SAG’s Latest Casting Data: ENOUGH!

Headlines, The Majority Report — By on November 14, 2009 at 12:08 am

America now boasts a Black president, a female Secretary of State, a Latina on the Supreme Court and an African-American female ambassador to the U.N.  Even a “rogue” female governor and a senior citizen teamed up to capture nearly half of last year’s record presidential election votes.  Yet America’s newly and increasingly diverse face of power and influence still is not reflected on the film screens and television sets populated by our industry.  In fact, incredibly, diversity numbers are going down – calling for a new reaction to the same old data.

At the end of October, the Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG) released its 2007-2008 Casting Data Report, revealing that after two routinely low (but still record-setting) years of diversity in film and TV, roles for actors of color actually declined.  According to the report, White performers nabbed 72.5% of all roles in 2007-2008, with African-American, Latino, Asian, Native American and “Other” actors accounting for the remaining 27.5%, down from a record of 29.3% the year before.  Notably, White performers now account for 76% of all lead roles in film and TV, up from 74.4% the year before.

Representation of female performers and seniors remained “relatively unchanged” from the previous year’s report, per SAG.  For unclear reasons, the report does not present specific gender statistics, with SAG stating only that “males continue to make up the majority of roles reported, especially in the supporting category, where they contribute around two roles for every female role.” (The previous year’s report also excludes gender data, indicating only that males have “the lion’s share” of roles.)  The 2007-2008 report does show that women over 40 comprise fewer than 30% of all roles for women, a slight gain from the year before, with a drop in female supporting roles.

The annual casting report examines hiring data from television and theatrical releases that are required, as SAG Producer signatories, to collect and submit casting data by gender, age and race/ethnicity.  While the mandate does not include hiring data for performers with disabilities, the statement released with this year’s report also advises that “people with disabilities remain virtually invisible in entertainment media” although they represent 20% of the U.S. population.

SAG does not go quite far enough in the report, ultimately, by comparing the casting data to Census data with no attendant analysis.  For instance, the report shows that the presence of performers of color is roughly consistent with their presence in the U.S. population but does not show or address that the same Census data establish women as 51% of the U.S. population, far beyond their onscreen presence.

The Census data comparison also seems less relevant to the entertainment business model than the advertiser appeal of the missing groups. At less than 4% of all roles, Asian-Americans are almost entirely absent from the screen, despite the fact that, in the coveted affluent/educated advertising cohorts, Asian-Americans have the highest college graduation levels and average family income in the country.  And in sheer spending power, it is ethnic Americans overall who are exploding over long-term trends.  Per “Buying Power: 2008,” the Selig Center’s report on America’s multicultural economy, from 1990 to 2008, the projected percentage shifts in buying power were gains of: 349 percent for Latinos, 337 percent for Asians, 213 percent for American Indians, 187 percent for blacks and finally, 139 percent for Whites.  All of this merits deeper analysis of the ongoing industry trends that ignore both the seismic shift in the face of America at its highest levels of visibility and the consistent growth of ethnic populations in sheer numbers and consumer power.  But we have better things to do with that time.

So what is the call to action here?  The first is to thank SAG for continuing to mandate collection of this data.  The second is to truly accept one stark analysis of the data – that Hollywood can be expected to continue disregarding the majority of the U.S. population, i.e., women, the disabled, seniors and people of color, and the dollars they potentially represent, in favor of presenting self-reflecting images of White male power.

Therefore, as compelling – as critical, in fact – as it is to see the SAG numbers each year, it is vital that we (as in “we embracers of diversity”) adopt a new response to them.  Rather than report and rail against them, we simply must post them.  On our computers, our bulletin boards, our dashboards, our iPhones and Blackberries…  And we must be motivated by them to build our own infrastructure.  It does not have to be a TV network or film studio, not at first.  Here is one way we could begin our own “bypass” operation and start changing these numbers ourselves:

  • Commit to a 76% ratio of hiring of professionals of color on our productions.
  • Commit to a 2-to-1 ratio of hiring women on our productions.
  • Commit to writing scripts with only female (over 40), disabled or ethnic lead characters.
  • Commit to casting only women, people of color and disabled performers for at least one season of shows we work on.

Do the above proposals sound extreme or discriminatory or unfair?  If so, then that should eliminate any reluctance anyone has about labeling current Hollywood practices as “extreme,” “discriminatory” or “unfair,” since the bullet points above are, indeed, the practices that cause the dismal SAG data each year.  And that just represents hiring for in front of the camera.

The real thing we must do to bring diversity to entertainment industry screens is stop looking to the current power structure to make it happen.  They have shown their unwavering priorities and policies for decades now.  So, much like Obama sidestepped trying to convert Appalachian voters by growing his own new network of voters, we must stop waiting or trying to be included and grow our own products and practices for our own gargantuan audience.  Here’s how:

  • Do not buy a ticket for, vote for an award for or watch any ratings-measured TV program (that’s cable, or broadcast if you are a Nielsen viewer) that does not have a woman over 40, a person of color or performer with disabilities in the lead role.  (Please share below what shows and films remain for you to watch.)
  • Commit to hiring at least one person of color, one woman and one disabled professional on every project.
  • If you do not personally know enough professionals to hire with such diversity, schedule a quarterly meet-and-greet at  your office or the nearby Starbucks and ask someone you know to invite a group of diverse people at their same credit level.
  • Join the Hollywood Diversity Network and commit to using it, and all of the Guild, Academy and other diversity committees that represent highly skilled talent, as your first destination for such diversity hiring – and use these resources first to staff all projects in 2010.

If you have more ideas, informed feedback, or a different interpretation of the report, please contribute to the discussion below.

View SAG’s 2007-2008 Casting Report release
View SAG’s 2006-2007 Casting Report release
View the WGA Hollywood Writers Reports
View the Selig Center’s “Buying Power: 2008
View U.S. Census data

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