By Pauly Rodney
In 2015, no actors of color were nominated in a major acting category for the Academy Awards. It happened again in 2016, prompting the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. However, in 2017, not only were seven non-white actors nominated in the major acting categories, but African-American actors won best supporting actor and best supporting actress. Following some dramatic confusion, the Best Picture award went to a coming-of-age story of a gay, African-American male. What changed between 2016 to 2017? Were movies all of a sudden more diverse? Did Academy members suddenly recognize diverse talent?
Actually, the ballot nomination process included more women and people of color. By diversifying the individuals behind the scenes, the 2017 nominees and winners represented the diverse commercial and critical successes of the year. Major studios should apply the same logic to their movie production slates. Instead of asking the same decision-makers to diversify their casting, a more successful campaign would be to diversify the decision makers.
Do Whitewashed Movies Lose Money?
As the movie-going audience grows more diverse, they’ve demanded that their entertainment options reflect this diversity. Herein lies a dilemma: Hollywood may seem like the ultimate place for creative expression, but for many studios and producers (the people actually funding the projects), a movie is a big investment. The point of any investment is to make money. Arguing that Emma Stone was miscast as a Chinese/Hawaiian in Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, or that Matt Damon was miscast as the white savior in The Great Wall raises attention to whitewashing, but falls on deaf ears. Sony Pictures is likely more upset that Aloha grossed $22 million on a $37 million production budget; Universal is likely more upset that The Great Wall grossed less than $50 million on a $150 million production budget. It’s tempting to suggest the brouhaha over diversity sank both movies. However, for all the angst over Tilda Swinton in a role originally written for an Asian male, Dr. Strange made $233 million domestically and $678 million worldwide off of a $165 million budget. For all the griping over Ben Affleck playing a Mexican hero, Argo made $136 million domestically and $232 million worldwide off of a $45 million budget. For every bad investment with whitewashed casting, studios can point to a good investment, and hire a PR firm to handle the diversity fallout.*
Do Diverse Movies Make Money?
Whitewashed movies may not be automatic money losers, but movies that don’t feature diverse casts are leaving a lot of money on the table. Making a movie like Moonlight doesn’t take money away from movies like La La Land — it just adds to the studio’s returns since reasonably-budgeted movies with non-white male leads are likely to bring more diverse audiences (and their wallets) out to the theater.
Jordan Peele’s horror comedy Get Out, starring African-American and Caucasian co-leads, has earned $150 million and counting, over 30 times its $4.5 million budget. Kristin Wiig’s comedy Bridesmaids earned $169 million, five times its budget. Tyler Perry’s Madea franchise averages $64 million per film despite most of them costing less than $7 million to make. Clearly, there’s a large market for films that don’t only feature young, white males as solo leads.
Even in the big-budget action genre — Robert Downey’s three Iron Man movies earned an average of $347 million and Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine movie trilogy is earning an average of $200 million. But, Jennifer Lawrence’s Hunger Games franchise earned an average of $363 million, including the first two entries earning more than $400 million apiece. Sure, there have been misses, just like male-led action movies have missed the mark at times. Nevertheless, there’s clearly a market for tentpole films that don’t only feature young, white males as solo leads.
The successful films with diverse leads mentioned above all have something in common — a diverse decision maker (writer/director/producer) ensured the film appealed to diverse audiences. Most decision-makers in Hollywood simply aren’t doing so. Perhaps doing so is too much hard work … perhaps it’s easier to fill the “diversity” slot on a checklist by hiring a supporting character and subsequently killing them off (though Samuel L. Jackson and Michael B. Jordan built their early careers on being killed onscreen, here and here). It’s much harder for studios to groom, support, and elevate their diverse talent. It’s time to have more diverse decision-makers behind the camera. Years ago, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) created a Multicultural Outreach program, helping “advance the conversation” on issues of diversity and inclusion. This was a great first step, but if Hollywood still can’t find enough filmmakers and studio executives – they should reach out for help.
*All figures are domestic unless noted.