The profit in racially diverse movie casts


Filmmakers must increase the diversity of their casts. There are many compelling and important reasons for this, from social education to providing role models. But if these reasons are not convincing enough, we can look to the data to show the commercial impact of cast diversity.

For example, the UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report 2018 (looking at 174 Hollywood films released in 2016) found that median global box office peaked for films with a 21-30% non-white cast, and return on investment peaked for films with a 41-50% non-white cast. This is aligned with the Creative Artists Agency’s (CAA) Motion Picture Diversity Index, looking at 712 films released between 2014 and 2018.

At every budget level, the CAA found that a movie with a diverse cast (where at least 30% of the cast is non-white) outperformed a movie with a non-diverse cast, as measured by domestic opening weekend box office. These findings show that diversity is a commercial issue as well as an ethical one.

People want to watch films that reflect the world around them and that they can relate to

The most powerful films are often those that the audience feel they can relate to on some level. One important and obvious aspect of this is seeing actors that look like real people, and maybe even look like and represent you, the audience. This necessitates a diverse cast, which typically comes hand in hand with diverse characters and storylines, enabling a film to be reflective of the diverse world that we live in and more relatable for non-white audience members.

Attracting a greater number of audience groups is part of the explanation for why diverse films are more commercially successful. Looking at films released between 2014 and 2016, the CAA found that the average opening weekend for a film that attracted a diverse audience (38% to 70% non-white) was $31 million compared to $12 million for films with non-diverse audiences.

Additionally, seven of the 10 largest movies had an opening-weekend audience that was majority non-white (as measured by Comscore PostTrak). According to Christy Haubegger, leader of the CAA’s multicultural development group, these results show that “people want to see a world that looks like theirs”.

Films are not reflecting the diversity of the Western population, let alone the world. However, foreign film markets are becoming increasingly important for Western filmmakers as the global middle class is becoming more diverse over time. Filmmakers therefore need to recognise the increasing diversity of their global audience, and what is going to resonate with this audience.

Films with a diverse cast are likely to have more varied characters and original storylines that excite audiences

The call for more diversity in films stems from the fact that an overwhelming majority of films to date have not had much, if any, diversity in terms of cast, characters and storyline (not to mention diversity in the crew and management behind the scenes). Films with diverse characters and storylines therefore stand out - they present the audience with something original, exciting and new.

Black Panther is a recent example of a film with a diverse cast that has performed extremely well at the box office. It has achieved $1.3 billion gross worldwide to date and was ranked as the highest earning comic book adaptation of all time until Avengers: Endgame. The film is also critically acclaimed, winning three Academy Awards - the first ever Academy Awards for Marvel Studios.

It is clear that the African characters, played by black actors, were distinguishing features of Black Panther and important to its success. This is reflected in the attention given to the black cast by critics. Reviews mention “African stereotypes are upended”, that Black Panther provides “an exhilarating, regal rebuke to the chronic absence and denigration of black bodies in American cinema”) and discuss the “summit of black talent” starring in the film.

However, it is important to consider the cast in the context of other elements that contributed to Black Panther’s success. The film combines the typical Marvel formula with an all-star soundtrack produced by Kendrick Lamar and the Oscar-winning, African-inspired score and costumes. One reviewer states that “one of Black Panther’s greatest triumphs is to make you forget the barrier-breaking significance of its mere existence” - which reminds us that most audience members won’t choose to watch a diverse film simply because it is diverse.

The audience ultimately seeks an entertaining and convincing experience, which usually involves an engaging storyline and characters. Diversity of cast is an important factor in determining commercial success, but it is not the only factor.

Diverse casts are more convincing at playing diverse characters

Once filmmakers have been convinced that it is a good idea to include more diverse characters in their films, the next challenge is to cast these roles.

It is difficult to show a causal link between a film casting actors that match the race of their characters and the financial success of that film. However, we can identify instances of whitewashing - where a white actor has been cast in a role that is historically non-white or was non-white in the script - and consider the impact on the film’s reputation and financial success.

One example is the casting of Emma Stone as a “part-Asian” Hawaiian in Cameron Crowe’s romantic comedy film Aloha. Following the backlash, Crowe apologised for the casting decision with the comment “so many of us are hungry for stories with more racial diversity, more truth in representation, and I am anxious to help tell those stories in the future”.

