We have proof that diversity sells movies — so why can't all of Hollywood catch up?

Female leads and creators, multicultural casts, and an international sensibility are paying off

Published August 27, 2015 3:08PM (EDT)

  (Universal Pictures)
(Universal Pictures)

One of the great pleasures of summer flicks is that they aren’t necessarily supposed to have redeeming social value. Designed to mindlessly entertain, they impart no lessons beyond what we, the public, will pay cash money to see. And the North American box office is at an all-time high — the calculators busily tallying up receipts are predicting that domestic totals will reach $4.4 billion by Labor Day. Most of that cash is going to one studio: Universal, which dominated the field with five of the top ten moneymaking films of summer 2015, including three billion-dollar franchise behemoths: “Jurassic World,” “Furious 7” and “Minions”—which hasn’t hit the magic number yet, but is expected to break the billion-dollar barrier when it opens in China next month.

The box office is global, and diversity sells. No wonder wistful, quiet films about suburban adolescence (“Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl”; “Paper Towns,” “The Diary of Teenage Girl,”) seemed to mostly appeal to big city critics approaching midlife crises. Notably, the “fourth-, fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-highest grossers this year,” Mark Harris points out in his analysis for Grantland, were also released by Universal. These films--“Pitch Perfect 2,” “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “Straight Outta Compton,” and “Trainwreck”--share more than a few features in common, including the fact that they’re cinematic Velveeta: highly processed, approaching cheesy, and likely to be shelf-stable for decades. Per Harris, these films had “modest budgets, strong marketing, and a lack of concern about bringing in the young white male demographic that is still considered by too many studios the be-all-and-end-all of the movie business.” Combined, the box office receipts of these four films also surpass the one billion mark, giving them higher profitability ratios than the Big Three because of their relatively tiny budgets.

Universal has won the summer wars, leaving its studio competitors gnashing their veneered teeth and rending their Prada ponchos in despair. Why did this one studio do so well? It figured out that diversity sells. What is “diversity,” anyways? The short version: it means casting female actors who pass the “sexy lampshade test” as well as including people of color in significant speaking roles. For example, “Trainwreck” has a female lead who doesn’t look like a supermodel; the “Fast & Furious” franchise has the most ethnically diverse cast of any film series, up to and including “Star Trek.”

But the argument for diversity goes far deeper than casting. Ideally, it extends to every aspect of film making. Glimmers of heterogeneity appear here and there: “Pitch Perfect 2,” a film about young women competing in a cappella vocal contest, was written and directed by women (Kay Cannon and Elizabeth Banks, respectively) and Amy Schumer wrote “Trainwreck” in addition to playing the lead character. It also means thinking holistically—and inclusively--about cultures and markets, here and abroad.

“You don’t want to have all of one type of film or it creates a bit of fatigue,” notes Nick Carpou, Universal’s domestic distribution chief, to Variety. “We knew we had so many times at bat and we wanted to create as many diverse opportunities as we could.”

In the U.S., for example, Paramount’s “Terminator: Genysis,” was a bomb. (Yes, it really was a 2015 summer film that gives new meaning to the phrase, “instantly forgettable.”) Then "T:G" was released in China, where it cleaned up with over 335 million in international receipts. How a movie plays abroad is not necessarily how it plays here. The global marketplace is changing how movies get sold. A brief rundown of the top three billion-dollar films from the summer of 2015 quickly reveals some interesting trends.

“Minions.” A prequel to “Despicable Me,” 2010, its digital animation looks distinctly French, favoring a gouache palette and plenty of gargoyle-influenced grotesques. The first time I saw “Despicable Me,” its whimsical/grim sensibility reminded me of the hand-colored version of Georges Méliès’ classic, “Le voyage dans la lune (Trip to the Moon),” 1902. Not only is the franchise’s co-director Pierre Coffin a native of France and half Indonesian, but the production company, Mac Guff/Illumination (Universal Studios), which produced the animation for the franchise, is based in Paris, France. As characters, the Minions affirm a French working class (cough *socialist* cough) sensibility, even as the film “Minions” features a plausible female villain.

“Jurassic World.” In the original script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, three of the lead characters were originally Chinese. Not so in the film that got made, which transformed the two boys and their paleontologist mom into nice White People, making the whitewashing a deliberate move. Impossible to wave it away as a tic of the cultural unconscious.

Yes, “Jurassic World” featured people of color in speaking roles. Yes, it made over $1.6 billion dollars. Can’t argue with success. But given that 60 percent of its totals came from the foreign box office, would it have done even better if the Change hadn’t been made? As Imram Siddiquee noted, “there’s no clear reason why [director Colin] Trevorrow couldn’t have kept more of his characters Chinese. And had he done so, given the increasing power of the film market in China, he might have even expanded the film’s box office potential.”

Which brings us to….

“Furious 7.” According to Variety, “Furious 7” is the highest-grossing film ever in China at $390.8 million. On the global scale, it is the fifth biggest box office hit of all time, currently totaling 1.5 billion dollars. Ahead of it are 1) “Avatar,” 2) “Titanic,” 3) “Jurassic World,” 4) “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” But here is the relevant detail: On the list of biggest U.S. box office receipts, “Furious 7” sits at no. 30. It’s not even in the U.S. top ten.

In other words, it made $1.16 billion dollars outside of the United States. As with “Terminator: Genysis,” 75 percent of its receipts came from foreign box office. Stated the opposite way: the U.S. market only accounted for 25% of the latest installations in these two monster franchises, with a third one, “Mission Impossible-Rogue Nation,” starring Tom Cruise, being set to open in China next month. (Domestically, by way of comparison to "Furious 7," starring nonwhite guy Vin Diesel, "Rogue Nation" is no. 259).

All of these films may indulge silly fantasies, but they’re making serious money. It’s already been demonstrated that television shows with ethnically diverse casts attract larger viewerships along with the corresponding advertising dollars, so it hardly seems a stretch to extrapolate these findings to the film industry. Nonetheless, a scathing new report just out last month has concluded there is a serious lack of diversity in film, observing that women are a “persistent minority” on screen, and that the same is “true of certain races and ethnicities, despite the utopianism of movies like the ‘Fast & Furious’ series.”

“Utopian” is a fascinating word to use to describe a franchise built around lovable rogues driving souped-up cars, as if the idea that kids of all races could drive around together is, like, totally impossible in real life. The imagination falls down into gaping holes separating reality from expectations. Ironically, outside of white-collar bubbles, everyday life is ethnically and economically diverse. It is the homogeneity of whiteness which is the laughable fantasy, yet one that a good chunk of the film industry is still inexplicably working to preserve, and losing its shirt in the process.

If, as is so often claimed, the only color Hollywood cares about is the color of money, then the industry is overdue for an eye test. It doesn't seem to be able to perceive green properly, even as furious others are starting to see red.

By Paula Young Lee

Paula Young Lee is the author of "Deer Hunting in Paris," winner of the 2014 Lowell Thomas "Best Book" award of the Society of American Travel Writers. She is currently writing outdoor adventure books for middle grade and young adults. Follow her on Twitter @paulayounglee

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