Updated: Aug 9, 2019
by Nazli Sevinc
When I was a child, long before I knew how to verbalise what I really wanted out of my future, or even knew the word for it, I knew I wanted to be a screenwriter. Growing up in the Turkish community in the northern suburbs, this wasn’t a dream that many others thought to be viable. Nobody had ever heard of a Muslim screenwriter, nobody wanted a Muslim screenwriter unless they were experts in terrorism, drug dealing, or knew how to run corner shops – which were the only depictions of Muslims on screen.
But somehow, I made my way to film school in a time that I and many others observed as a time of change. I felt a certain optimism that screen and media culture were shifting, and the vocal calls for diversity would manifest in a change that I could be a part of. It felt like the inevitable conclusion that people like me would be accepted in a seemingly evolving industry which projected a desire for increased representation.
The complexities of addressing the lack of diversity in screen culture revealed itself in my first year of a screenwriting degree, when the shifting landscape that I thought I was witnessing now seemed much less shakeable. Though there have been incremental changes, it’s naïve to think institutions with decades – or even centuries – long practises could so easily be turned in a single generation. My research is intended to help that process along, hopefully at a faster pace.
My research into the place of minorities in film and television came off the heels of an experience I had from which I concluded that, despite the improvements made in diversity representation over the last decade, it wasn’t enough. Having earned an internship in a television production office which, by all publics opinion, was left-leaning and aware of the increasing need for diversity, it felt ironic that I’d never felt more tokenised or humiliated. I walked away from the experience knowing that, like all others looking in from the outside, I’d been tricked into believing that substantial change was being achieved, all because I’d been allowed into a space.
What I observed in the industry around me was an inclination to include diverse creators only when it came to low-skill or entry level positions, or in ‘diverse’ screen content. When I began my research, I discovered that I was right – minorities were certainly most found in entry level roles or lower roles in the hierarchy within film departments, experienced slower career progression and were not represented in more senior roles. Now, I know what you're thinking. Everyone new to the industry has to 'start at the bottom' but were we being parked at the bottom with little options of rising up through the ranks?
"I’d been tricked into believing that substantial change was being achieved, all because I’d been allowed into a space."
Despite the appearance of an improvement in diverse representation, in onscreen roles and behind the camera, the Screen Industry’s own research (Screen Australia: Seeing Ourselves Reflections in Diversity in Australian TV Drama) has proven that representation hasn’t really improved much in the last thirty years. The increased discussion about the importance of representation and the creation of a few ‘diversity hire’ positions has provided some gains and is an optimistic signal that change is possible. However, as my research indicates, we are nowhere near where we need to be yet.
My methodology for this research project consisted of working through eight research studies conducted in three countries – Australia, America, , and the UK (1) – that analyse the roles that minorities occupy in the industry, ranging from 2005 to 2019.
This study reinforced my preconceptions: minorities were certainly found for the most part in entry-level roles or lower roles in the hierarchy within film departments; they experienced slower career progression; and they were barely represented in more senior roles. The lack of representation in powerful roles in film and television is a feature of a long history of power imbalance.
Diversity is still at its core, often little more than a tokenised gesture. Minority communities are systematically held back by institutionalised racism, and are not empowered to effect change.
While the issue of the lack of diverse representation is deeply rooted within the film and television industry, there is hope that change can still occur. Where there is evidence of active practises and procedures within companies to ensure representation is considered there is proven improvement in the range of diversity. In the case of Australian television, Aboriginal Australians are in fact overrepresented on television in relation to their population, and are well portrayed. This has come out of initiatives that push for the recognition of Indigenous filmmakers, and processes to prevent problematic representation.
This shows that representation is in fact achievable, where the effort is put in to do so.
The USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism has proposed several solutions, with much of the other research studies echoing similar tactics:
Top Dog Diversity: Providing diversity quotas for not only low-level positions, but also for ones with great creative control. This way, the concentration of minorities at the bottom of the hierarchy will spread across all roles, and ensure that this diversity translates to onscreen stories. The same way that fish rot from the head, change begins from the top, and should be treated as us.
