Hollywood's diversity problem got another harsh spotlight when the 2016 Oscars nominations were announced yesterday morning. The only non-white nominee in the directing and acting categories was director Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Two movies that told the stories of black Americans—Straight Outta Compton and Creed—nabbed nominations, but only for the white folks involved. Besides feeling unfair, the Oscar noms seem strangely out of touch. The nominees stood in bright contrast to the audiences who paid the actors' bills. In 2014, non-white Americans bought 46 percent of movie tickets sold in the United States, and women bought half. Yet among hundreds of the top movies released in 2012 and 2013, 75 percent featured men as the main character, 83 percent featured white leads, 88 percent were written by whites, and 94 percent were directed by men.
The data on America's underrepresentation on the silver screen has been available for a couple of years now. So has the criticism. (The Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite was started last year by lawyer April Reign.) So why do the Oscars, and American movies in general, still skew so much toward white dudes? Pacific Standard talked with University of California–Los Angeles sociologist Darnell Hunt, who is working on a comprehensive, five-year survey of the effect of diversity on moviemaking profitability, to get his perspective.
"A lot of money is being left on the table because the industry is not producing optimally what the audience wants."
Let's get one thing out of the way first: This isn't necessarily a question of "quality." Sure, it's possible that white men just happen to make the best movies in America, but another likely explanation is that because white men are the official movie taste-makers, their peculiar tastes are the ones that get all the acclaim. In 2012, the Los Angeles Times found that 77 percent of those who vote for Oscar nominees are men, 94 percent are white, and 86 percent are over the age of 50. "Just imagine that group," Hunt says. "They're going to have a certain conception of what's considered quality, which probably isn't going to align with a lot of the more diverse projects out there."
Hunt's research suggests the silver screen is actually shooting itself in the foot by representing its customers so poorly. Two years in a row now, Hunt's survey has found that movies with more diverse casts tend to earn more, which makes sense, considering the data on who buys movie tickets. "Our analysis suggests that a lot of money is being left on the table because the industry is not producing optimally what the audience wants," he says.
It seems strange that such a powerful industry should work against its own interests, but Hunt thinks that dated rituals like the Academy Awards help create a vicious cycle that maintains the status quo. (I should note that "dated ritual" are my words, not Hunt's.) If less-diverse stories keep winning awards and pumping out good-enough profit, studio heads—who are 94 percent white and 100 percent male, according to Hunt's latest data—will keep trying to reproduce those old successes, regardless of the potential for something different.
Still, Hunt thinks there's some hope. "I think the change we've seen is people are, at least, talking about it," he says. "When we started this project, people weren't really talking about it." If Tinseltown isn't receiving the message from the inside, maybe it will eventually get it from the outside, from the rest of America.