Why are female and non-white actors underrepresented in Hollywood films? Scripps Economics Professor Roberto Pedace has authored a study, “Homogeneity in Hollywood: Discrimination in Motion Pictures,” that attempts to answer this question. The study, which was aided by Scripps alumna Guadalupe De La Cruz ’11 and Zoe Pinczower (CMC ’17), considers the role of the film consumer in casting decisions.
“My research examines the relationships between demographic characteristics of actors cast in Hollywood films and the size of theater audiences,” says Pedace. “The purpose is to analyze potential gender and racial biases from the consumer side through their influence on box office revenue.” His findings have been published in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and numerous other outlets, and his research paper is currently under review at a scholarly economics journal.
To conduct his research, Pedace sampled 899 Hollywood films made between 2005 and 2012, finding that only 28 percent had a female first-lead character, and that only 19 percent had a non-white first-lead character. Hypothesizing that character demographic characteristics affect viewership, he created an empirical model that tested this theory by examining international box office revenue while controlling for factors such as production budgets, genre, critic ratings, and star power. He and his research assistants collected data from Box Office Mojo, the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), the New York Times Movie Review, and Rotten Tomatoes, tallying factors such as each film’s earnings, release date, and number of opening screens while also noting the races and genders of their lead characters.
Examining the data, Pedace found evidence that the racial diversity of a film’s cast has a significant negative effect on its international box office earnings. For example, a 10 percent increase in non-white cast members is associated with 17 percent decrease in international revenue, and when the number of non-white leads is increased by one, revenue decreases by approximately 40 percent. The research did not support the claim that gender diversity affects revenue.
Pedace is interested in how consumer attitudes help shape these statistics. “In this environment, film studios may be inclined to supply movies with characteristics that appeal to more consumers and increase profits,” Pedace writes. “It could be argued that the consumer prejudice guides studio executives into character profiles that favor white males.”
Such findings suggest that more balanced racial representation in Hollywood films must be driven by a shift in consumer practices. “Studios will continue to have an incentive to discriminate if the prejudice exhibited by international audiences persists,” concludes Pedace.