Just Add Five: if screenwriters add just five female speaking roles to each film in the top 100 each year, gender equality onscreen will be reached in four years. This is an important and useful tactic to keep in mind for writing in all forms.
A-List Equity Riders: if A-list actors add a clause to their contracts that a film’s cast reflects its setting in demography, small aspects of reality can be represented, with little to no cost to the actor or a network/studio.
Rooney Rule: inspired by the NFL’s Rooney Rule, if executives, producers and companies compile a list of underrepresented creators (writers, directors) that can be open for consideration for current and future projects, this can make such professionals accessible. One of the biggest obstacles that producers admit to crossing is the inability to find underrepresented creators through usual, mainstream pathways.
Diversity is not a burden to be carried by one person, or one community. This is because the reality of the industry is that such communities are systematically held back, and have no power to do so, as proven by the lack of representation in powerful roles in film and television. The importance of a collective effort to improve representation is crucial to its success, and needs to be a feature in all aspects of the filmmaking process.
While the reality is grim, there is no reason for it to be so any longer. Now, it’s important that the knowledge of what diversity looks like in its current state – at its core, a tokenised gesture – and harness it in order to know what the next step to take is. The solutions stated above are only some of the many ways that our industry can make leaps and bounds in equal representation for all.
Behind the camera roles:
In film, I analysed the key creative roles of:
In television, I analysed the key creative roles of:
In film and television collectively, I analysed character roles:
All Speaking Roles
In order to define a ‘minority creator’ for the purposes of this research, I analysed the representation of:
Ability (cognitive, psychological, and physical)
Perimeters of the Study
As the research studies I examined had no findings in some areas, I’ve limited the analysis of Behind the Camera roles to gender and race/ethnicity.
Data regarding gender representation made no distinctions for race, while data regarding race made no distinctions for gender. As such, there is data overlap in terms of representation for, say, ethnically diverse male creators.
The analysis of the films includes only the top 200 box office hits per year, and therefore are America-centric. Similarly, the analysis of the television shows only include the pilot episodes, rather than entire series.
There is a 5% +/- margin for the data represented below, as the meta-analysis is a compilation of different periods. Of course, even with this margin accounted for, the lack of representation is significant.
This meta-analysis encompasses up to 100,000 speaking roles onscreen, and 40,000 creative roles behind the camera. While the data at times varied depending on the country, the general patterns were clear across all three of Australia, America, , and the UK:
All minority communities were significantly underrepresented in both onscreen and behind the camera positions in relation to the population of the country.
Where diverse representation showed improvement, there was evidence of active diversity procedures and practises that facilitated the improvement. Increase in representation didn’t occur organically at any level.
Representation of minorities decreased as the importance of the creative role increased.
Where minorities were afforded opportunities, research indicates that there is a ‘softness’ to their diversity that makes them more palatable: for example, black characters are more likely to be played by light-skinned black actors.
Intersectionality is near non-existent. Minorities with access to opportunities still having traits of ‘privilege’. For example: LGBT characters are usually male, or where they’re female, they’re usually white.
Even when incorporated in early development stages in a script, diversity is resisted, and effectively altered, at nearly every level of production hereafter. Where screenwriters may write in, say, an Indian character, that decision is often challenged by producers or networks/studios, who challenge its necessity unless it is for ‘Indian’ content. Character adjustments, such as changing ethnic names to Anglo-Celtic ones, may be included. If character ethnicity can avoid being changed, directors will cast choose lighter-skinned actors for the role during the casting stage.
The discrimination/lack of opportunity is compounded the more minority ‘boxes’ professionals fill.
Where minority creators to receive work, they’re typically hired specifically for ‘diverse’ content demands, and are rarely attached to ‘regular’ projects that don’t deal with diverse issues.
