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The NYU Cinema Research Institute brings together innovators in film and media finance, production, marketing, and distribution to imagine and realize a new future for artist-entrepreneurs. 

5 Things We Learned About Media Diversity in 2014

Project Catalyst

5 Things We Learned About Media Diversity in 2014

Artel Great

Without question the work I’ve done in designing and launching the first-ever mobile app devoted entirely to high quality multicultural film, music, and new media (the Project Catalyst Movie & Music App) has emerged on the razor’s edge of an exciting socio-cultural awakening.

As my year long fellowship with the Cinema Research Institute in New York City draws to close, it’s useful to discuss a few key takeaways from my efforts to champion media diversity, empower communities, and increase visibility for multicultural content creators. 

Here are the top 5 things 2014 taught me about the prospects for diversity in today’s highly active and complex media terrain.

1. There is a Diversity Disconnect in Hollywood… and its Major

Let’s face it.  America is rapidly changing.  People of color are the nation’s fastest growing demographic and are projected to expand by 40 percent over the next 15 years.  When it comes to media consumption (television viewing and movie-going), people of color make up some 60 percent of the entire audience. That’s a huge number and represents an enormous amount of box office bucks.  And yet, Hollywood (which purports to be all about the bottom line) continues to largely ignore the multicultural demographic.  According to the most recent data, only 2 percent of all the films produced in Hollywood have a diverse cast.  My point is--- if diverse bottoms fill movie theater seats, diverse faces must be reflected on the screens. Period. However, dominant media continues to hold strong anxieties regarding true media parity.   Why the neurotic obsession against multicultural stories, characters, and experiences? Because of the need to control who knows what in Hollywood, which is overdetermined by a “medieval” need to maintain cultural authority.

2. Multicultural Stories Matter

There is a deep craving by people of color to enjoy music, films, and television programs that reflect a broader view of their humanity.  There is no monolithic Asian or Latino culture. Just as there is no singular Black experience.  Multicultural communities understand this fact and are desperately looking for entertainment that will simply do more.  Where are the expressive media productions that speak to issues that are most relevant and address the important social concerns of this cultural moment?  We exist in a society that is structured around a common language.  That language is deployed using signs and symbols, which become inevitably representative.  What we can no longer ignore is that the very signs, symbols, and representations spread in dominant media are constructed and coded to create certain assumptions about cultural groups that are not real, but become real as a result of their often tragic consequences (e.g., Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, etc.)

3. Films with More Diversity Make More Money

Yet when Black films come in number one at the box office, Hollywood executives seem flabbergasted. When will they drop the act?  We know that Black films do sell overseas. Just like all Black-American culture has become exported transnationally. According to a recent UCLA study, media that represents more diversity--- make more money.  Seems only logical right?  Because diverse media has the opportunity to appeal to a bigger audience. Broadcast TV shows with casts featuring 41 to 50 percent nonwhite characters attracted the highest household ratings. For films, those with 21 to 30 percent nonwhite diversity earned the most revenue. We must move toward a place of true transparency regarding the regulatory structures that are in place which manage access and privileges dominant stories and experiences over multicultural ones.

4. Multicultural Audiences & Industry Interests Aren’t Congruent: New Voices are Needed

For all intents and purposes there is a vast institutional and philosophical divide between multicultural communities (content creators and audiences) on the one hand, and the dominant culture of media production on the other.  The issue centers on the notion of voice and visibility.  Those who are heard and are seen wield a certain social power.  Those rendered voiceless and invisible remain on the margins of that power.  The desire of multicultural communities for more variety, voice, and visibility is not congruous with the logic of dominant media.  In this sense, Hollywood has come to represent for many multicultural viewers an arrogance and hubris that is rooted in opportunism, co-optation and cultural hegemony.  For these reasons, it is imperative that new voices emerge organically from within the multicultural media community that speak to the need for deeper more nuanced forms of artistic expression.  And these new voices (in film and television) must be heard with attentive ears in their articulation of their own narratives, rituals, and experiences told from a perspective within the community itself.

5. Hollywood’s Box Office Numbers are Down

The powers-that-be in dominant media appear content with its set of rear guard actions and strategies for production and distribution. Hollywood has become locked into a head-to-head battle against reality.  The counterintuitive logic of dominant media  posits that “if it’s broke--- don’t fix it.”  It should come as no surprise that the latest data released by the Wall Street Journal reveals that 2014 witnessed another dramatic slide in Hollywood box office numbers.  Movie revenue in the U.S. and Canada are down by 5.3 percent, which brings Hollywood revenue to its lowest level since 2011.  It is my opinion that this downward trend will deepen as long as the industry continues to lack acute understanding of today’s zeitgeist realities--- the keys to the future of entertainment lie within the vibrant and expanding multicultural audience.

What are your biggest takeaways from media culture in 2014?  Share your thoughts with me in the comment section below.