People of Color Drove Movie Box Office Revenue and At-Home Viewing in 2021, New Study Says

People of color “helped keep Hollywood afloat” with heavy movie consumption during pandemic challenges in 2021, according UCLA’s bi-annual Hollywood Diversity Report.

The report, released Thursday, concluded that people of color made up the majority of opening-weekend, domestic ticket sales for six of the top 10 films released in theaters. The study also tracked progress for women and minorities in acting, directing and writing roles and examined the top 252 English-language films released in theaters or on streaming services in 2021.

In 2021, study found that films with casts that were at least somewhat diverse — 21%to 30% minority — enjoyed the highest median global box office receipts. But as in earlier reports, films featuring casts with the lowest amount of diversity (less than 11% nonwhite actors) performed the most poorly at the box office, the report said.

Mortal Kombat
“Mortal Kombat” (Warner Bros.)

Streaming films with majority-nonwhite casts won high ratings among viewers in the 18- 49-year-old demographic and Black households, the report said. There were 72 films with majority-minority casts released on streaming in 2021, including “Raya and the Last Dragon,” “Coming 2 America,” “Vivo” and “Mortal Kombat.” Nearly half (45.6%) of the films analyzed were released on streaming services only in 2021, reflecting pandemic restrictions. The report also tracked films released simultaneously online and in theaters.

“Looking at last year, every time there was a big movie that exceeded expectations or broke a record, we see that between 53%-60% of opening weekend audiences were people of color,” Ana-Christina Ramón, UCLA director of research and civic engagement for the social sciences division and co-author of the report, said in a statement. “People essentially were risking their lives to go the movies during a pandemic. For people of color and especially for Latino families, theaters provided an excursion when mostly everything was shut down. In a sense, people of color really kept the studios afloat the past couple of years. Studios should consider them to be investors, and as an investor, they should get their return, in the form of representation.”

Darnell Hunt, dean of the social sciences at UCLA and co-author of the study, added: “In 2020, minorities reached proportionate representation for the first time when it comes to overall cast diversity in films, and that held true in 2021. We suspect this is at least somewhat due to the outsize impact of the number of films we analyzed that were released direct-to-streaming.” He further predicted that studios will continue to employ a dual-release strategy, which “could have a lasting impact on diversity metrics in front of and behind the camera in the future as studios think about how to finance content for different platforms.”

Coming 2 America - barbershop
“Coming 2 America” (Amazon Prime Video)

Overall cast diversity for top films has more than doubled from 20.7% in 2011, based on the survey’s first dataset, to 43.1% in 2021. More than a third of the top-performing films in 2021 (31.0%) had majority-nonwhite casts. However, the proportion of women and minorities in writing and directing has continued to lag behind their presence in the general population, the report said.

While the number of female and minority directors has shown some growth over the years, many are relegated to lower-budget films made for under $20 million while most big budget tentpole films are directed by white men.

“The final frontier is really behind the camera for women of color,” Ramón said.

Other highlights of the report include:

  • Asian American people made up 5.6% of leads, 6.4% of overall cast, 6.7% of directors and 4.0% of writers.

  • Black actors were slightly overrepresented (about 13% of population) as film leads (15.5%) and in overall cast diversity (18.0%). Black directors stood at 9.5% and writers at 10.4%.

  • Latinos remain extremely underrepresented in all categories given their presence in the U.S. population (18.7%), making up just 7.1% of leads, 7.7% of overall cast, 5.6% of writers and 7.1% of directors.

  • For people of Middle Eastern and North African descent, representation is minimal, making up a slight 1.1% of overall cast, 2.8% of writers and 1.6% of directors. There were no lead actors from this group in 2021 top-performing films.

  • Multiracial actors made up 10.3% of leads, 9.3% of overall cast, 8.8% of writers, 4.4% of directors.

  • Native Americans remain virtually invisible in Hollywood, making up less than one percent of each job category tracked.

  • Women made up 47.2% of lead actors in the 2021 data, nearly double the 25.6% in 2011.

  • Replicating a pattern observed in 2020, films written or directed by people of color in 2021 had significantly more diverse casts than those written or directed by white men.

  • Eight of the top 10 theatrically released films in 2021 featured casts that were greater than 30 percent minority.

  • For the first time since researchers began tracking, the majority of Oscar-winning films from 2020 were helmed by directors of color and featured minority leads.

Read the full report here.