The Awards minority creatives win or are nominated for are largely limited to the creation of content that deals with diversity in a traditional way; say, a black director will be awarded for directing a film about slavery.
Film studios and television networks are overwhelmingly ranked as Not Inclusive in their hiring and creative practises.
There is a concentration of minorities in low-skill level positions unable to attain career progression.
While diverse representation falls short of being balanced in every position, television has a relatively better track record than the film industry.
With that being said, let’s get into the data for each position.
In Depth Data: Behind the Camera - Film
Film writers are overwhelmingly male (77.1%), which is directly linked to the reduced presence of female roles onscreen. Where female writers are involved, women make up almost half of all major characters or speaking roles.
Film writers are also overwhelmingly white (92%), in which they are also disproportionately male. It is rare for female writers of colour of any ethnicity to be involved in any capacity in film.
Directing has the greatest gender disparity than any other creative role (95.6%), which is further compounded by differing career trajectories. Male directors begin working in their 20s and sustaining careers into their 80s. Female directors, on the other hand, have shorter career durations, typically beginning work in their 30s, and retiring in their 60s.
Women are virtually unrecognised for their filmmaking in awards – with only one female director winning a Golden Globes in 1984. Similarly, only one female director has been awarded an Academy Award, in 2009.
The overwhelming gender imbalance affects women most in film, despite no lack of female directors in the industry.
A majority of filmmakers are white (90%), eclipsing all other ethnicities and racial backgrounds. As it is with screenwriting, ethnically diverse directors are also disproportionately male, making it near impossible for female directors of colour to gain any recognition, regardless of their racial background. This is similarly reflected in award ceremonies, which have never nominated or awarded directors of colour who are female.
When it comes to receiving work, directors of colour are typically invited or attached to projects that deal with ‘diverse’ content, and are rarely attached to ‘typical’ white-centric films. This has effectively limited the type of work minority directors receive, and has led to the normalisation that minorities can only work on projects that are minority-centric.
Of all the creative roles in film, producing is the one that is the closest to a gender balance, though it is still a typically male position (78%).
The research studies in this meta-analysis contained no data on racial-ethnic disparities within producing.
Women make up less than a quarter (20%) of all executive level positions in the film industry, and are more likely to occupy vice-president or senior-vice president roles.
While this is an improvement from previous years, almost half of all films have no female executives involved in any capacity or role.
With Hollywood being ranked as the least diverse industry in comparison to the rest of corporate America, it is no surprise that white film studio and film company CEOs are white (92%).
In an evaluation of the six most major film studios in Hollywood, all six of them received a failing score for inclusivity in behind the camera and onscreen employment.
These companies underwent 30 tests, and no company earned more than 25% across all assessments, with 80% of the test results concluding ‘Not Inclusive’ on race, gender and ability.
In Depth Data: Behind the Camera - Television
While not to the same extent as film, television directing is still a male-dominated position (86%).
White directors make up most television directors (87%). Where directors of colour do receive work, it is typically for ‘diverse’ projects.
As television requires writers rooms that can comprise of up to ten writers, an increase in representation would be expected. However, this is not the case, as most writers rooms more male occupants (72.5%). Where female writers are included, more than a third report being the only woman in the room, which increases to two-thirds when it a woman of colour.
Writers of colour in writers rooms are most represented in America (13%), but more than three-quarters (78%) report being the only ethnic person in the room.
The creation of diversity ‘slots’ and diversity fellowships have enabled more than half of writers of colour to gain their first employment in television. This proves that such programs do indeed work in increasing representation.
However, this version of affirmative action does little in the way of career progression, as many writers experience stagnation, will repeat roles, or accept demotions in order to be kept on staff, even when over-qualified for their positions.
More than half of ethnic writers experience resistance when pitching for non-stereotypically diverse characters or storylines, showing that a network’s push for staff diversity remains shallow attempt at representation, and rarely translates to onscreen.
