Los Angeles Times

Pro­fes­sor is school­ing Hol­ly­wood on di­ver­sity

Us­ing academia as ac­tivism, USC’s Stacy Smith and her team chart highs and lows of in­clu­sion on film.

- By Jen Yam­ato

In the last days of 2018, as Stacy L. Smith and her pi­o­neer­ing team of re­searchers at USC An­nen­berg were putting the fi­nal touches on one of the most com­pre­hen­sive and in­ter­sec­tional re­ports on in­clu­sion in Hol­ly­wood to date, a his­toric find­ing in the data sent a rip­ple of ex­cite­ment through the lab.

Their re­search found that in 2018, a year of record­break­ing box of­fice, more black film­mak­ers — 16, to be ex­act — di­rected films among Hol­ly­wood’s 100 high­est-grossers than ever be­fore in the study’s 12-year span, rep­re­sent­ing 14.3% of top di­rec­tors. That marks a nearly three­fold in­crease over 2017’s six black di­rec­tors and a 100% in­crease from 2007, the first year Smith’s group be­gan chart­ing in­clu­sion, when eight black di­rec­tors helmed top Hol­ly­wood films.

Those num­bers sig­nify “a huge jump,” Smith said Thurs­day af­ter­noon, re­view­ing the fi­nal data at the head­quar­ters of USC An­nen­berg In­clu­sion Ini­tia­tive, the in­dus­try-lead­ing think tank she founded and di­rects from a sec­ond-floor of­fice on cam­pus.

“For the first time in 12 years, we’re see­ing a his­tor­i­cal shift in the hir­ing prac­tices of black di­rec­tors,” she said.

But as Smith is of­ten quick to re­mind, an enor­mous amount of work re­mains to be done. Culling hard data is just a first step in help­ing the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try re­verse a his­tory of deeply en­trenched in­equity.

Pre-dat­ing by a decade the crit­i­cal mass reached in 2017 by the #MeToo move­ment, which it­self was first sparked by ac­tivist Tarana

Burke in 2006, Smith’s re­search on Hol­ly­wood em­ploy­ment prac­tices has in­flu­enced the way the in­dus­try talks about the change it says it wants to see — even if that change has been aw­fully slow to come.

The find­ings pub­lished Fri­day in the an­nual “In­clu­sion in the Di­rec­tor’s Chair” re­port track gen­der, race and age among di­rec­tors across the top 100 per­form­ing films of each year.

And while they in­di­cate ma­jor gains for black di­rec­tors in the year that Ryan Coogler’s “Black Pan­ther” was the high­est-gross­ing film, with more than $700 mil­lion do­mes­ti­cally, growth re­mains elu­sive for nearly ev­ery other un­der­rep­re­sented de­mo­graphic group.

Of the 112 di­rec­tors who helmed the top 100 movies of 2018, a mere 3.6% were women, the study found. You can count them on one hand: Ava DuVer­nay (“A Wrin­kle in Time”), Kay Can­non (“Block­ers”), Abby Kohn (“I Feel Pretty”) and Su­sanna Fo­gel (“The Spy Who Dumped Me”).

The rate of hire for fe­male di­rec­tors has re­mained dis­ap­point­ingly con­sis­tent since 2007 among Hol­ly­wood’s top films. Across 1,200 films re­leased be­tween 2007 and 2018 — a to­tal of 1,335 di­rec­tors — men have out­num­bered women in the di­rec­tor’s chair by a ra­tio of 22 to 1.

Like­wise, only four of the top-gross­ing di­rec­tors last year were of Asian de­scent — Aneesh Cha­ganty (“Search­ing”), Jay Chan­drasekhar (“Su­per Troop­ers 2”), Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”) and James Wan (“Aqua­man”) — rep­re­sent­ing 3.6% of all di­rec­tors in 2018.

That marks rel­a­tively no change over the study’s 12year span, dur­ing which only 3.1% — or 39 Asian men and three Asian women — have di­rected top-gross­ing films.

The num­bers are even more stark for fe­male di­rec­tors of color, only seven of whom landed a com­bined nine di­rect­ing gigs in the last 12 years across those 1,200 films. Of those women, four are black, two are Asian and one is Latina.

That’s short­sighted busi­ness for Hol­ly­wood, says Smith, whose work has evolved into an aca­demic form of ac­tivism and fu­eled re­search projects with part­ners in­clud­ing the Geena Davis In­sti­tute on Gen­der in Me­dia, the Sun­dance In­sti­tute and Women in Film.

