diversity in film

Study Proves What We All Know: Films Lose Money When They Lack Actual Diversity

Imagine seeing $130 million dollars on the table, yours for the taking, and then deciding, “Nah, all good bro.” This is essentially the vibe I’m getting from Hollywood Studios today. We’ve always known that true diversity pays, but a new report from the UCLA-based Center for Scholars and Storytellers has consistently found that “movies with racially diverse cast members perform better at the box office.” Not only that, but a lack of authentic diversity can result in major losses.

People are hungry for stories they seem themselves in. Films like Black Panther, Coco, Moana, Crazy Rich Asians all did massive numbers during their respective runs. Like, we’re talking top ten highest-grossing films of *all time* for Black Panther. The report also found that films that lack authentic diversity in their storytelling could expect to lose up to $130 million over the course of their run, and that big-budget films tend to be hit harder.

The emotional, social and personal benefit of more people’s stories being told is difficult to quantify but so, so important. Stephanie Allain, who founded her own studio Homegrown Pictures and helmed Dear White People as a producer, shared a story in the report that crystallises one example.

“When I first read Boyz N the Hood, I immediately connected to the material because I went to school in Inglewood and I knew these kids. The representation was authentic and true to the Black experience, both for the protagonists and for the antagonists, and I knew that with John Singleton at the helm of his own story, it would resonate in a big way. What I didn’t know is that authentic representation is so powerful, it changed the culture: Drive-by shootings plunged after kids were able to see themselves on screen.”

Onscreen representation—in film, TV, behind news desks, etc—doesn’t solve all of the structural problems and systemic racism that people face. But it does mean that marginalised voices, faces and stories get out into the world where they can affect social change, uplift people and comfort people. As well as just providing something a little different to the usual white-centric fodder, ya know!

This extends beyond just racial representation, btw! The report’s authors note that while it’s good that more attention is being given to which faces are filling screens, what happens behind the camera is just as important.

“In light of the national conversation around systemic racism, it is well past time for entertainment media creators to think beyond on-screen numerical representation as a marker of ‘inclusivity and diversity,’ senior author of the report, Yalda T. Uhls, said. “Diverse representation in race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and their intersections, particularly behind the camera, is still lacking and slow to change. Without including a broader swath of voices on every level of a production, from set decorator or costume designer to director or actor, stories and characters will come across as stereotypical.”

Disney’s recent Mulan adaptation came under fire for this very reason, with many fans disappointed with the ham-fisted treatment of Chinese culture.

The report makes a number of sensible recommendations for studios to ensure that inclusivity isn’t just an afterthought in the movies they’re making, and we’re hoping the spectre of a hefty box office loss ensures they actually follow through.

If you’re looking to wash your eyeballs with some fun stuff right now? We’re recommending Jordan Peele’s series Lovecraft Country and Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan’s queer period piece Ammonite, as well as our old faves Sex Education, Euphoria and Never Have I Ever.

Monisha Rudhran (@monishamay) is a writer and chronic Pisces. Formerly at Syrup, she's now a Digital Content Producer at ELLE and marie claire Australia. She’s into trying to be a better person and sparkling water.