A Good Reason for Hollywood to (Really) Embrace Diversity

More than ten years ago, UCLA’s Entertainment and Media Research Initiative (EMRI) began producing the Hollywood Diversity Report, at first annually then biannually, covering both the film and television sectors. The report – partially funded by Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) – is unique in that it aims at providing comprehensive data analyses that relate to racial, ethnic, gender, and other forms of diversity in the entertainment industry and audiences. 

Published on March 30, 2023, the latest report shows that in the post-pandemic era, Hollywood invested heavily in blockbusters and previously tested intellectual properties. While television is leading the struggle for equity and inclusion, “in the end,” the report reads, “women and people of color have to be exceptional to survive in the industry, while White men are afforded many more opportunities to thrive”.

The Hollywood Diversity Report examines “representation, primarily in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender, and then connects it to the bottom line,” according to Dr. Ana-Christina Ramón, the social psychologist who founded EMRI and co-authored the work with Dr. Darnell Hunt. In a recent Zoom interview with the HFPA, she acknowledged that while Hollywood is driven by economics, the work’s purpose is not limited to academic interest but it strives to share the scientific findings with industry insiders.


“For us, this is about who is working in Hollywood and who gets the opportunities,” Dr. Ramón said. “Hollywood is a business, so we want to look at [whether] diversity is profitable or not and how audiences respond to what they see, based on their background.”

Since the beginning of the collection of data in 2011, the researchers found that diversity is indeed profitable. “The industry has been forced to be more relevant because of the fact that the audience wants to see [increased diversity],” she explained. “However, even though overall the casts are more diverse, there is still a long way to go in terms of racial, ethnic, and gender diversity progress of the lead main roles, the directors, and the writers. And those are key to having a complete picture that is relevant to society and that is reflective of our population’s makeup.”

Scientific accuracy, consistency, and objectivity were important to Dr. Ramón and the team so that they might “provide this bigger picture for everyone; so that this information is available for people to use as they deem helpful; so that there is no way people can excuse it or, perhaps, explain it away”. Longitude was another factor that naturally played a role, as the team was able to compare findings during this transitional period from 2011 to the present. “It’s been the strongest, most consistent finding [regarding] the overall cast makeup and seeing how that relates to the box office and ratings success – that relatively diverse casts are the most profitable.”

In the most recent report, which examined data from English-language theatrical releases and, separately, from original streaming films, the primary finding was that the streaming films were more diverse than the theatrical releases. Given the fact that fewer films were shown in the theaters in 2022 (about 70% of the pre-pandemic output), Dr. Ramón and her partners discerned a “two-tier system” with wide releases being less diverse on the one hand, and streaming films being more diverse on the other.

“[Hollywood] is at a turning point,” she pointed out. “Where does the theatrical business want to go?” Getting a film widely released has always been difficult. But now the study shows the difficulty has increased considerably. “[For a film] to be deemed worthy of having a wide release mostly goes to White men. White male directors have this opportunity, but people of color and women directors have to be considered exceptional to be able to enter this elevated space.”

“When you look at streaming,” she continued, “there are more opportunities for people of color, more opportunities for women, across the board, compare to theatrical [releases] … But when they get the opportunity to direct in streaming, their budgets tend to be lower compared to those of White men and even, for the most part, of White women [directors]. White men still tend to get the highest budgets.” And, of course, lower budgets limit the production value of a film, which then is at a disadvantage when competing with higher productions.

Dr. Ramón explained that Hollywood’s systemic bias comes from years of deregulation. “For so long, Hollywood has been able to do what it wanted to do. It was not regulated in any way by the federal government when it could have been [in order to prevent] discrimination toward women and people of color. It had fought that off in the 70s saying ‘You can’t regulate art’. But obviously, this is a business and [Hollywood] is owned by conglomerates … So, the status quo has been maintaining that culture of hiring people you know and you’re comfortable with – for the most part, White men.”

In fact, even though in recent years we have seen a shift toward diversity at the entry level, the highest ranks of the industry are still occupied and controlled by a majority of White men. What that means is that oftentimes diverse perspectives get whitewashed along the way. “There’s this lack of understanding about what’s really the importance of the specificity of the culture that is being represented in a project and fear of how White audiences will respond to it; instead, [executives] should be trying to target these important markets of audiences of color because these are the audiences that drive box office profits and ratings.”

As for the complaint from White creatives that work has become scarce due to Hollywood’s mandate for diversity… Dr. Ramón chuckled: “It’s just [White] people not being used to hearing other people saying ‘no’ to them … [But] our numbers show that diversity is still nowhere close to being more reflective of the population.”

Fundamentally, what matters is that diversity is integrated into the industry. Regardless of whether the process is spontaneous or not, all that is really needed is the will to diversify. “I always say – change can start today,” she said. “You don’t have to wait until the CEO is a person of color or a woman in order to see change happen.” Consulting with and learning from people who understand the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion as well as being strategic about how to integrate them in one’s business is a good start.

“That’s what you want everyone to do,” Dr. Ramón said referring to the recent efforts of the HFPA leadership to diversify the association. “The research has shown that it is important that everyone buys into it. The message has to come from the top and then it has to be instituted at every level … It has to be part of the mission.”