She warns that as Amer­ica be­comes more di­verse, not less, Hol­ly­wood’s sta­tus quo de­ci­sion-mak­ing will fall in­creas­ingly out of step with the pop­u­la­tion.

“2040 is lit­er­ally around the cor­ner,” Smith said. “So un­less folks start think­ing long term … sto­ry­telling in cin­e­matic form is not go­ing to be rel­e­vant.”

Smith of­ten re­lays her group’s find­ings in pre­sen­ta­tions to ex­ec­u­tives and gate­keep­ers (her 2016 TED Talk re­veal­ing the data be­hind Hol­ly­wood’s sex­ism prob­lem has been viewed more than a mil­lion times). It comes in handy when she warns her au­di­ence that the data points she’s about to share are, frankly, de­press­ing.

But there’s value in see­ing those hard sta­tis­tics writ­ten plainly in glar­ing type­face. The most com­mon num­ber her team en­coun­ters for women in Hol­ly­wood, she says, is “zero,” as in “zero women were hired in x role.”

“I’ve never been one to make ar­gu­ments — even ob­vi­ous ones, like that the in­dus­try is light-years be­hind what it should be, and what it thinks it is, on be­ing re­motely rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the real world — with­out quan­ti­ta­tive ev­i­dence,” Black List founder Franklin Leonard said in an email.

Franklin also serves on the In­clu­sion Ini­tia­tive’s board along with en­ter­tain­ment ex­ec­u­tives from across the in­dus­try. “I think it’s im­por­tant,” he said of the study. “Both be­cause it pre­vents peo­ple from claim­ing progress where there is none, and be­cause it strength­ens the ar­gu­ments folks like me make about the need for and value of a more rep­re­sen­ta­tive in­dus­try and cul­ture.”

For Smith and col­leagues Marc Choueiti and Kather­ine Pieper, who co-run the An­nen­berg In­clu­sion Ini­tia­tive and co-wrote the di­rec­tors re­port with Smith and An­gel Choi, change ide­ally be­gins with data that in­dus­try stake­hold­ers can point to.

Lay­ing out the num­bers “tells you that there’s some­thing hor­ri­bly wrong with the way in which [stu­dios] at­tach di­rec­tors to projects,” Smith said.

Over time, the work has led Smith’s team of eight staffers and about 50 stu­dent re­searchers to ex­pand their fo­cus, paint­ing an in­creas­ingly com­pre­hen­sive pic­ture of a Hol­ly­wood ecosys­tem that, much like non-en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­tries, con­tin­ues to per­pet­u­ate stark im­bal­ances across dis­ci­plines.

For the first time, the 2019 di­rec­tors re­port also in­cludes anal­y­sis of rep­re­sen­ta­tion among pro­duc­ers, se­lect be­low-the-line crew and de­part­ment heads across 300 top films from 2016-18. Those num­bers tell a sim­i­lar story. Among the 984 peo­ple earn­ing “pro­duced by” cred­its on the 300 movies in the study, 82.1% are men, 17.9% are fe­male, and 11.4% are from un­der­rep­re­sented racial or eth­nic back­grounds. Only 1.6% of those pro­duc­ers are women of color.

Men ac­count for 84.5% of 375 cred­ited ed­i­tors, while only 4.3% are un­der­rep­re­sented men and 1.4% are un­der­rep­re­sented women. Com­posers, mean­while, are 97.7% male, and less than 10% come from un­der­rep­re­sented back­grounds.

Cam­era department­s, the study found, are some of the most im­bal­anced ar­eas on a film crew. Among cin­e­matog­ra­phers of the live-ac­tion films in the sam­ple, 97% are male and 3% are fe­male, with both seg­ments over­whelm­ingly white.

The num­bers show that 99.1% of cam­era op­er­a­tors are male, while a to­tal of five women ac­count for less than 1% of the sam­ple. Women rarely fill best boy elec­tric (1 out of 292), key grip (4 out of 272) or best boy grip roles (8 out of 266). Among 281 gaffers doc­u­mented in the study, none were fe­male.

“We see these per­cent­ages re­ally low ... [and] it re­ally hits us, but when we got to one best boy elec­tric and zero gaffers — our jaws dropped,” Choueiti said. “Ev­ery film crew in this sam­ple were just filled com­pletely with men. What does that do to the cul­ture for every­one work­ing in that sys­tem, in those key po­si­tions?”

