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Top 2023 movies shows diversity in Hollywood is paying off

Just three days before the Oscars, the 11th annual UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report noted an important milestone: For the first time in the report’s history, the top 2023 films were those with the most diverse casts.

Three franchise movies highlighted in the report — “Creed III,” “Scream VI” and “John Wick: Chapter 4”— featured “50 percent or more actors of color” and “posted the highest earnings in their film series,” according to the Hollywood Diversity Report 2024, Part I, released on Thursday.

Moreover, diverse moviegoers and women made up the biggest audiences for top movies: “People of color dominated opening weekend sales for 14 of the top 20 films in 2023, while women led the charge among ticket buyers with three films in the top 10,” according to the report.

“Barbie,” which features Oscar-nominated supporting actors America Ferrera and Ryan Gosling, claimed the top box-office spot last year with more than $1.4 billion globally. The “key to its opening success were women, who packed theaters and made up almost 70 percent of its domestic ticket sales,” the report said.

Margot Robbie as Barbie in “Barbie,” the top-grossing film last year. “Key to its opening success were women,” the UCLA report states. Warner Bros.

Yet they found that the share of female writers, lead actors and overall cast members dropped last year and that only three movies with female directors were given budgets of $100 million or more, compared to 25 films with male directors at the same budget level. 

There were gains behind the camera: The share of people of color represented among lead actors, directors and writers was the highest in the report’s 11-year history. The share of theatrical films directed by people of color was 22.8%, nearly double since 2011.

Latino representation ‘has not improved’

Two of the top movies last year featured Latino actors — Tessa Thompson and Selenis Leyva in “Creed III” and Jenna Ortega and Melissa Barrera in “Scream VI.”

A co-founder of the annual report, Ana-Christina Ramón, the director of UCLA’s Entertainment and Media Research Initiative, said that while Latinos make up roughly 25% of moviegoers annually, they are still underrepresented on screen.

“Data consistently shows that representation for the Latinx community has not improved over the years. There seems to be a ceiling,” she said in a phone interview.

Latinos account for almost 20% of the U.S. population but “only have at most a little over 7% representation in front of the camera,” she said.

Among the top films, only five featured Latino leads. “Of the four Latinx writers and four Latinx directors in the top 200, none were women,” the report said.  

Ramón said that now, with Hollywood entering a period of contraction, the industry could make a “big mistake” by cutting back on films that feature diversity. The data proves it, she said.

Diana Luna, the executive director of the National Association of Latin Independent Producers, said in an interview that behind the camera, “we need people in the room supporting our work. And I think sometimes it’s an obstacle because the current decision-makers might not understand it well.”

One of the association’s missions is to help more Latinos succeed in the studio system, bringing diversity into the executive room so they can promote a greater understanding of the Latino audience, Luna said.

“How do we make sure that there is retention, that they are climbing the ladder to become those leaders, those decision-makers?” she said.

Melissa Barrera (“Sam Carpenter”) stars in Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group's "Scream VI."
Melissa Barrera as Sam Carpenter in “Scream VI,” one of the top movies of 2023. Philippe Bossé / Paramount Pictures

Part of the challenge for Hollywood writers could be timing.

“I think there’s a tendency in the industry to chase trends,” said film writer Paulo Campos, who co-wrote Netflix’s original movie “The Devil All the Time.”

“That’s difficult to chase, because by the time you’re done writing something, that trend is very likely to have moved on,” he said in a phone interview.

When studios are more careful with money, there could be more of a push for remakes and adaptations, Campos said, because audiences are already familiar with them. That could also mean less money for new and original content.

Though he believes there are periods when new opportunities could be created, timing is key, he reiterated.

“In the early 2000s, the landscape for TV opened up extraordinarily. But now I think the aperture for that is starting to narrow because there is uncertainty around streaming as a distribution model,” Campos said.

Other creators have similarly seen shifts in the industry lead to new opportunities.

“When I started in documentaries, the environment was pretty niche,” veteran documentarian and producer Bernardo Ruiz said in a phone interview. “And then, between 2010 and 2020, there was a growing marketplace for documentaries with more commercial players, international buyers, and more commercial platforms.”

But those opportunities also posed new challenges.

“What I experienced over time is that those commercial pressures have begun to influence the films that are getting made and how they are getting made,” Ruiz said. “I think that when people invest in films now, there’s a bigger expectation of commercial success. And that brings its own kind of challenges, because it puts documentaries closer into the category of entertainment.”

Ruiz said many of the agents and production companies that actively commissioned diverse stories have closed their doors over the years.

Yet the UCLA report shows that diversity can still pay big when it delivers what the audience wants.

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