Hollywood Has No Business Case for Booking All-White Casts

Blaming the lack of diversity on customer preference, a recent analysis suggests, is an irresponsible punt.

Recent Oscar nominees (Reuters)

Hollywood’s track record on showcasing minority talent and storylines is pretty awful, even considering some recent efforts to diversify programming. Some studios argue that the fault lies not with them, but with consumers, who—they claim—prefer predominantly white casts. But is there any truth to that?

Venkat Kuppuswamy and Peter Younkin, business-school professors at the University of North Carolina and McGill University, respectively, took a look at data on the film industry in order to measure how diverse casts went over at box offices.

For their study, Kuppuswamy and Younkin took a look at 723 mainstream English-language movies released in major theaters between 2011 and 2015, and determined the number of black actors in lead roles in each film. In nearly two-thirds of the films, there were no black actors cast in any lead roles. In 23 percent of the films, there was one. Only in 11 percent were there two or more black principals.

The relative rarity of diverse casts might suggest that they have little money-making potential, but after parsing the data, the researchers came to the conclusion that audiences don’t reject films with diverse lead actors—they actually prefer them. According to Kuppuswamy and Younkin, adding more black actors in principal roles had a beneficial effect on box-office outcomes. The films that had only one black lead actor performed about as well as those films that had none. But films that had two or more black actors playing main roles performed even better, boosting box-office revenues by more than 60 percent compared to films that didn’t have any black lead actors.

Percentage of Movies With Black Actors in Lead Roles, 2011 to 2015

To give movie studios the benefit of the doubt, the researchers did some additional analysis to see if there were any other potential benefits to sticking to the status quo of mostly white lead actors. So, they examined the racial composition of the casts of movies nominated for Oscars, but found that increasing a cast’s diversity in no way decreases the likelihood that a film will be nominated for an Academy Award. The researchers conclude: “Persistent discrimination in Hollywood can not be attributed to the preferences of the consumer, but must instead rest at the feet of the employer.”

Of course, some evidence of audience discrimination persists. A 2014 study found that white audiences were less likely to buy tickets for movies with predominantly black casts, and that they reject movies that include the casting of black leads in certain genres, such as romantic comedies.

That may be true, but the reason that the more minority-heavy films in Kuppuswamy and Younkin’s data set still outperformed whiter ones is that American moviegoers are getting progressively less white. A recent study from UCLA finds that from 2013 to 2014, minorities bought the majority of tickets for the highest grossing film that year, along with three of the year’s other 10 top-grossing films. Overall, minorities purchased 46 percent of all movie tickets that year.

So while there may be some truth to the notion that some portion of white moviegoers still aren’t quite ready for movies to become more diverse, this is a segment that will represent less and less relative buying power as time progresses. This trend is relevant to the American economy in other ways, too. Studies have shown that some employers are less likely to interview and hire black employees for consumer-facing roles, such as those in sales or customer service. This rationale mirrors that of some movie companies, which protest that their traditionally white customer base might be put off by too many minority employees and take their business elsewhere. But according to Kuppuswamy and Younkin’s research, that claim is likely a flimsy one.

One additional factor that Kuppuswamy and Younkin’s investigate is the gatekeeper theory, which says that part of the reason there are so few black actors in lead roles is because there isn’t enough diversity among directors, who help make hiring decisions. They found that while movies with one black lead actor were just as likely to be directed by a black or a non-black director, those few movies that had two or more black leads were more likely to have black directors. This presents a somewhat clear cure for worker homogeneity in Hollywood, and perhaps beyond: diversifying hiring at every level.