Hollywood’s DEI Backslide Does Not Reflect Audience Demand, USC’s Dr. Stacy L. Smith Says

As the word “diversity” became one of the most spoken in Hollywood on the wave of #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo, Dr. Stacy L. Smith’s USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative became one of the foremost barometers of the entertainment industry’s success or lack thereof in bringing new, underrepresented voices into the production pipeline.

Now, with DEI executives resigning en masse and a far-right backlash to such initiatives on the rise, the program’s founder fears that Hollywood is in the midst of backslide, through no fault of the writers, directors and other creatives who got those new opportunities. Her team’s most recent study shows that despite the success of Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie,” 2023 saw a significant dip when it comes to representation in theatrical films.

“It’s not about their talent. It’s not about the audience. We know that for sure, in terms of our own economic analyses,” Smith told TheWrap. “When execs get nervous, they tend to rely on what they know and what makes them feel secure. Those aren’t always the best business decisions.”

Despite this, the work goes on for the AII, which continues to develop new projects such as “Proof of Concept,” a new program created with Cate Blanchett and Emmy nominee Coco Francini. The first round of program participants, who will be announced at the Cannes Film Festival next week, will receive a $50,000 grant and industry mentorship in developing a proof of concept short film for a potential film or TV project to shop around to studios.

“We’re really focusing on stories that are going to list in the marketplace, things that are commercially viable,” Smith said. “Because I think the real goal is to think critically about career sustainability for people that have been historically marginalized.”

“Career sustainability” is certainly something on the minds of thousands of creatives at a time when Hollywood is turning off the spigot of production spending, and as Smith warns, it is those who benefit the most from DEI initiatives that are the first to suffer the effects of that.

Read Smith’s full interview with TheWrap’s Office With a View below:

What is the process that you and your team developed to create these Hollywood diversity reports, and how has it evolved since you started?
We started working in this area back in 2004. We received our first grant, and I was brought the question of looking at gender roles and children’s media. My dean at the time, Jeffrey Cowan, at USC Annenberg, suggested looking at films, perhaps G-rated films or films that were family-friendly.

So we did a study on gender roles in, I think, the top 100 G-rated films between 1990 and 2005, and really started working in that space. The results from that investigation were really problematic in terms of huge disparity between the number of male characters on screen versus female characters on screen and showing girls and women that are hyper-sexualized, lots of problems.

It was after that first study that I wrote a list of all the studies that I wanted to do on issues pertaining to inclusion, and I think we finished that list sometime around 2018. It’s been a really fun ride to go from starting with an idea about gender roles and children’s media and then really building out from that initial question.

We branched out from looking at who’s on screen to who’s working behind the camera … in film, television, streaming. We look above and below the line, we do economic analyses of sales and have conducted interviews with buyers and sellers and decision-makers in the entertainment industry. And of course, we’ve rolled out solutions for change that have actually made a difference in in Hollywood … I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.

Given USC’s connections to the entertainment industry, are you often able to directly present your findings to studio executives?
Absolutely. I mean, look at our research. We have a list of thousands of people that, every time we release a study it goes right into their email. But for years we have gone to the studios, done off-the-record Q&As, conducted public forums … The goal is to really reflect back to decision-makers what they’re doing — or in many cases, not doing.

More recently with Adobe, we actually celebrate through our Inclusion List which filmmakers and studios, like Universal, are actually committing themselves to telling more diverse stories. So yes, the goal is always to reflect back, in as quick a fashion as we possibly can, with reliable and valid data. We work really quickly, really meticulously, to try to get feedback to key decision-makers to let them know what’s going on in the industry, because you can’t enact change without doing that.

Last year, the big headline on the diversity front in entertainment was the exodus of multiple DEI executives from several studios and the Academy. Were you surprised by this, and how concerned are you about a backslide in progress?
Every day I get a news alert from the Chronicle of Higher Ed about pending legislation in different states, taking aim at DEI initiatives. We also saw it firsthand in our data when we released our report not too long ago on leads in film, that Hollywood has reversed its progress. We saw a notable drop in the percentage of films with girls and women on screen back to 2010 levels. We’re seeing this across many areas.

So yes, I’m concerned, of course, because any time you see these sorts of trends, these are people, talented artists, who are not getting opportunities and access because of who they are. It’s not about their talent. It’s not about the audience. We know that for sure, in terms of our own economic analyses. So yes, it’s very troubling, especially now, when Hollywood is making less content. When execs get nervous, they tend to rely on what they know and what makes them feel secure. Those aren’t always the best business decisions.

