In this regular feature we look for inspiration beyond our own boundaries. What can we learn from the film industry about promoting diversity?
Filmmakers shape the narrative of our time through their work, but unfortunately opportunities have mostly been confined to a narrow range of practitioners. The result has been a lack of cinematic perspectives on what it means to be human today. New Dawn, an initiative of nine European public funds, aims to open up the film industry to voices that are often left unexplored. It has a clear mission: to strive for a vibrant, open and inclusive film industry with a true diversity of perspectives and filmic expressions, making it relevant for everyone.
Boosting authentic and original films
New Dawn believes that public funds have a responsibility to support talented filmmakers without prejudice, and to provide opportunities for authentic and original films to flourish. So New Dawn helps filmmakers to set up networks and receive financial support. Filmmakers from any of the participating countries that share their mission are welcome to apply for a grant. Applications involve outlining a shared motivation on the part of the producer, writer and director that reflects how they connect with New Dawn’s mission. They will be assessed by a committee of independent international film professionals. Chosen applicants will receive grants of up to €200,000 for a feature film (fictional or animated) and up to €100,000 for a feature-length documentary
Some stats on diversity in cinema
Though not a lot of research is available on European film production, we can look at studies of US cinema for reference. The 2022 UCLA-Hollywood Diversity report found that people of colour accounted for 38.9% of the leads in top films released in 2021, which is just short of proportionate (people of colour made up 42.7% of the US population in 2021). Women have also made great gains over the course of the last decade in their share of top film leads, accounting for 47.2%.
Women are, however, still vastly underrepresented in the key roles of director and screenwriter. Less than 22% of directors and 33% of writers for film are women, and male and female people of colour represent only 30% of directors and 32% of film writers. The study also found that people of colour and women have a harder time raising financing for a film, and when they do succeed they raise less. So initiatives like New Dawn are clearly very important. Filmmakers do not need to belong to a minority group in order to apply for support from New Dawn, but it does represent a great opportunity for minority filmmakers to get the funding they might well fail to acquire from traditional studios and financiers.
The lack of diversity at the top has a ripple effect across productions. Films directed or written by women or people of colour in 2021 had casts that were significantly more diverse compared to those directed or written by white men.
Diverse films perform better at the box office
Disregarding films that focus more on diversity represents a missed opportunity, since they tend to be better for business. The AIR report analysed over 100 films released between 2016 and 2019. Their earnings were tracked and a diversity score awarded. When measuring diversity, the people working on a movie (in terms of gender, race, sexuality, and disability status) were taken into account, but so was whether the story was authentic, culturally relevant and inclusive. The report found that films ranked below average for diversity take a financial hit at the box office, compared to films ranked above average. Even after making allowance for critical acclaim, big-budget films lacking in diversity pull in about $27 million less on their opening weekend. This represents a potential loss for a film of $130 million in total.
All this data points to a massive opportunity, given that films with more diverse casts perform better at the box office. Of course, money isn’t the only or even the most important reason for making diverse films, but it points to the fact that significant public demand exists for these films. Often it’s not an emotional appeal but a reference to the spreadsheet that makes the difference.
Parallels with the literary world
Publishers and other professionals in the literary field tend to think that diversity in books doesn’t sell. The same goes for film professionals, who seem to think that investing in diverse films is risky. The film industry is still financially conservative, with studios and financiers hesitant to invest large sums of money in projects backed by filmmakers they do not know. Very often the people they do know share their skin tone and gender, while multiple studies have clearly shown that diverse films make more money at the global box office.
Since filmmakers with ethnic minority backgrounds are underrepresented in their field, initiatives such as New Dawn are crucial in helping to put them on the map. It’s no different for authors of colour, who are often overlooked by traditional publishing companies. Shamira Raphaëla, a Dutch filmmaker and chair of the advisory committee, said, ‘New Dawn Fund is not about pity. It’s a gift to society. To change the system you need to start at the roots, and the roots are the funding institutions.’