In Hollywood, the hunt for prestige and money rules everything. Either can be used to justify almost any decision, however cynical -- and all too often, they are, especially when it comes to matters of diversity, or the lack thereof.
Ask around about why the Oscars were so white yet again this year, and why the movie industry in general remains stubbornly homogenous, and a lot of people will talk to you about fear. Movies take millions to make -- a financial risk that breeds real fear among studio executives of approving something outside their comfort zone, something they aren't quite sure will earn back the money they invested. That's a main reason why we get superhero movie after superhero movie, and why we don't see more movies about people who are not white: a fear, whether conscious or subconscious, that a "diverse" cast won't translate into butts in seats.
But according to new research by researchers out of the University of North Carolina and McGill University, there is good reason to believe studio executives shouldn't be so scared.
The researchers, Venkat Kuppuswamy, an assistant professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at UNC's Kenan-Flagler Business Scool, and Peter Younkin, an assistant professor of strategy and organization in the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, wanted to figure out how movies featuring African-American actors performed at the box office compared to all-white casts.
"The standard story for why less than a third of films have an African-American in the top, you know, six roles is that perhaps audiences are not that receptive to minority actors," Kuppuswamy said. "We wanted to see if that was truth."
To do so, they collected films released between 2011 and 2015 that met the criteria for Academy Award eligibility, then narrowed that sample down further by cutting out animated and foreign language films and focusing in on films that had data available on production budgets, Rotten Tomatoes ratings, box office revenues and a few other things. Next, the researchers asked online coders on Amazon Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourced Internet marketplace for human intelligence, to gauge whether each of the top six actors in the film was black. If two coders agreed, they added it to their statistical model. If they disagreed, the researchers decided themselves.
In the end, they obtained a data set of 732 movies, categorized according to the amount of money made, their critical success and the prominence of black actors in them. The subsequent study they authored has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, but the researchers shared their data with The Huffington Post, which we've used to illustrate the extent of Hollywood's diversity problem here.
Now, anyone who has been paying attention already knows Hollywood has a diversity problem. There are not many movies in Hollywood prominently featuring people of color, let alone one particular minority category.
But inside the data, the researchers also found something else: significant evidence that movies featuring black actors not only keep up with films at the box office and among the critics, but blow away films with no black actors at all.
"We did not find a negative effect," Kuppuswamy said. "In fact, to our somewhat surprise, we found a strong positive effect of having diversity in the cast."
The researchers found that after controlling for factors like genre, seasonality and the size of its opening release, having one black cast member did not significantly affect revenues, and having two black cast members correlated with earning roughly 60 percent more at the box office than the average film with no black actors. It was when films employed two or more black leads, however, that the real gains were seen: those films outperformed films with no black actors by 149 percent at the box office.
If you're wondering right now whether that domestic interest might have come at the expense of the international box office and Academy Awards, wonder no longer. The researchers additionally found that movies with black actors in them performed just as well in both those regards as well.
“There’s a general sense that we’re not going to make diverse movies because there isn’t an audience for it -- [and that] is simply not true," Kuppuswamy said.
It's only one minority group, and it's only a couple hundred films, but Katherine Phillips, a professor of leadership and ethics at Columbia Business school and an expert in diversity issues, said that the research shows that studios should not be able to blame the lack of diversity in their casts on the desires of moviegoers themselves.
"You can't say that this is customers driving the decision-making," she told HuffPost. "It's not that the customers don't want to see two black actors on the screen or see black actors on the screen, period."
So if it's not the customers, and we don't want to blame explicit racism outright, it seems likely that what truly is guiding the the continued homogeneity of Hollywood is the misguided fear of its studio executives -- and, from the look of things, that misguided fear is causing them to miss out on money.
“There’s a huge economic benefit to being more diverse in the cast that’s laying on the table right now," Kuppuswamy said. "Demand for diversity is outstripping supply."