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Authentic Diversity in Movies Wins at the Box Office and with Kids

New research reinforces the value of authentic representation in film.

Multigenerational family watching a program on a tablet.

Turns out that having diverse representations in our movies—real, authentic portrayals of people from a variety of backgrounds—is good for kids and the filmmaking industry. Recent research shows that films with more diverse casts are out-earning movies with less diversity. More diverse representations are also good for kids' emotional development and well-being.

Here's what the latest research reveals about where we're making progress with diversity in film, where we are not, and how the film industry's actions when it comes to more diversity and high-quality representation in movies impacts kids and families.

Films with more diverse casts drive higher movie ticket sales and revenue

The recently released Hollywood Diversity Report 2022: Part I was the ninth in a series of studies conducted by the Division of Social Sciences at UCLA. The study showed positive progress on diverse representation in film. In 2020, representation of people of color in front of the camera was proportional to the population for the first time—and this held true in 2021 as well, at 38.9% among film leads and 43.1 % for total actors in films.

Plus, bringing more diverse casts to the screen translated to financial results. The same report revealed that in 2021, films with casts that were 21% to 30% people of color enjoyed the highest median global box office receipts, while films with casts that were less than 11% people of color were the lowest performers, continuing a trend seen in the past four years.

Today's audiences seek out nuanced, high-quality portrayals of diverse characters

Films that scored higher on a measure of "authentically inclusive representation" (AIR) did better at the box office and received more acclaim from critics and audience members. The AIR 2.0: Driving Box Office Performance Through Authentically Inclusive Storytelling report from the UCLA Center for Scholars and Storytellers, Creative Artists Agency, and the Full Story Initiative found that large-budget films in 2021 performed better when they had more authentic representation. For every point increase in a film's AIR score, box office earnings increased by $18.8 million. High AIR films also scored 6% higher on Rotten Tomatoes audience scores and 22% higher on critics' scores.

The AIR 2.0 report's evaluation considered several factors. First, it looked at whether people from diverse backgrounds were on screen and behind the scenes, and if diversity was present, whether characters and stories genuinely reflected the cultures being portrayed instead of relying on stereotypes. Researchers also examined to what extent a film's representation increased the complexity of a general audience's understanding of that cultural group.

The influence and preferences of diverse audiences are driving these findings. The Hollywood Diversity Report 2022 also found that people of color accounted for the majority of domestic ticket sales for six of the top 10 films in 2021. Households of color accounted for a disproportionate share of the households viewing each of the top 10 films released on streaming platforms. And Black households gave their highest ratings to streaming films with greater than 50% minority cast share while White households gave films that were 21-30% minority their highest ratings.

Families prefer more diverse representation in films. Our own report, The Inclusion Imperative: Why Media Representation Matters for Kids' Ethnic-Racial Development, revealed that all parents prefer more diversity in the programming their kids watch.

The trend toward greater diversity in films is healthy for kids

More authentic diversity in media is a positive trend for kids' racial development. Ethnic-racial development starts early. Patterns suggest that even babies receive, notice, and organize information relevant to ethnicity-race. Over time, the portrayals a kid sees in the media can inform their sense of identity and where they fit in the world.

Among young people of color, watching favorable and authentic depictions of their own ethnic-racial group can have a positive impact on self-perceptions and views about their ethnic-racial group. In contrast, studies examining how media use influences Black children and adolescents have found that exposure to stereotypical media representations was related to lower self-esteem, satisfaction with one's appearance, confidence in one's own ability, feelings about their ethnic-racial group, and academic performance.

According to our study, Asian, Black, and Hispanic/Latino parents are much more likely to feel that the representation of their own ethnic-racial group in media is stereotypical than White parents do.

What makes a high-quality portrayal? Research informs how we rate diverse representation in media. My colleague Li Lai, senior director of content at Common Sense Media, puts it like this: "When we rate diverse representation in a film or show, we are looking for three-dimensional, whole characters who are more than their racial identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation. Even positive traits can be perceived as stereotypes. It's more helpful for kids to see multidimensional characters."

More diversity in front of and behind the camera will lead to more authentically inclusive portrayals

Encouragingly, roughly four out of five lead actors in 2021 were people of color. The Hollywood Diversity Report 2022 states that Black actors were 15.5% of film leads in 2021, just above proportional level (13.4%). Multiracial lead actors were proportional as well, at 10.3%. Yet the numbers for Hispanic/Latino, Asian, Native American, and Middle Eastern and North African leads were still underrepresentative in 2021 compared to their percentage in the general population.

When it comes to those behind the camera, representation has been much slower to shift, as reflected by the fact that writers and directors are still predominantly White males. The same report shows that only 30.2% of film directors and 32.3% of film writers were people of color.

The question of who's in control behind the camera can affect how authentically the characters are drawn in the script, who lands the audition, and how sensitively the characters are presented in the screenplay.

More diversity across the board is the only way to ensure films are more realistic and equitable in their representation. Given that the payoff is there for kids and for the business, we expect to see more movement toward diversity and authentic representation in all arenas of movie development and production. We look to the entertainment industry to continue to track progress and work to accelerate this trend.

It's not only good for the bottom line, it's important for the healthy development of kids.

Michael Robb

Michael Robb is head of research at Common Sense, overseeing the development and execution of a mission-aligned research program, overseeing multiple research projects on the roles of media and technology in children and families' lives. He has published research on the roles of media and technology in children's lives in a variety of academic journals, and his work has been featured in press outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and NPR. Michael also has supervised community educational outreach efforts, helping parents and teachers make the most of quality children's programming. Michael received his B.A. from Tufts University, and M.A. and Ph.D. in psychology from UC Riverside.


Michael lives in Connecticut with his wife, two sons, and dog, Charlie. His hobbies include hiking, cycling, racquetball, escape rooms, video games, and binge watching great TV shows. Since having kids, he's now perfecting the art of picking up toys, building obstacle courses with pillows, and napping. He and his wife force their children to listen to showtunes in the car.