To make change in Hollywood, start with a hashtag

Asia Argento, Samal Yeslyamova, and Ava DuVernay at the 71st Cannes Film Festival Closing ceremony.
Asia Argento, Samal Yeslyamova, and Ava DuVernay at the 71st Cannes Film Festival Closing ceremony.
Image: REUTERS/Stephane Mahe
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Oscar nominations are usually an exciting time, but in 2015, some found them disappointing. Selma was nominated for Best Picture, but its director, Ava Duvernay, and leading actor David Oyelowo were not. For the first time since 1998, all 20 contenders for lead and supporting actors and actress were all white.

Activist April Reign noticed. She was the first to tweet with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, fueling conversations all over the internet about representation in television in film. And it wasn’t just people of color, commenters noticed—women, too, were underrepresented in roles on and off camera.

In the years prior, Hollywood’s track record hadn’t been much better. Whether it’s on screen, in the director’s chair, or on stage accepting an award, white industry professionals have long outnumbered their colleagues of color, just as men have outnumbered women.

But this time, major studios vowed to make a change. They created executive roles and implemented new policies to promote diverse casting and hiring. The New York Times reported that WarnerMedia would use its “best efforts to ensure that diverse actors and crew members are considered for film, television and other projects, and to work with directors and producers who also seek to promote greater diversity and inclusion.” Outlier Society Productions, Pearl Street Films, and Feigco Entertainment all pledged to add elements to their contracts guaranteeing a diverse cast and crew to each project. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences pledged to double the number of women and people of color in its ranks by 2020.

Hollywood hasn’t yet accomplished this goal, but four years after, the industry does look different. A recent Wall Street Journal analysis of movies released by year shows that films, and the people who make them, have become more diverse since 2015.

Films released in 2019 offered double the number of nonwhite male leads; the percent of films with women in leading roles increased from 42% to 61%; and the number of female directors behind major motion pictures rose from 8 to 16. The study also found that four of Disney’s nine movie titles to be released in 2020 will be directed by women.

That’s progress, but there’s still work to be done until parity can be found in each metric. On the red carpet before this year’s Oscars, Reign said: “Until we are no longer having these conversations about firsts in 2019, until we see everyone having the opportunity, whether it’s race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, indigenous people in this country, until we all have an opportunity to see ourselves represented on screen, not just during awards season but all year long, I’ll still continue to talk about #OscarsSoWhite.”

Because film production can take years to complete, we are only now starting to see the impact of the new hires and policy shifts intended to make Hollywood more diverse after the 2015 Oscars. Though it’s not yet clear that these policies will have a lasting effect on the industry, they are already helping to ensure it’s profitable. Last year, Black Panther grossed an estimated $235 million during its opening weekend, making it the fifth largest domestic opening weekend of all time. This year, Netflix claimed When They See Us is one of its most-watched series. Just a year before that, Get Out became the most profitable film of 2017.

Diversity is clearly good for business, and since the US population will continue to become more diverse in the coming years, it makes sense that Hollywood would make films that audiences want to watch. Even if a push towards greater diversity in film and television started from a hashtag, it may now have enough momentum to keep going.