It’s important for film to reflect the world, and many studios and filmmakers are talking about diversity – but according to USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, there has been no significant statistical improvement in the representation of women, people of color, LBGT characters or characters with disability over the past decade. “We’re not seeing an interesting trend either downward or upward across multiple years to suggest there’s a concerted effort to be inclusive,” AII founding director Stacy L. Smith tells The Hollywood Reporter.
The report found that although women represent 50.8 percent of the U.S. population, just 31.8 percent of speaking characters in 2017. Racial diversity is also lagging behind: 70.7 percent of the 4,454 speaking characters were white, 12.1 percent were black, 6.2 percent were Hispanic, 4.8 percent were Asian, 3.9 percent were mixed-race, 1.7 percent were of Middle Eastern descent and less than 1 percent each were coded as Native American or Native Hawaiian. And those are characters, not actors – sometimes diverse characters were cast as white actors.
When it comes to sexual orientation, more than 99 percent of the speaking characters in 2017’s films were straight and cisgender, and 81 out of the 100 movies had no lesbian, gay or bisexual characters at all. Transgender visibility is also low, with only one transgender character appearing in one of the top 400 movies since 2014. But the biggest disparity actually belongs to disabled people: 18.7 percent of Americans have a disability, but only 2.5 percent of films contained a character with a disability. Also, these characters tend to be white and male, which doesn’t reflect the actual diversity of the community.
The Importance of Representation
It’s important for people of all genders, sexual orientations, races and abilities to see themselves reflected on screen. Says Nico Santos, a gay and Filipino-American actor in Crazy Rich Asians: “I’d never really realized how important [representation] is until I started Superstore and this movie, and all the messages I’ve been getting from audiences out there and how much it means to them,” he said. “Seeing yourself on-screen, it matters. People are so moved by it.”
Diversity = $
Multiple films have proven that diversity makes money, too. Crazy Rich Asians earned $26.5M in its opening weekend at the domestic box office and $35.3M over five days, the most successful summer romantic comedy opening since 2015’s Trainwreck (which opened to $30.1M in three days). Similarly, Black Panther, which featured an African-American cast, earned the 5th biggest opening weekend of all time, among other records.
As a new filmmaker, what can you do to champion diversity?
Writing the Parts
First, start thinking about diversity when writing your script. You can write roles specifically for women, nonwhite, LGBT and people with disabilities. Make yourself aware of the actual proportion of these people in the country and think about if your film accurately reflects that. Don’t assume that you need to have the exact same background to understand or write about a person. Some people believe in diversity but are afraid to write about other kinds of people because they’re worried they might get it wrong – but avoiding diversity is not the answer. Expand your networks, ask questions and don’t shy away from difficult conversations.
If you’re working with another writer’s script, you can suggest alterations to make the film more diverse. You can also specifically seek out scripts from writers of all backgrounds and orientations or writers with disabilities.
Next, hire a diverse crew. It’s easy to fall back on your friends or the same people you’ve worked with before. But if everyone you know from film school looks like you and has a background like yours, they will bring similar perspectives to the production. Open up your positions to strangers and ask different kinds of people for recommendations. If you only ask straight white men for recommendations, you might get a homogeneous group of candidates. “It’s important to get multiple perspectives when checking references. All too often, showrunners get only 1-2 references, usually from their buddies,” says Glen Mazzara of The Dark Tower and The Walking Dead. Don’t think of diversity as a nuisance; think about it as a way to broaden your horizons and actually make your film or show better.
Finally, open your casting to a diverse group of people. If you don’t specify race in a casting notice and get mostly white people coming in to audition, think about rewriting the notice or reaching out to other networks. Try to meet new people through networking events, screenings, panels, social media, forums and FilmUp. Search for reels or shorts that feature diverse actors. Look into winners of diversity showcases. Don’t assume that there just aren’t that many actors out there; think instead about how you’re going about finding these talents.