Jennifer Connelly and Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick (2022)
Jennifer Connelly and Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick (2022) Image Credit: IMDB

As Hollywood emerged from the pandemic, its biggest film productions dipped in diversity after years of incremental progress, according to a new study by UCLA researchers. Opportunities were notably greater for women and people of colour on streaming platforms than in theatrically released films.

The annual UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report, published recently, presented one of the most detailed looks yet at how the film industry was shaped and, in many ways, set back during the pandemic. In analysing 2022 movie releases, academics found that ethnic and gender inclusivity in theatrical films reverted to 2019 or 2018 levels in many metrics, turning charts downward that had been slowly trending toward greater equity on screen and behind the camera.

As the film industry sought to claw back moviegoers in 2022, it did so by leaning more on films starring and directed by white men, despite considerable evidence that more diverse films attract larger audiences. Black, Latino and Asian American moviegoers make up nearly half of all frequent moviegoers, and for the biggest hits, often account for the majority of ticket buyers.

Turning point?

The film industry was still recovering in 2022, releasing fewer wide releases and seeing the box office return to about 67% of pre-pandemic levels. Though the 2022 movie year ended in triumph for Asian American representation at the Academy Awards with the best picture-winning ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’, researchers see a potential turning point where opportunity for women and people of colour is usually reserved for lower-budgeted streaming movies.

“It definitely was not an industry that was back all the way. But I really think it gives a picture of a two-tiered system that’s been created,” says Ana-Christina Ramón, director of the Entertainment and Media Research Initiative at UCLA, which produces the report. “What will be interesting to see is what happens in 2023 if it continues to have this bifurcation.”

“The fear is that diversity is something is temporary or could be easily cut at any point in either theatrical or streaming,” says Ramón, noting that streaming services, after years of torrid growth, are now pulling back on original productions.

What the numbers say

In theatrical releases, people of colour accounted for 22 per cent of lead actors, 17 per cent of directors and 12 per cent of writers. Women were 39 per cent of lead actors and 15 per cent of directors. While roughly double the percentages of a decade ago, the numbers are closer to those of five years ago, and still easily trail US population demographics. Women have made gains in writing, composing 27 per cent of writers in 2022 theatrical releases, up from 17 per cent in 2019. Yet only one woman of colour penned a top theatrical film in 2022.

At the same time, streaming releases are more inclusive, accounting for more films with diverse casts and more female leads. Sixty-four percent of original streaming releases in 2022 had casts that were more than 30 per cent non-white, as opposed to 57 per cent of theatrical releases. About a third of leads in top streaming films went to people of colour — nearly 12 per cent more than in theatrical films but still about 10 per cent below population demographics. Leads for women in streaming films (49 per cent) nearly reached parity with men in 2022.

But by considering budget levels, which tend to be higher in theatrical releases, researchers found some of the greatest disparities. Studios are overwhelmingly choosing white male directors for their biggest productions. They accounted for 73 per cent of film directors in theatrical release, in films that usually (60 per cent) had a budget above $30 million.

Budgets tended to be lower for female filmmakers and directors of colour. Films directed by white women were usually (56 per cent) budgeted less than $20 million. For directors of colour, 76 per cent of their streaming films had budgets below $20 million.

“With the industry unstable, what we could see was the culture that Hollywood has always relied on when in need of a surefire hit,” says Ramón. “They think of surefire hits as a code for no diversity, for white-led. It’s something that they’re comfortable with.”