By Ronda Racha Penrice

With the Oscars days away, it is no revelation that people of color are still greatly underrepresented in every aspect of the Hollywood landscape. What is newsworthy in this year’s Hollywood Diversity Report from UCLA’s division of social sciences, however, is that the industry is finally showing signs of measurable improvement.

Titled “Old Story, New Beginning,” this year’s report, released Thursday, looks at 167 theatrical films released in 2017 and 1,316 television shows that aired or streamed during the 2016-17 season. The report shows that the greatest gains for women and people of color were for actors all across the Hollywood spectrum, ranging from film to digital (or streaming), as well as scripted shows on both broadcast and cable television and through reality shows. According to the report, people of color accounted for 19.8 percent of the leads in top films for 2017, a significant increase from the 13.9 percent figure posted in 2016. Show creators of color also posted significant gains in the digital landscape.

“People of color constituted nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population in 2017, and their share continues to grow by nearly half a percent each year,” the report notes. “Today’s diverse audiences, the evidence shows, prefer film and television content populated with characters to whom they can relate and whose stories drive the narrative.”

Yet Hollywood, according to the report, “continues to produce a plurality of films and television shows (with the exception of broadcast) with casts that are less than 11 percent minority, despite the fact that these projects are collectively among the poorest performers.”

Dr. Darnell Hunt, who serves as the dean of the division of social sciences at UCLA and teaches sociology and African-American studies, said that the Oscars, as well as the Emmy Awards, are an important catalyst to spark more diversity in the industry overall. That’s why the study is released ahead of the Oscars.

“Everyone’s talking about the controversy around the Oscars,” Hunt, one of the report’s three authors, told NBCBLK. “If you’re shutting out diverse projects from getting awards, you’re basically saying they’re not of the same quality, and studios and networks they want to be associated with quality projects.”

Diversity in film

The report uses charts documenting global box office and television ratings to argue “that diversity is essential for Hollywood’s bottom line.” Culling data from 2016 to 2017, this year’s report surveys a pre-"Black Panther" Hollywood. Still, there are a number of findings in the report that foreshadowed the Oscar-nominated film’s phenomenal box office success. For example, according to the study, “minorities accounted for the majority of ticket sales for five of the top 10 films in 2017.” "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," with John Boyega as one of its stars, and the F. Gary Gray-directed "Fate of the Furious," with its multicultural cast led by Vin Diesel and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, were among the top three.

Box office success and Oscar-nominated films don’t go hand in hand, however.

Last year’s best picture winner at the Oscars, "The Shape of Water," directed by Guillermo del Toro, who also won for best director, grossed just under $64 million in the United States and Canada and under $200 million globally, making the billion-dollar grossing "Black Panther" all the rarer as a best picture nominee. Big box-office numbers are not a barometer of Oscar success, but it is a significant measure in the Hollywood Diversity Report.

Diversity in television

So, even though diverse films like "The Fast & Furious" franchise have consistently scored big at the box office, there has not been an overflow of films with significantly nonwhite casts. But television, the report finds, is responding at a much faster pace.

For instance, eight of the top 10 broadcast scripted shows among all viewers ages 18 to 49 had a cast that was at least 21 percent minority. "This Is Us" on NBC led the charge, followed by "Empire" on Fox and "Grey’s Anatomy" on ABC. Also, the number of shows created by people of color “more than doubled between the 2011-2012 and 2016-2017 television seasons from 4.2 percent to 9.4 percent.” And while the Emmy nominations, like the Oscar nominations, for nonwhite actors and nonwhite-led shows have also not flooded in, Hunt is more optimistic about TV’s growth in diversity on screen. For Hunt, the nation’s trend toward becoming a majority-minority nation in roughly three decades, paired with technology, is at the heart of that change.

“I think that we're in new territory now,” Hunt said. “I think it’s going to be hard for TV to go back to what it was. I think that TV has had to acknowledge changing demographics at the same time that it’s grappling with changing technology. Streaming video and on demand [services] has really changed everything.”

Diversity behind the camera

But as good as the news is in front of the camera, Hunt is concerned about the industry’s progress behind the camera. According to the report, the percentage of writers of color credited on top films “was flat over the seven years examined in this report series — 7.6 percent in 2011 and a nearly identical 7.8 percent in 2017.”

Film directors of color are still underrepresented 3 to 1, at 12.6 percent; film writers of color are also highly underrepresented 5 to 1, at 7.8 percent And while the numbers in television do not proportionately represent the nation’s diverse population, the numbers there are more promising. Despite being “flat” for the last three television seasons, show creators of color on cable television rose to 11.2 percent during the 2016-2017 season. The greatest gain is in digital or streaming television such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, where show creators of color jumped from “just 6.2 percent in 2013-14 to 16.5 percent in [the] 2016-17 [season].” More sobering is the reality that directors of color helmed less than 11 percent of the episodes for 61 percent of the scripted shows on cable.

“For me, really, the only question is ‘Will Hollywood behind the camera now adjust to what's happening in front of the camera, meaning will they start opening up the writers’ rooms and bringing in more people of color?' Because again, those numbers are much lower than what they should be.” This is necessary, according to Hunt, so “that the stories that are being told resonate more with the experiences of diverse groups in America [because] that’s what people are asking for.”

And the rewards, Hunt said, are huge. “When it’s done right, the shows take off and are huge hits.”

For Jason Blum, it’s essential that the industry change. His multibillion-dollar success at his self-titled production company, BlumHouse, has been built on bringing in as many diverse players as possible. He produced Spike Lee’s Oscar-nominated film "BlacKkKlansman" and Jordan Peele’s Oscar-nominated "Get Out." Accepting the Cinema Vanguard Award at the 10th annual African American Film Critics Association Awards on Feb. 6 in Los Angeles, he advocated for hiring people who are the best at their craft and who resemble the changing world we live in.

“We do not hire diverse directors to win awards,” he told the crowd, whose attendees included the directors Ryan Coogler, Ava DuVernay, George Tillman Jr. and Barry Jenkins. “We don’t hire women because it’s the right thing to do. We hire diversity because we hire the best. We hire diversity because it’s been great for our business. We’ve had too many years of movies and TV shows populated by people who look like me. It’s time that artists in front of and behind the camera look like the world looks.”

Perhaps the legendary Quincy Jones, composer and producer of "The Color Purple" who was also honored that night, summed up the status of today’s industry best.

“We’ve come a hell of a long way from the time when I was the young film composer in town, when you didn’t see faces of color in the studio commissaries,” he said. “We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long, long way to go.”

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