people turned to entertainment to bide their time, and streaming services hooked a significant amount of new customers. In the case of Netflix, the number of new subscribers reached as high as over ten million between March and May 2020. In the United Kingdom, as much as 55% of adults who newly subscribed to streaming during the pandemic said that they would continue their subscriptions and keep up their watching habits even as lockdown restrictions lessened, according to the UK Office of Communications’ Media Nations 2020 study. Major studios also tested the water of digital distribution, releasing new movies digitally since audiences physically could not go to theaters. The pandemic proved how valuable and enticing streaming and digital content is to audiences and businesses alike. The industry no doubt took note of the role that streaming played during lockdown, and it could mean a shift in focus for how entertainment is delivered and consumed. As more and more people get hooked on streaming, the likelihood of streaming becoming the dominant form of entertainment increases. 

The pandemic also made racial diversity more relevant than ever. The issue of racial equality came into public awareness on an unavoidable level during the lockdown months with Black Lives Matter protests happening across the globe. The ripple effect of this social revolution inevitably makes its way to entertainment, as mainstream art is often expected to reflect real life. Non-diverse casts will no longer be acceptable. Stereotyping will no longer be acceptable. Hollywood needs to step up, unless they come up with an out.

There is another potential future for the entertainment industry that lies one step beyond streaming gaining dominance. Hollywood might simply absorb the streaming industry. Instead of putting the work in to make Hollywood comply with social demands, Hollywood can absorb an industry that already did the work. At the end of the day, Hollywood is a business. The largest possible profit is the goal. If diversity will bring in that profit, then Hollywood studios can essentially hire others to take care of diversity for them by purchasing companies like Netflix. Studios won’t have to labor over changing their system at a fundamental level and they can expand their assets. Major Hollywood studios have already shown interest in the streaming realm, with some even joining the game. In addition to releasing movies digitally during the COVID pandemic, Hollywood studios such as Disney, WarnerMedia, and NBCUniversal have released their own streaming services. Streaming could very well become the main form of entertainment distribution, it just might happen through Hollywood studios.

While Hollywood fails to make the connection between diversity and profitability while upholding an inherently racist structure, streaming services deliver content with diversity both in front of and behind the camera. With convenience and digital interfaces on their side along with diverse stories, it would be no surprise if streaming services gained dominance over conventional Hollywood one day, even if Hollywood ends up facilitating that shift to remain in the game. It’s a bit of a cynical endgame, and likely not what people had in mind when wishing for change in Hollywood and celebrating diversity in streaming. Diversity is diversity, though, and a win in any capacity can be accepted amidst the ongoing fight for equality.


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