Hol­ly­wood’s cur­rent stats, par­tic­u­larly the low num­bers of di­verse di­rect­ing hires, re­flects what Smith calls “an epi­demic of in­vis­i­bil­ity.”

“We live in a cul­ture where every­one loves to take videos and pho­tos,” Smith said, grab­bing her iPhone to mime the ubiq­ui­tous act of tak­ing a selfie. “There’s a work­force there. We have to en­sure that ev­ery­body has the op­por­tu­nity and ac­cess and they’re be­ing taught the skills along the way or even know that these op­por­tu­ni­ties could be avail­able to them one day.”

The team mem­bers also see pos­si­bil­i­ties in their re­search. They cham­pion so­lu­tions like the adop­tion of in­clu­sion rid­ers, and mea­sures that can foster ed­u­ca­tion and bet­ter guide un­der­rep­re­sented hope­fuls to­ward ca­reers in film.

Un­der­rep­re­sented pro­duc­ers, their new study says, are 30.8% more likely to cor­re­late with di­rec­tors from di­verse back­grounds.

“We’ve found in the past that if you have a fe­male di­rec­tor, you’re more likely to have fe­male char­ac­ters on­screen, fe­males in the lead, fe­males over 40 and above, more un­der­rep­re­sented char­ac­ters and also more in­di­vid­u­als work­ing in other key be­hind the cam­era po­si­tions,” Smith said.

Some­times, un­ex­pected tan­gents lead them in new di­rec­tions.

“If Hol­ly­wood wants to change [in­clu­sion] overnight on screen,” said Smith, re­lat­ing one idea that struck just the other day as Choueiti was re­view­ing the num­bers, “hire un­der­rep­re­sented cast­ing di­rec­tors.”

A rel­a­tively small group of cast­ing di­rec­tors works on the top-gross­ing films. Be­tween 2016-18, 83.4% were women and 86.8% were white. And as the Ini­tia­tive’s an­nual study on vis­i­bil­ity in Hol­ly­wood found last year, on­screen rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women, peo­ple of color, LGBTQ and dis­abled char­ac­ters hadn’t sig­nif­i­cantly im­proved in a decade.

“That means a hand­ful of peo­ple are per­pet­u­at­ing the ex­act same ecosys­tem and sto­ries that we see,” she said. “To dis­rupt that process, hire women of color in that cast­ing di­rec­tor po­si­tion.”

Smith and her group plan on in­te­grat­ing that area of in­quiry into an up­com­ing re­port on what makes movies prof­itable — one of sev­eral stud­ies they will roll out in 2019, along with fur­ther re­search on the mu­sic in­dus­try, men­tal health por­tray­als on­screen and a con­tin­u­ing look at the lack of rep­re­sen­ta­tion in film crit­i­cism, in which women of color wrote just 4.1% of re­views in 2017.

In the end, the An­nen­berg team says, Hol­ly­wood isn’t all that dif­fer­ent from other in­dus­tries. Their goal is to help move every­one to­ward a path of progress, Pieper said.

“You have to think of it in terms of what can peo­ple do dif­fer­ently? And pull it down to the choices that they make,” she said. “The 16 black di­rec­tors that were hired last year — those were choices. I think our work is of­ten about say­ing: Here are the spe­cific places where you need to make some dif­fer­ent choices.”

 ?? Matt Kennedy Marvel Stu­dios ?? RYAN COOGLER, left, di­rects Chad­wick Bose­man in “Black Pan­ther.” A new study shows a his­toric in­crease in black di­rec­tors helm­ing Hol­ly­wood’s top films.
Matt Kennedy Marvel Stu­dios RYAN COOGLER, left, di­rects Chad­wick Bose­man in “Black Pan­ther.” A new study shows a his­toric in­crease in black di­rec­tors helm­ing Hol­ly­wood’s top films.
 ?? Mar­cus Yam Los An­ge­les Times ?? “UN­LESS folks start think­ing long term … sto­ry­telling in cin­e­matic form is not go­ing to be rel­e­vant,” says USC An­nen­berg In­clu­sion Ini­tia­tive’s Stacy Smith.
Mar­cus Yam Los An­ge­les Times “UN­LESS folks start think­ing long term … sto­ry­telling in cin­e­matic form is not go­ing to be rel­e­vant,” says USC An­nen­berg In­clu­sion Ini­tia­tive’s Stacy Smith.

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