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Data Shows The Root of Hollywood's Diversity Problem

diversity in hollywood

This post originally appeared on Medium. Years later, we think the underlying conclusions from this data are as valid as ever. The TV diversity pipeline has improved since then, but films still have a long way to go.


An analysis of Hollywood’s actor funnel, Feat: the 2015 Oscars

diversity in hollywood

It’s too late to put the toothpaste back in the tube when it comes to race and the 2015 Oscars, but data might be able to help us figure out how to address the race issue in Hollywood.

Professional racism is not a new thing in the movie business, or the whole of American business for that matter. However, because the backlash against the Academy for nominating only white actors and actresses for this year’s Oscars is, at least in part, a data argument, we have the opportunity to unemotionally ask questions before shooting further.

Those questions include: What groups are drawing the shortest straws in Hollywood? What is to blame? Are we pointing our fingers at the only (or correct) culprit when we blame the Academy for a lack of Black, Hispanic, and Asian award nominees? Is there an equally or more culpable party to this issue? And are these imbalances in nominations part of a systemic problem?

Let’s start by looking at Hollywood’s favorite topic: money.

Various celebrities and Op-Ed writers have made hay about the incongruence of high grossing films with Black lead actors not getting nominated for Oscars. On the surface, this is a reasonable argument and concern.

Data, however, does not show much of a historical correlation between high grossing films and films that win Oscars. In the last 10 years, no best picture has been in the top 10 top grossing films of the year (only half have been in the top 50), and none has grossed more than $150 million at the U.S. box office. Only two films even nominated for best picture have been top 10 earners.

diversity in hollywood

These amounts are actually skewed high because of the Oscars. That’s because many Oscar contenders tend to be released toward the end of the year in order to get larger distribution in case they get nominated. And even then, as we can see, Oscar candidates tend to be far from the highest earners.

This brings up an important distinction: The “Oscar-bait” genre is a different game than the “tentpole” game. 2015’s big earners, Star Wars, Jurassic World, Avengers, Inside Out, Furious 7, are all fun, tentpole action movies made for broad audiences and not necessarily dramatic nuance. The movies that get Oscar nominations are generally serious, dramatic and not blockbusters.

Academy Awards are (allegedly) intended to be bestowed for artistic, not commercial performance — and the data backs this up. So the argument about box office success doesn’t quite make sense. (It seems to be a case of “false cause”.)

However, from a social standpoint—and from a non-blockbuster standpoint—it’s still a shame to see years go by without actors of color being nominated for dramatic awards.

But are we missing the magnitude of the problem (in either direction) because we’re not looking at a bigger picture than two years? This happens all the time when we make judgments based on small data sets.

For example, this chart shows CO2 levels in the earth’s atmosphere from 2002 to 2003:

diversity in hollywood
This is a terrible chart.

Behold: greenhouse gases are going down! No more climate change. Oil companies: celebrate! Except… when you look at a bigger slice of history, you see this:

diversity in hollywood
This is a much better chart.

Folks may be guilty of a similar reaction to the 2015 Oscars. Two years of all white nominees might make it appear that the Academy is 100% biased in favor of Caucasian actors and actresses.

When you zoom out to the 10 previous years, you’ll see that a 2015 snub does not a pattern make.

diversity in hollywood

In fact, we had another two year dry spell for racial-minority actors and actresses in 2007–2008. Zoom out another 70 years, and a different story emerges entirely:

This is an even better chart. Image credit: Kevin Drum

Though the percentage of Black nominees has been increasing over time, Academy Awards are still not representative of minorities in the US population. But as we’ll explore more later, we get a very different picture with context.

Every year, there are only five nominees per each of the four acting categories — making our data set a whopping 20 people, which is far away from statistical significance given the demographics of the country we live in. That makes a zero nominations in two years once in a while statistically likely. Nothing, statistically, has changed in the last few years.

So perhaps there’s an overreaction on this front, too.

In my opinion, what we should be reacting more about is the percentage of actors of color who are even given a shot to play good roles at all. We need to take a systemic look at Hollywood, not just the awards.

Here’s a breakdown of who’s been getting cast in lead roles at all in the past 10 years. Since 85% of our nominees are coming from the top 100 box office earners, I looked at the top 100 movies’ top billed actors and painstakingly tallied the races of the top-listed man and woman to see what races are being represented as lead characters.

diversity in hollywood

Here’s that same data, as a percentage of the total opportunity:

Note: Without Tyler Perry there’d be a lot less Black leading roles to go around. He accounts for nearly half of them in some way for much of the past 10 years. Without this single influencer, Hollywood’s stats would look even worse.

For context, let’s compare this to the larger population to get a more accurate picture of the racial discrepancy in Hollywood. Here’s what just 2015 looked like in terms of casting top roles:

diversity in hollywood

This data shows that 2015 was a pretty bad year for minoritized actors being cast at all.

Black and Asian actors got cast as leads at a lower rate than their respective US populations, while white actors were cast more. Latin actors, however, seem to be getting most screwed, with only 3% of top roles despite 17% of the US population being of Hispanic origin.

It’s pretty clear that statistically the Academy did not have many nominees of color to even vote for for 2015 Oscars.

Our collective knee-jerk reaction when the 2015 nominees came out was to blame the members of the Academy for bias; some gave them benefit of the doubt by calling it unconscious bias, while others called it straight up racism.

Data doesn’t show the intent nor let us read the minds of Academy voters — some may very well be racist, or maybe not at all. Data can, however, show us whether a system does appear to favor some races over others.

If you think of the road to Oscar Award Winner as a funnel, you can track the winnowing of actors and actresses by race over various stages. Here are the last 10 years of Hollywood Top 100 films, visualized:

diversity in hollywood

And as you can see, over the last 10 years, the Academy has voted nearly proportionally for Black and Latin/Hispanic actors vs white actors that it has been presented with. Asian actors get filtered out by the time nominations happen, and white actors receive the remainder of attention.

As Porter Braswell, CEO of the new minority recruiting firm Jopwell, put it to me recently, the problem with race and employment in America lies in the pipeline. It’s not as much about preferential treatment, he says. It’s about setting the system up so that you get a representative shot.

The takeaway, if I may recommend one, is this: Let’s not shoot the Academy of Motion Picture Awards for playing with the cards they’ve been dealt. Let’s instead focus on the characters who are being written and cast in movies in the first place, and let’s get more Asian and Latin actors into the Screen Actors Guild. (And Native American and Middle Eastern actors for that matter; though these make up smaller populations, they are also underrepresented in protagonist roles in film.)

Minoritized characters are already being written and cast at higher rates in television; it just isn’t happening on the theater screen—yet.

I’d like to think that in America we’re past the point of choosing not to support a film because of the race of the actors.

Now let’s start supporting them earlier on.