Diversity in Film: The audience speaks

December 15, 2014 16:22:13 Posted at December 15, 2014 16:22:13
Sarah Posted by Sarah

Previously we’ve talked about the problem of diversity in film from the perspective of the executives making the movies and the media covering them. This week we’re going to delve into the audience’s role in the equation. It’s perfect timing, too, because whitewashed Exodus: Gods & Guyliner opened this previous weekend against the diverse Top Five, and while Exodus did make more than three times Top Five (it also played in over 2,500 more theaters), this was one of the lowest-grossing weekends of the year—Exodus underperformed.

It’s difficult to say for sure if the #BoycottExodus movement contributed to Exodus’s lackluster performance, but my own experience with social media tracking and box office says no, not particularly. Exodus’s audience skewed older, which could—emphasis on COULD—mean that the social media movement worked on the younger audience. Exodus’s demographics are comparable to other recent Bible movies Noah and Son of God, both of which also attracted an older audience. At this point, I’m more comfortable saying that Bible movies just appeal to older audiences than the fact that a social media hashtag was effective in turning away an audience.

Also, Exodus only rated a B- CinemaScore, which means that the audience that did show up was leaving mostly unsatisfied by what they saw. Again, that’s not a damning indictment of the racial politics of the film, but when combined with the lackluster box office, it makes a strong case against the status quo of white people = money. And this is where the real power in the entertainment industry lies—in the audience’s pocket. They make what we pay for, and we’re starting to see that what worked before isn’t working now at getting to the audience’s money.

There’s a huge disparity between movie-going audiences and demographic representation on screen (and behind the camera, but for the sake of not writing a 2,000 word article, I’m focusing on on-screen representation). A six-year study released this year by USC shows that Latinos comprise just 4.9% of speaking characters in film, and yet as a demographic, Latinos buy 25% of all movie tickets. Marc Choueiti, a co-author of the study, calls Latinos “invisible” on film, but their buying power makes them very f*cking visible. (Full disclosure: I am a graduate of USC. I’m not ignoring UCLA’s diversity report due to any kind of cross-town feelings, but it only examines data from 2011, making it a smaller sample.)

San Diego State University’s Dr. Martha Lauzen conducts an ongoing study of female representation in film. Her latest report of the top 100 films of 2013 shows that only 15% of protagonists are female (up from the previous study in 2011 but down from 2002), with women comprising 30% of all speaking roles. And yet, the MPAA’s annual market report shows that in 2013, the same year that women made up less than one-third of all people talking on screen, women bought 52% of all movie tickets. FIFTY-TWO PERCENT. AKA, THE MAJORITY.

To quote the MPAA’s report: “Females have comprised a larger share of moviegoers […] consistently since 2009.” And yet Dr. Lauzen’s studies indicate that in the same time frame, female representation has remained inferior. Based on the recent data, at least half of all movies ought to star women, and yet still the majority of movies star white men. Undoubtedly this is in large part due to the predominately white-male executive leadership of Hollywood, but the audience ultimately steers this ship via dollars spent.

The good news is that moviegoers are ever-increasingly rewarding diversity at the cineplex. Those MPAA reports indicate that female-lead films can be very financially rewarding. In 2013, 4 out of the top 10 box office earners were female-led movies (Catching Fire, Frozen, Gravity, Oz The Great and Powerful), with another two featuring prominent female roles (Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel). So far this year, two of the top 10 earners star women (Mockingjay Part 1 and Maleficent), and the two biggest sleeper hits, Lucy and The Fault in Our Stars, are also female-led.

Between financial data and the demographics, producers have plenty of reasons to invest in more movies about women and minorities. Would Exodus have done better if it starred minority characters, instead of being plagued by a whitewashing controversy? We’ll never know for sure, but Ridley Scott insisted he needed white people in order to sell the movie and then failed to really sell the movie. At the very least, it wouldn’t have made a difference. And ultimately, movie studios are in the business of giving us what we want. No matter how gross the people are who run the studios, if the audience tells them with their cold hard cash that they want more diversity in their movies, then the studios will follow the cash.

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