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Movies Starring Women and People of Color Continue to Surge


Women and people of color figured more prominently in popular films in 2019 than in any other year measured, according two new reports released this week. The studies, published annually by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and U.C.L.A.’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, examined films released in the last dozen years.

The U.S.C. report found that 31 of the top 100 grossing films in 2019 featured a lead or co-lead actor of color, an increase from a record set in 2018, when 27 such films were counted. Women, meanwhile, also bested a record set the previous year. They were the lead or co-lead in 43 of the 100 films, up from 39 in 2018.

For both groups, the figures are more than double what they were a little more than a decade ago. (In 2007, the first year of U.S.C.’s report, just 13 of the top 100 films featured people of color in a lead role, and 20 featured women.) But they still lag behind the demographics of the country as a whole, which the Census Bureau counts as 40 percent nonwhite and 51 percent female.

Trailing both demographic and box office trends this year were the nominations of major awards organizations — including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts — which went overwhelmingly to white actors. Stacy L. Smith, the founder of the U.S.C. initiative, singled out both groups in a statement.

“It is clear that Hollywood is taking steps to create more inclusive stories and that those films are connecting with audiences,” she said. “Yet, there is also a very obvious disconnect between what sells tickets and what garners awards points.”

As opportunities for women and people of color in front of the camera have increased significantly, gains in powerful behind-the-scenes positions have been more modest, the University of California, Los Angeles, report shows. Only 14 percent of directors of high-grossing films last year were people of color, according to the report, a bump compared with 2011 (the first year analyzed) but a 5 percent decrease from 2018. Women directors, driven by the success of movies like Lorene Scafaria’s “Hustlers” and Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” continued a steady climb since 2011, but still worked on just 15 percent of top films.

Among the 11 heads of major film studios — the executives tasked with deciding what movies are made and by whom — 91 percent were white and 82 percent were male, U.C.L.A. found.

Are most successful films white and male because of audience preferences, or in spite of them? Yet a third study released this week — from the advocacy group ReFrame, authored by U.S.C.’s Smith — sought to answer that question.

The existence of a female lead or co-lead had no significant effect on box office performance, the report found. But, contrary to longstanding conventional wisdom in Hollywood, films led by people of color performed better than white-led films when controlling for other factors.

“This is a finding that cannot be ignored and is consistent with what activists, advocates and artists have been saying for years,” Smith said. “Stories with underrepresented leads or co-leads make money. Period.”

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