Hollywood Is Making Diversity Progress on Streaming But Not Theatrical, UCLA Study Shows

The share of women and people of color in key positions on theatrical releases slide back to 2019 levels in latest annual report

Hollywood Diversity
A study commissioned by the NAACP finds Hollywood still needs to do more.

For the first time, UCLA’s annual Hollywood Diversity Report separated its findings between films made for streaming and those made for theatrical. The results showed that the industry’s push for diversity is making much more progress on the small screen than the big screen.

Among the top 100 original streaming films in 2022, 64% had casts that had at least 30% actors of color, compared to 57% for theatrical films. Among the top 200 highest grossing theatrical releases at the North American box office, people of color composed only 22% of lead actors, 17% of directors and 12% of writers, all of which are below record-high shares recorded by the study prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Progress for women in key theatrical roles was a bit more mixed. Female share of lead roles in 2022 fell from 44% in 2019 to 39% in 2022 while share of directors and overall cast members remained relatively flat at 15% and 40% in 2022, compared to 15% and 41% in 2019. The one big jump in progress was in writing credits, as 27% of credited writers on 2022 theatrical films were women compared to 17% in 2019.

Streaming films, by contrast, saw near 50/50 gender parity among lead roles in 2022 with women comprising 49% of such lead spots. While director parity was not as strong, it was stronger than theatrical, with 25% of streaming film directors being women and 23% POC. On the writer front, 36% of writers on streaming films were women and 20% were POC, both higher than theatrical.

“As the film industry continues to face unprecedented uncertainty, this report identifies a path forward,” said co-author Michael Tran, a PhD Candidate in the UCLA sociology department. “The pandemic has normalized diversity on screen, not just in theaters but at home. Audiences tuned in. If Hollywood reverses course on diversity in the theaters, they’ll lose audiences to streaming and to international offerings.”

For years, the UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report has presented data arguing that audiences are showing through box office and viewership data that they favor more diverse stories, and this year’s was no different. The study found that theatrical and streaming films that featured more than 30% minority casts outperformed others at the box office and in Nielsen ratings last year. Six of the top 10 films released theatrically in 2022 had a majority minority audience and all of the top 10 streaming films were fueled by an overrepresentation of audiences of color.

Interest in diverse stories was also reflected in what films became the most watched on streaming in 2021 and 2022: Disney’s “Encanto,” a musical about a magical family in Colombia, and Pixar’s “Turning Red,” a film about a Chinese-Canadian teen and her ability to turn into a giant red panda that she gets from her immigrant mother.

“These films were culturally specific yet universally relatable,” said Ana-Christina Ramon, director of the Entertainment and Media Research Initiative at UCLA. “With more than half of the current population under the age of 18 belonging to communities of color, these young people will grow up and demand films with protagonists who look like them and who live like them.”

Yet the study also found that despite high-profile projects like Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and upcoming films like Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” and Nia DaCosta’s “The Marvels,” the vast majority of bigger budget projects go to white men. UCLA found that 60% of projects directed by white men had budgets of $30 million or more, while 56% of films directed by white women and 76% of films from directors of color had budgets of less than $20 million.

One of those films below a $30 million budget was “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” co-written and co-directed by Daniel Kwan. The A24 feature capped off its domination of this year’s awards season by winning seven Oscars, including Best Picture. The film touted a primary cast consisting almost entirely of Asian actors, with Michelle Yeoh becoming the first Asian woman to win an Oscar for a leading role.

“People of color saved the theatrical industry during the pandemic, and they are key to bringing the theatrical business back to its pre-pandemic levels,” Ramón said.