USC reports: Banner year for female actors of color, but film industry only pays “lip service” to casting other underrepresented performers in lead roles

According to the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s latest report, 2022 was a banner year for female actors of color, with “significant increases” in the number of top-grossing films with girls and women of color in lead and co-lead roles last year.

Overall, however, the report found that “the pace of change in the industry is certainly not a catastrophic one” and that any commitment the industry made to diversity and inclusion in recent years “has been mere lip service when it comes to screen roles.”

The report found that in 2022, 16 of the 100 top-grossing films featured a girl or woman from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group in a leading or co-leading role. That’s up from just 11 films in 2021 and just one in 2007. The report, however, concluded that there was “one bright spot” in its findings.

“The advancement of women of color in leading roles is encouraging,” said report co-author Dr. Stacey Smith. “It is past time for the film industry to recognize that stories about women of color have a place in theaters. Girls and women of color make up 20% of the US population, but the film industry hasn’t made sure that’s what audiences see on screen. With effort and accountability, this threshold is one that can not only be achieved but easily crossed.” His co-authors are Kathryn L. Neff and Dr. Kathryn Pieper.

Last year, women of color outnumbered men of color as leads and co-leads in the 100 top-grossing theatrical films. “This increase is significant,” the report states, “as women of color are consistently and significantly represented not only as leads/co-leads, but also as directors, producers, casting directors, studio executives, editors, composers.” As production designer, costume designer, cinematographer, critic and character. Ensuring that stories about women of color protagonists, as well as filling roles above and below the line with underserved women, is an important way to provide access and opportunity as well as change attitudes and beliefs among audiences.”

Overall, women, actors of color, and women 45 and older remain significantly underrepresented in the top-grossing films.

Nevertheless, female actors have made huge gains since 2007, when the survey was launched. In 2022, 44 of the 100 top-grossing films featured a female-identified actor as the lead/co-lead who drove the plot. That was up from 41 films in 2021 and more than double the 20 films in 2007. “This upward trend is significant,” the report said, “but still falls short of the US Census benchmark, where girls and women make up more than 50% of the population.”

The report concludes that “optimism about positive change in film is unwarranted. Although lead/co-lead roles for girls and women have increased since 2007, there was no significant difference between 2021 and 2022, and “remained roughly the same as in 2019. Gone Advocacy and activism that can lead to change There may have been a short-term impact in the mid-to-late 2010s, but more is needed to achieve lasting improvements.”

Similarly, for people of color in lead/co-leader roles, the report found that “there has been virtually no sustained change since 2018. While overall improvement has been evident since 2007, the last significant positive increase was from 2017 to 2018.”

Of the 100 top-grossing films of 2022, 29 featured an underrepresented lead or co-lead – down from 32 a year earlier. In 2022, 33 of those 29 films featured lead or co-lead actors from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups. That’s the same as the previous year, but more than double the 13 leads or co-leads in 2007

The report found that last year, 36.4% of leads or co-leads were black, 21.2% were Asian, 18.2% were Hispanic/Latino and 24.2% were multiracial or multiracial. But “regardless of the year examined,” the report concluded, “the percentage of underrepresented leads/co-leads is significantly below the U.S. Census (40.7%).”

The report also found that ageism still exists in feature film casting. “Hollywood has long valued youth and beauty over experience,” the report states, thus putting a sell-by date on female actors in their forties and older.

In 2022, only 10 films featuring women as leads or co-leads were 45 years or older at the time of their theatrical release. By comparison, 35 of the 100 top-grossing films featured a male in that age bracket. “It calculates a gender ratio of 3.5 films directed/co-led by older men to every film directed/co-led by an older woman.”

And while the number of films featuring women 45 and older as leads/co-leads in 2022 increased from seven in 2021, up dramatically from just one in 2007. Still, the report concluded that “women 45 and older are rarely shown as leads.”

“Overall,” the report said, “2022 did not reflect significant gains for women or people of color as leads/co-leads in top films.” While women of color have shown upward trends, there is clearly more to be done to ensure industry-wide progress. 2022 was a year when the box office did not fully recover and when the decision-makers hoped to force the audience to return to the theatres. Still, it seems that focusing storytelling on women and people of color was not an avenue that studios aggressively explored. Beginning in 2023, as executives plan for the future, it’s time to make equity and inclusion more than a strategy but an inherent business imperative.”

The report also examined the employment patterns of major film distributors and found that “only two companies reached proportional representation in terms of girls/women in lead or co-lead roles. Furthermore, none of the distributors achieved proportional representation in terms of under-represented leads/co-leads. These figures show That the lack of advancement of women and people of color as heroes is not due to a single company missing the mark, but due to industry-wide laziness.”

Among top-grossing films last year, Lionsgate had the highest percentage of female leads or co-leads (75%), followed by Paramount Pictures (55.6%); Universal Pictures (38.5%); Sony Pictures (33.3%); Walt Disney Studios (33.3%), and Warner Bros. Pictures (16.7%).

Among the same companies, Paramount, Sony, Disney and Warner Bros. Each cast a third of their leads and co-leads with racially and ethnically underrepresented actors, followed by Lionsgate (25%) and Universal (23.1%).

Among the other 100 top-grossing films, a total of 28 films were released by “other” companies, with 57.1% featuring female leads and co-leads, and 28.6% featuring underrepresented actors. For survey purposes, all films distributed by small companies were coded as “other”. This year, Walt Disney Studios and 20th Century were grouped together. Subsidiary or specialized companies were classified by their parent company.

The report also offers several solutions to create more leadership roles for underserved groups. “The path to increased representation among leads/co-leads is one that requires change across the company. Our analysis shows that distributors are not moving collectively toward parity. Rather, some companies have accelerated into 2022 and others are lagging behind. This seems to be a trend over the years; Companies have not consistently ensured that half of their films feature girls/women, nor have they reached proportional representation for underrepresented leads/co-leads.

“We will see industry-wide growth as every major studio and distributor gets to equity. Doing so means executives — especially those with greenlight authority — must think about how each film they add to their slate contributes to equity. This requires confronting biases that may limit how many films about women or underrepresented heroes can reach audiences. This includes ideas about what or who is likely to sell at the box office. It also needs to examine marketing and production budgets so that films by and about women and people of color receive a more equitable distribution of resources. By critically evaluating the decision-making process and the way stories are supported within a studio, companies can remove barriers that prevent stellar women and people of color from making it to the screen.”

The report acknowledged the “limitation” of gathering data from only the 100 top-grossing films. “As with all research investigations,” it says, “some limitations must be noted. Throughout our annual report, we focus on the most popular films each year. This allows us to understand and reflect on the industry as to how films reach the largest segments of audiences. Represents the audience. However, films that are less popular may be more likely to feature protagonists from underrepresented communities or girls/women.

“Other researchers may want to explore whether this is the case, although we caution against drawing conclusions about box office success from such data, as many factors besides the lead character’s gender or race/ethnicity can affect financial performance.

“Further work should also explore whether trends surrounding lead characters in film content on streaming platforms are similar or different to those reported here. There may be differences in distribution models that reflect additional biases on the part of executives about audience preferences. Finally, when we look at lead actors in this report After exploring gender, race/ethnicity, and age, we plan to provide further insight into LGBTQIA+ representation and the inclusion of characters with disabilities in a report on disparities in popular films, which will be published later this year.”

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