Oscars Data: Hollywood’s Race Problem Is About More Than Just Diversity

It’s too late to put the toothpaste back in the tube when it comes to race and this year’s Oscars, but data might be able to help us figure out how to address the race issue in Hollywood.

Professional racism is not a new thing in the movie business, or the whole of American business for that matter. However, because the backlash against the Academy for nominating only white actors and actresses for this year’s Oscars is, at least in part, a data argument, we have the opportunity to unemotionally ask questions before shooting further.

Those questions include: What groups are actually drawing the short straws in Hollywood? What is to blame? Are we convicting the right group when we blame the Academy for a lack of black, Hispanic, and Asian award nominees? Is there an equally or more culpable party to this issue? And are these imbalances in nominations part of a systemic problem?

Let’s start by looking at Hollywood’s favorite topic: money.

Various celebrities and op-ed writers have made hay about the incongruence of high-grossing films with black lead actors not getting nominated for Oscars. On the surface, it sounds like a reasonable argument.

Data, however, does not show much of a historical correlation between high-grossing films and films that win Oscars. In the last 10 years, no best picture has been in the top 10 highest-grossing films of the year (only half have been in the top 50), and none has grossed more than $150 million at the U.S. box office. Only two films even nominated for best picture have been top 10 earners.

Average earnings for #1 box office is $463 million, versus $83 million average for Best Picture winners.

These amounts are actually skewed high because of the Oscars. That’s because many Oscar contenders tend to be released toward the end of the year in order to get larger distribution in case they get nominated. And even then, as we can see, Oscar candidates tend to be far from the highest earners.

This brings up an important distinction: The “Oscar-bait” genre is a different game than the “tentpole” game. 2015’s big earners like Star Wars, Jurassic World, Avengers, Inside Out, and Furious 7 are all fun, tentpole action movies made for broad audiences and not necessarily dramatic nuance. The movies that get Oscar nominations are generally serious, dramatic, often biopic, and not blockbusters.

Academy Awards are supposed to be bestowed for artistic, not commercial, performance—and the data backs this up. So the argument connecting box office success and racism doesn’t hold water. (Technically, it’s a logical fallacy called “false cause.”)

From a social standpoint, however, my own reaction to the Oscars was that it’s a shame to see years go by without minority actors being nominated for dramatic awards. But are we missing the magnitude of the problem (in either direction) because we’re not looking at a bigger picture than two years? This happens all the time when we make judgments based on small data sets.

For example, this chart shows carbon dioxide levels in the earth’s atmosphere from 2002 to 2003:

Behold: Greenhouse gases are going down! No more climate change. Oil companies, celebrate! Except… When you look at a bigger slice of history, you see this:

People are having a similar reaction to the Oscars. Two years of all-white nominees might make it appear that the Academy is 100 percent biased in favor of Caucasian actors and actresses.

But when you zoom out to the 10 previous years, you’ll see that a 2015 snub does not a pattern make.

In fact, we had another two-year dry spell for minority actors and actresses in 2007 and 2008. Zoom out another 70 years, and a different story emerges entirely:

Image credit: Kevin Drum

Though the percentage of black nominees has been increasing over time, the Academy Awards are still not representative of minorities in the U.S. population. But as we’ll explore more later, we get a very different picture with context.

Every year, there are only five nominees per each of the four acting categories—making our data set a whopping 20 people, which is far away from statistical significance given the demographics of the country we live in. That makes zero nominations in two years once in a while statistically likely. Nothing, statistically, has changed in the last few years.

So perhaps we are overreacting on this front, too.

What we should be reacting to is the percentage of minority actors who are given a shot to play good roles at all. We need to take a systemic look at Hollywood, not just the awards.

Here’s a breakdown of who’s been getting cast in lead roles at all in the past 10 years. Since 85 percent of our nominees are coming from the top 100 box office earners, I looked at the top 100 movies’ top billed actors and painstakingly tallied the races of the top-listed man and woman to see what races are being represented as lead characters.

Here’s that same data, as a percentage of the total opportunity:

For context, let’s compare this to the larger population to get a more accurate picture of the racial discrepancy in Hollywood. Here’s what just 2015 looked like in terms of casting top roles:

2015 was a pretty bad year for minorities being cast at all, all things considered. Black and Asian actors got cast as leads at a lower rate than their respective U.S. populations, while white actors were cast more. Latinos, however, seem to be getting most screwed, comprising only 3 percent of top roles despite being 17 percent of the U.S. population.

It’s pretty clear that statistically, the Academy did not have many minority options to vote for in the 2015 Oscars.

Our collective knee-jerk reaction when the 2015 nominees came out was to blame the overwhelmingly male, white, and elderly members of the Academy for bias; some of us gave them benefit of the doubt by calling it unconscious bias, while others cried straight-up racism. One counter-argument has been that accusing a group of being racist based solely on that group’s race is also racist.

Data doesn’t show the intent, nor lets us read the minds of Academy voters—some may very well be racist, or maybe not at all. Data can, however, show us the result of a system that does not appear to favor some races over others.

If you think of the road to Oscar winner as a funnel, you can track the winnowing of actors and actresses by race over various stages. Here are the last 10 years of Hollywood’s top 100 films, visualized.

And as you can see, over the last 10 years, the Academy has voted slightly more favorably for black and Latino actors than it has been presented with. Asians get filtered out by the time nominations happen, and white actors receive the remainder of attention.

As Porter Braswell, CEO of the hot new minority recruiting firm Jopwell, put it to me recently, the problem with race and employment in America lies in the pipeline. It’s not about preferential treatment, he says. It’s about setting the system up so that you get a representative shot.

The takeaway, if I may recommend one, is this: Let’s not shoot the Academy of Motion Picture Awards for playing with the cards they’ve been dealt. Let’s instead focus on the characters who are being written and cast in movies in the first place, and let’s get more Asian and Latino actors into the Screen Actors Guild.

Minorities are already being written and cast at higher rates in television. It just isn’t happening on the silver screen—yet. I’d like to think that in America we’re past the point of choosing not to support a film because of the race of the actors. Now let’s start supporting them earlier on.

P.S. Data aside, I’m holding that Ice Cube should have been nominated for Best Actor. Not because Ride Along 2 was that good, but because playing a police officer on screen in the same year that your son plays a younger you singing the song “Fuck Tha Police”—which you wrote—is an artistic feat unparalleled. Regardless of race.

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