You touched on right-wing backlash and a downsizing in content spending. Are those, in your opinion, the major factors behind this backslide, or is there something else?
I think that there are multiple factors and political pressures, ideological differences that are being felt, not only here, but globally. But there are also trends that are very, very peculiar. Let’s look to who’s leading when it comes to inclusion. It’s Netflix who is out in front in all of our analyses on different companies and onscreen and behind-the-camera trends. They are doing much better on gender and race and ethnicity even if there’s other places where they do need to grow.

There’s a fundamental disconnect, I think, between framing messages about what audiences want and the reality of what audiences choose. This is one of my favorite kinds of stats. My students love this statistic, more than probably anything I ever talked about: If you look at Metacritic scores on the top 100 films, the average is well below 59%, which, if you’re an academic, that’s a failing grade. What’s really interesting is that when you compare films from women directors and men, there’s no difference in the Metacritic average, same with a white director vs. an underrepresented director. Then, if you look at identity groups, white men, white women, underrepresented men, underrepresented women, those folks that are getting the highest critical review scores are actually films directed by women of color, yet women of color receive the least amount of production and marketing spending, and their films are released in fewer theaters in the United States and fewer territories globally.

In one study, looking at films from 2007 to 2018, there’s a bit over $15 billion difference between what studios invest in white men, versus what they invest in storytelling with underrepresented women. So if I get this straight, women of color are punching at the highest level in terms of how people perceive and respond to their stories, but are given the least amount of money. So this leads me to believe that over $15 billion in reparations are due to women of color. The folks that are making decisions don’t actually understand what their audiences want and respond to.

And so to your question, there are real concerns about how folks greenlight content. And as I said at the beginning, if they’re basing their decisions on what’s familiar … they need to understand that Gen Z doesn’t have the same sensibility as those previous eras of decision-making. There’s a profound disconnect between what audiences want, what Gen Z-ers want, and how people at the decision-making tables of the studios that are putting out the most theatrically released content.

Given that, do you feel like there’s more pressure on the filmmakers of color who do get those budgets to be successful lest their failure creates some sort of chilling effect?

I’m a scientist, so some of these conversations to me are silly because I look at the aggregate. Anytime somebody says, “Look at this film that didn’t make it,” I’m like, “You’re looking at one data point. Let’s look at hundreds of data points.” We often make decisions based on just a very small sampling of information.

For example, if I was to say to you, “How are women doing in music?” Off the top of your head, you could rattle off names like Ice Spice, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Dua Lipa — you’re just rattling off names. You might say, “Oh, there’s lots of women working in music.” But what you’re doing is using what’s called the availability heuristic to overgeneralize how women are doing in music: You think, “I can find examples off the top of my head, therefore, women are doing really well in music.” And if you look at the data, you see women aren’t doing well in music, right? Five percent or less of music producers are women, less than 20% are songwriters and around 30% are artists.

What we have happening then, is a misunderstanding based on a cognitive shortcut of the view of a field. I find this silly, because it shows me that the people in decision-making capacities, they don’t understand how the human mind works, they’re not paying attention to the math, because the math is really important. Decision-making can never be about one thing. It has to be like if you have a diversified portfolio: you diversify across a whole series of different options to maximize gains. There are lots of men that fail all the time, we know that they may not be top of mind. But when you single out a particular group of people, and put failure after failure after failure, that same availability heuristic is going to kick in.

What is your vision for AII’s future?
We want to create change, and that has always been driven by working with undergraduates. We just started a series at USC called “Live in Front of a Student Audience,” and we’ve had some amazing speakers: Lily Gladstone, Emma Coren and Daniel Kaluyya have been here.

I want to bring talent to USC because we have so many extraordinary students from so many backgrounds and places in this world. I really want them to get a front row seat to progressive, interesting and dynamic storytellers because storytelling cuts across every discipline.

We work with sometimes up to 200 people a year. Our staff at the initiative is growing. They’re smart and interesting and from every background, and so for me, it’s really important to listen to them when we are picking topics that we don’t have solutions on and carving a way forward to make a difference in this world. How do we make a difference for those whose voice might be dampened, whose credibility might be challenged?

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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