Dr. Stacy L. Smith’s annual USC Annenberg research study concerning the correlation between onscreen inclusivity and box office success again debunks certain conventional wisdom about who can lead a blockbuster. The core findings of the study show that studio resources and backing are more important than whether a given film is headlined by a white guy or a Black woman. One big reason why “Barbie” broke out with $1.4 billion this summer is that Warner Bros. Discovery treated it like an A-level tentpole release. That isn’t always the case for films headlined by “not a white guy” actors.
The study, by Dr. Smith and the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, updates and extends the group’s previous economic analyses. Examining 126 top-grossing, live-action, single-led films from 2021 and 2022, the report overviews differences in box office earnings alongside factors that contribute to success, such as a film’s budget, marketing costs, and distribution density.
“It is clearly time to move on from the biased approach that executives have taken to greenlighting films,” said Dr. Smith, the study’s lead author. “This is the third time that we have demonstrated that having a lead character who is a white male has no significant influence on box office performance. It is the way that executives support movies about white men that drives their success, not the protagonists themselves.”
The authors also examined statistical relationships to determine whether the identity of the lead character is related to financial success. The study found no statistically significant relationships between the gender or race/ethnicity of the lead character and box office performance. Films centered on white protagonists did not earn significantly more theatrically than films about female or underrepresented lead characters.
When white male leads were compared to underrepresented female leads—there was no significant benefit to having a white male as the star. Instead, key variables in determining likely commercial success were factors concerning the support for a film. This includes the production budget, marketing costs, and its widest point of release.
Movies that cost more to make, benefitted from greater spending on advertising and were shown in more theaters had significantly higher earnings. As these components were likely to skew higher for films about men, white and non-white, the primary reason for success was not the identity of the lead but rather the level of support the films received.
Films with white women received the lowest production budgets and were shown in the fewest number of theaters. Movies about underrepresented female leads received the smallest promotional budgets for marketing purposes.
“Despite these findings, movies about white male characters are still released most often by studios and distributors,” Dr. Smith said. “From the data, this is economically irresponsible. Companies are putting their money and support behind protagonists who are no more likely to be successful than any other group. The reality is that studios and distributors can sell films that they want to sell—they are choosing to sell films about white male leads far more than stories about any other group.”
As such, white males were the most likely group to star in a top-grossing movie. Across the films studied, 43% featured white male leads, 23% had white female leads, 18% starred underrepresented males, and 16% centered on underrepresented females. Among the most expensive films produced in the two-year period, movies with budgets of $100 million or more, 52.6% or 10 starred white males. 21.1% had an underrepresented male lead, 15.8% had a white female lead, and only 10.5% or two films, had an underrepresented female lead.
“The system was built to favor storytelling about one group: white males,” said Dr. Smith. “As a result, the lower value placed on films about girls and women means that in terms of real dollars, they are paid less than their male counterparts. This is a continuing and compounding disadvantage to being a woman in Hollywood. The impact is felt not only by audiences in the form of fewer stories brought to the screen but to women in this industry who are equally talented but under-compensated relative to their male peers.”
Furthermore, Dr. Smith continued tying the findings of the USC Annenberg study to the ongoing labor stoppages and contract negotiations, “After a summer when actors have been fighting for a fair contract, this data reveals the profound unfairness that simply altering the basic minimum agreement will not address.”
The study is the latest from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and can be found here.