Another example is Gods of Egypt, for which Lions Gate Entertainment released an official statement in order to apologise for the lack of diversity in the casting.

In the press release for the upcoming live-action Netflix adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the show creators specifically stated that the show will have “a culturally appropriate, non-whitewashed cast”, which is a direct reference to M. Night Shyamalan’s 2010 film adaptation that provoked backlash for its non-diverse casting. This aligns with Netflix’s aim to reflect the diversity of their membership and the recognition from audiences that Netflix provides good examples of authentic portrayal.

Simple analysis of the above white-washed films shows that they have been less commercially successful than comparable films that did not face white-washing controversy. A Paramount executive even blamed the poor results of Ghost in the Shell on the controversy around Scarlett Johansson being cast as the lead.

Part of this is an expected consequence of any bad press or bad reviews. But it is also plausible that white-washed films simply are less convincing, which is distracting and off-putting for the audience. This may not be an effect that the audience is consciously aware of, but if it has a negative impact on the film’s revenues then it is something filmmakers should become conscious about.

White-washing can taint a film and have a dramatic effect on both the film’s success and the reputations of those involved. However, responsible casting is also a serious ethical decision. As Dolores Tierney, senior lecturer in film studies at the University of Sussex, explains: “having white people play, replace and stereotype characters of colour obscures and erases their history, agency and power”.

People are aware of the lack of diversity in the film industry and want to do something about it

Audiences are well aware of the lack of diversity in films and its consequences, and this is frequently discussed both in the media and social conversation.

A 2018 YouGov survey of 1,220 Americans found that only 35% of respondents believed there are enough roles available for black people, 23% for Latinos and 21% for Asians. But merely having more diverse parts is not enough, since irresponsible filmmaking can worsen diversity issues by perpetuating harmful racial stereotypes. Survey respondents raised concerns about the inauthenticity of characters, the lack of dialogue and characters often being portrayed as sidekicks.

Audiences are not going to be fooled by “tokenism” and stereotyped roles. This is one compelling reason to ensure that diversity is not limited to the cast, allowing stories to be told authentically and without bias by diverse writers and crew.

Audiences are not only aware of the lack of diversity in films, but many are angry and want to act. This is reflected by viral social media movements over the years. #OscarsSoWhite (originally trending in 2015 and resurfacing in 2016) was a response to the lack of award recognition for people of colour, while 2016’s #StarringJohnCho advocated for more Asian-American actors to be cast in leading roles. Film fans are also using online petitions to make their views heard, including a petition demanding an Asian lead for the live-action Mulan adaptation and a petition to recast Scarlett Johansson's whitewashed role in Ghost in the Shell.

Some audience members will choose to boycott and publicly criticise films that are accused of white-washing, just as some audience members will consciously choose to watch and publicly promote films with diverse casts in order to show their support for increasing diversity in films.

In the current age of viral social media and widespread, Internet-enabled awareness and discussion of social issues, it is more important than ever for filmmakers to understand and respond to the demands of their audiences.

What’s next?

Diversity in films matters for many reasons.

The argument here is that it is also a driver for commercial success. This may be due to the films being more reflective of the diverse world we live in, more relatable for a diverse audience, a more convincing performance or audiences consciously choosing to support diverse films and boycott white or white-washed films. It is likely a combination of all of the above, and more.

Given the clear benefits of diversity on screen, it is shocking that we have not seen a meaningful change in the diversity of casts over the last decade. Coupled with growing online appeals from the general public, it is obvious that diversity can no longer be considered a “tick-box” exercise and the film industry’s attitude needs to change.

Films with non-white leads are released in fewer international markets than films with white leads, which suggests that film studios are currently leaving considerable revenue on the table. Film studios should take confidence in the findings in this report and provide diverse films with adequate investment, support and exposure.

Film studios can take advantage of these results by ensuring that the diversity of the cast features prominently in the pre-release marketing. After all, the trailer and cast are some of the few pieces of information an audience has about a film before it is released in the cinema, and therefore must be a key driver of a film’s initial success. This is not intended to relegate diversity to a cheap marketing trick, but to allow diverse casting choices to be celebrated and discussed openly until they become the norm.

Once the film industry accepts that it is beneficial to write and cast more diverse parts, the next step is to ensure that those parts are worth watching. This means giving audiences an entertaining experience that represents true diversity, from the writing room to the set to the screen.

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