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2019 was banner year for lead roles, study says

Though you couldn’t tell it from the Academy Awards or BAFTA nominations, 2019 was a banner year for inclusion in popular Hollywood movies, according to a new report released Tuesday.

Research from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative examined the 100 top-grossing films of 2019 and found notable improvement in representation for both actors of color and females.

Last year, 31 of the top 100 films featured an underrepresented lead or co-lead, up from 27 films in 2018 and 13 films in 2007; 16 of those films had a lead or co-lead who was an underrepresented female, compared to 11 movies in 2018 and just one film in 2007. 

2019 was also a step forward for girls and women. The report showed that 43 of the top 100 films had a female lead or co-lead, marking a 13-year high. In 2018, 39 films had a female lead or co-lead, while just 20 movies did in 2007.

The increase in female leads and co-leads puts film on par with TV, the report found.

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Despite the continued box-office success of inclusive films, their stars are being overlooked for awards recognition. The British Academy of Film and Television Arts nominated a slate of entirely white actors for the awards handed out the last weekend. The Oscars nominated just one person of color, Cynthia Erivo, for its 20 acting slots.

“It is clear that Hollywood is taking steps to create more inclusive stories and that those films are connecting with audiences,” wrote Stacy L. Smith, founder of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, in the report findings. “Yet there is also a very obvious disconnect between what sells tickets and what garners awards, (and that) points to a systemic bias at cultural institutions like the BAFTAs or the Academy Awards.

“After another year in which the major studios increased their output of films with female and underrepresented leads or co-leads, it is critical to recognize that talent is not limited by gender or race/ethnicity.” 

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The report, which also analyzed box-office earnings, found inclusion has been profitable for movie studios.

Walt Disney Studios outperformed its competitors, bringing in $4.1 billion for its female-driven content – more than four times as much as the next highest-grossing distributor (Universal Pictures, $893 million). Disney also earned $2.7 billion for its films with underrepresented leads, nearly twice as much as the next studio, Universal ($1.5 billion).

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