Can Inclusion Boost Box Office? Films With Diverse Leads Have More Success Domestically, New Study Shows

“Stories with underrepresented leads/co-leads make money. Period,” Dr. Stacy Smith, the report’s author, says

A USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study released Wednesday dispels the long-standing notion in Hollywood that movies with female or underrepresented leads don’t perform as well either domestically or internationally as those with white male casts — a myth that in recent years has been manifested by the meme “Get Woke, Go Broke.”

The study, titled “The Ticket to Inclusion,” also found that the lead’s gender was not a significant predictor of how a movie would perform at the box office.

The study — which looked at top 1,200 films released between 2017 and 2018 — found that movies with white leads or co-leads receive more marketing support, bigger budgets and are distributed wider than those with female or underrepresented leads. It is those factors that were more predictive for box office performance than the lead character alone, and the study asked the question of whether gender or race and ethnicity played a part in the differences between these films’ box office revenue.

The study found that movies with female leads do not perform significantly different than those with male leads both domestically and internationally.

But if a movie had a white lead and a diverse cast, those movies were less successful than those that had an ethnically or racially diverse lead character.

“This study confirms our previous work indicating that the gender of the lead/co-lead character is not a significant predictor of box office performance,” Dr. Stacy Smith, one of the authors of the study, said in a statement. “Rather, it is other factors that are within the control of executives — production costs, promotion, distribution density, and the story itself that play a key role in a movie’s success. Moreover, films with leading/co-leading characters from underrepresented racial/ethnic backgrounds are a significant and notable predictor of economic revenue domestically. This is a finding that cannot be ignored and is consistent with what activists, advocates and artists have been saying for years. Stories with underrepresented leads/co-leads make money. Period.”

“The Ticket to Inclusion” was commissioned by ReFrame and was a collaboration between the Sundance Institute and Women in Film. Dr. Stacy Smith of the USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initative and professor René Weber of the Media Neuroscience Lab at UCSB’s Department of Communication wrote the report.

Smith and Weber looked at the box office performance of the top 1,200 films from 2007 to 2018 and set up controls based on production, distribution, marketing and other exhibition costs and factors to level the playing field between all the films.

“Now that scientists have worked diligently to compare box office performance by adjusting for multiple economic and strategic variables, the industry should be mindful to model films without relying upon unfounded predictors,” ReFrame co-founders Cathy Schulman and Kerri Putnam said in a statement. “The research allows for a more nuanced understanding of the factors that relate to economic performance and demonstrate that the beliefs about gender and race that have been used to guide industry practices do not hold up to scrutiny.”

“We call on the industry to level the playing field by providing the same production and marketing support to all films (of similar genre) without regard to gender or race/ethnicity #leveltheplayingfield,” director of ReFrame Alison Emilio added.

Internationally, tracking box office performance was more complex. While factors like production cost, international marketing and whether a movie was released in China were still the most predictive in determining box office success, movies with a higher percentage of women in the cast positively influenced revenue, while those with more racially diverse backgrounds was associated with a decrease in earnings. But the specific gender or race and ethnicity of the lead or co-lead character did not significantly predict earnings.

The researchers found more specifically that overseas, movies with an underrepresented lead that also had a diverse cast performed strongest, while those with a white lead in a diverse cast had the lowest international revenue. They indicate that audiences respond positively to authentic storytelling about diverse communities, but further analysis was needed due to a small sample size of available films.

“These results contradict longstanding beliefs about the economic viability of underrepresented leads overseas,” Smith said. “Instead, the findings demonstrate that bias and exclusionary production and marketing practices are driving decision-making about leading roles rather than data regarding return on investment.”

“The in-depth analysis of this unique dataset enabled us to better understand the factors that truly explain the economic success of films,” Weber said in a statement. “In addition to the impact of inclusion variables we have learned that a good story still plays a major role in a film’s financial success and that factors such as animation as a storytelling style indirectly increase financial performance through stronger stories. Interestingly, our analyses show that star power exerts no significant influence in the U.S. and on international receipts. What exactly are the driving ingredients of a good story is the goal of our ongoing projects. Decision-makers can utilize these findings to understand how best to position their movies for success.”

The researchers conducted a supplemental report to study movies that featured leads with people of color who are women, as so few in comparison were released overseas. In fact, in the 12 years of the study, there were only three movies to open in China that had a cast led by an underrepresented woman.

This separate study found that these movies receive the fewest funds and marketing spend domestically or internationally and were distributed in the fewest territories abroad.

“Films with women of color as the lead are not only the least likely to be released, but the least likely to be supported by producers and distributors,” Dr. Smith said. “We know the factors that increase the likelihood that a film will be financially successful, and movies with women of color in the lead are systematically disadvantaged in these areas. We need studios to change the way they do business when it comes to supporting these films.”

“ReFrame, committed to actionable solutions, will expand its 14 point roadmap for mitigating bias to include recommended changes to finance models based on the findings of this study, so that studios and production companies do not inadvertently underfund movies and shows based on mythological presumptions,” Schulman and Putnam added.

The authors also caution against generalizing the findings of the study to films that were outside the sample 1,200 films.

The study is the latest from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which previously partnered with Women in Film and the Sundance Institute to conduct three studies examining the barriers facing female filmmakers.

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