Diversity in film industry is good for business, community

“Let’s face it. The industry does not crave a female sound,” stated the dad, to his talented and frustrated daughter, who was seeking film industry work in the 2013 film, “In a World.” The film had a happy ending, but the fictional dad’s statement reflects a damaging, real-world, film industry belief: Audiences are not interested in films by, for and about women, and investment in those films is a bad bet.

Screenwriter Jennifer Kesler blogged that her UCLA screenwriting professors lectured her against writing scripts that featured “at least two named female characters, who talk to each other, about something other than a man.” Another instructed, “The audience only wants white, straight, male leads.” (Really? That would exclude screen representation and role models for more than 68 percent of Alaskans.)

Another industry pro told her, “The audience doesn’t want to listen to a bunch of women talking about whatever it is women talk about.” That may seem true based on box office grosses, but recent data proves otherwise.

The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film (CSWTF) at San Diego State University researches and provides analysis on diversity in the film industry. Their 2008 study reported that a major studio president allegedly announced his company will no longer produce films with female leads and indicated women-led films “are bad box office bets.”

The researchers responded, “This conclusion ignores the influence of the size of the budget on box office grosses.” In fact, the study established that when comparing films with similar-sized budgets, films “with larger budgets generate larger grosses, regardless of the sex of the protagonist” and because executives usually give larger budgets to films that feature male leads, more films featuring male leads earn larger box office grosses.

Despite that fact, the newly released, CSWTF study of 2014’s top 100 grossing films found just 12 percent of protagonists were female. That’s a drop of three points from 2013, and four points from 2002.

The study also found that in films with exclusively male directors and writers, 4 percent featured female leads, 87 percent featured male leads, and 9 percent featured female/male ensemble leads. But in stark contrast, in films with at least one woman director and/or writer, 39 percent featured female leads, 35 percent featured male leads and 26 percent featured male/female ensemble leads. These findings strongly suggest women are deliberately excluded from on-screen attention when men run the show.

CSWTF’s 2014 behind-the-scenes employment findings also indicate many film industry executives make across-the-board decisions that exclude women from lucrative careers in filmmaking: “Women fared best as producers (23 percent), followed by executive producers (19 percent), editors (18 percent), writers (11 percent), directors (7 percent), and cinematographers (5 percent).”

Of course, we need to work to change this injustice. Protecting equal employment opportunity is important because employment discrimination is illegal, unethical, and its resulting socio-economic damage impacts all of our lives, our culture and our community. We also must demand proportionate media representation for our highly diverse groups of citizens.

In his article, “Hollywood and Diversity: How the Media Informs Social Identities”, Duncan Stewart said it very well: “Movies and TV have power to construct the (traditional) aesthetic of American society more than any form of media” as well as shape our identity and influence our value and understanding of ourselves and others. The studies indicate that millions of American women and other protected classes of people are unjustly excluded from employment and representation in films. As Stewart stated, that underrepresentation sends relentless, daily messages to millions of Americans (and over 68 percent of Alaskans) that they “are not worthy of being anything other than a sidekick because no one like them is ever a protagonist of a story worth telling.”

The National Organization for Women’s mission is to always work to eradicate discrimination and promote diversity because it is in the best interests of the common good, for business and our people. But everyone can work to even up economic opportunity as well as increase honest media representation of our diverse culture by sending the industry messages of support and by our own mindful purchasing decisions as consumers.

Barbara McDaniel is President of the Alaska National Organization for Women (NOW) chapter.


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