It also shows push for representation remains in low-level positions, as resistance to non-stereotypically diverse characters or storylines come from those with more creative influence – 61% of the time by showrunners, 41% by networks, 37% by other occupants of the writers rooms, 36% by No.2 on staff, and 35% by studios. This vicious pushback against diversity exemplifies the importance of diversity representation in all hierarchical roles, and not only low-level positions.
Showrunners (Script Producers)
More than three-quarters (80%) of showrunners are male, and this has remained so for more than twenty years. From 1997 to 2018, females have made up less than a quarter of all showrunners, showing that there’s been little improvement despite the increasing push for a gender balance.
90% of showrunners are white, with a majority of ethnic showrunners also being male.
Ten television companies underwent 50 tests in order to evaluate their inclusivity. Of the 50, only seven were ‘Fully Inclusive’, and nine were ‘Largely Inclusive’, while 16 companies rated ‘Not Inclusive’.
In Depth Data: Onscreen (Cast)
For this component, I made no distinctions between film and television actors, and expanded the research to other ‘realms’ of diversity. This is based on the coding provided in scripted narratives as to determine the gender, race, ability, age, and sexuality of characters.
Female actors make up less than a quarter (23%) of all protagonists. Where they are a main character, they are typically co-leads with male protagonists. This problem is compounded for women of colour, who make up only 4% of all film protagonists.
Where protagonists are from underrepresented communities – in this case, in gender, race, sexuality, ability or age – more than two-thirds are male.
Despite the opportunity that ensemble casts create in ways of improving representation, only 13% of ensembles are gender-balanced. The remaining are significantly male-skewered (73.5).
Where ensembles do include minorities, they are typically for less significant roles, or for stereotypical ones. Minorities are most often used for comic relief when among principle casts, or their ‘diversity’ is used to propel dramatic tension in narratives rather than be part of the world of the story.
All Speaking Roles
Females make up less than half of all speaking roles (42%), despite being half of the population.
Up to three-quarters (71.1%) of characters are also white, with every other character coming from a significantly underrepresented background in relation to their demographic population – 12.5% are black, 5.8% are Hispanic/Latino, 5.1% are Asian, 3.1% are Middle Eastern, and 3.1% other.
When it comes to age, women are underrepresented in every age bracket, and virtually cease to exist when they’re over 40.
2% of characters are coded as LGBT, but are still male- and white-dominated (71% and 78.9% respectively). Where LGBT characters are featured, they’re less likely to be portrayed as caregivers (19%), showing there is slow progress in accepting the LGBT community as family-oriented, or in parenting roles.
While people with disabilities (physical, cognitive, intellectual) make up 18% of the population, they make up no more than 5% of characters onscreen. Where they are featured, their disabilities are typically part of dramatic storylines rather than embedded within the world. Like all other minorities, the representation of disabled characters are also disproportionately male (70%).
Research Studies Included in This Meta-Analysis
Seeing Ourselves – Reflections on diversity in Australian TV drama (Screen Australia).
Women in Hollywood: The Ongoing Fight for Equality (The Centre for the Advancement of Women at Mount Saint Mary’s University).
Behind the Scenes – the state of inclusion and equity in TV writers rooms (The Think Tank for Inclusion and Equity).
It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World: Portrayals of Female Characters in the Top-Grossing Films of 2018 (Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film, San Diego State University).
The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 100, 250, and 500 Films of 2018 (Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film, San Diego State University).
Naz Sevinc was a Fellow in the 2019 Cinespace Social Cohesion on Screen Writer's Fellowship, funded by the Victorian Government.
Naz is a graduate screenwriter at the Victorian College of the Arts with a vested interest in shining light on oft-forgotten social issues within our society. As an Australian from an ethnically diverse background, and one that lives with a disability, Naz has a great interest in producing work that boosts the representation of marginalised communities and instigates thought-provoking conversations on Australia's social and political climate.
This article was first published on https://medium.com/the-screenwriters-social-cohesion-toolkit