How Screenwriters Can Contribute to Greater Diversity in Hollywood

There’s been a lot of controversy this past year about diversity in Hollywood.  The Oscars especially have been blasted for a lack of diversity in their actor nominees.  The representation of women in film has also been a major focus, not just on screen but behind the scenes too.

Over dinner on Saturday night, I was talking with some actor friends about typecasting.  Some actors don’t mind because it makes it easy for them to figure out their niche and it helps them get work, but others resent it because they believe they ought to be able to play almost anything.

Hollywood typecasts for two reasons:

  1. Marketability
  2. Visual simplicity

Movies and Television are visual mediums and it’s easier to believe that someone who looks the part is the part.  There’s no time allowed for characters to explain why they are in the role they’re in.  Why would an Italian run a Chinese restaurant?  Why would an educated white guy drive a New York cab?  These casting choices would need to be explained in the story and unless it’s part of the story, it wouldn’t make sense.

We are often told that there are few actresses who can be convincing as an action hero.  Some of the few are Angelina Jolie or Charlize Theron, Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu, Jennifer Garner, Halle Berry, and Scarlett Johansson.  The more I think about it, the more names come to mind.  So perhaps we are operating on an unconscious bias that predicates our belief that few actresses can be convincing action heroes?

In 2014 only 15% of all films were directed by women and only 20% were written by women.  In fact women tend to be hired on low-budget, low-grossing features.  Is that because they aren’t capable of handling big-budget films or is it that we believe they aren’t capable?  These decisions cannot be based on past results simply because there are none.

In 2008 Sex and the City proved that there’s a big market for female films.  Well, duh.  But Hollywood doesn’t invest in the $40million romcom anymore.  Why when Sex and the City’s budget was $65million and it has since grossed over $400million?  There was a similar surprised reaction from Hollywood and media when The Fault in Our Stars grossed $48million at the box office on its opening weekend, mainly to young women.

Mainstream Hollywood is primarily focused on the action blockbuster, which is marketed to men but typically falls into the four-quadrant film category.  Blockbusters appeal to everyone.  You’re not going to attract the male demo by advertising to women, but you will get the female demo by marketing to men.  This could be why Hollywood assumes women aren’t convincing action heroes; not because women can’t play them, but because men would rather watch men be the hero.  It’s purely marketing.

While I don’t condone the boycotting and protesting that’s been happening lately, the heightened awareness of the unconscious bias prevalent in Hollywood is resulting in affirmative action.  Industry leaders are offering programs supporting female directors, media is promoting films featuring all-female crew, and leading ladies are taking on male roles in major films.  Obviously more can be done.

What can screenwriters do?  We have the power to encourage change by:

1. Writing scripts with more diverse characters

The challenge is getting it past the gatekeepers who are accustomed to looking for stereotypical characters, but don’t let that stop you.  Like the examples above, don’t force-fit a characterization just to prove a point, be true to your story first.  Write what you know and if you are not familiar with a certain culture, either get familiar or avoid it.

2. Encouraging female and ethnic writers to write

I was actually surprised to learn that most of the screenwriters who visit my site are male.  I had hoped to draw more female writers simply because I’m female.  So if you know women or ethnic screenwriters, encourage them to continue writing and send them to Write for Hollywood.

3. Does your script pass the Bechdel Test?

The Bechdel Test is a simple test that asks a film to have two or more women who speak to one another about something other than a man.  I have added characters to a story just to make sure I pass that test.  It has at the very least made me a more mindful screenwriter.

4. Contribute to a changed perception of Hollywood

Talk about female and ethnic writers, directors and actors.  Promote their work to your friends.  Watch their movies.  Put your money where your mouth is.  If we start talking about our favorite directors and writers who are not Steven Spielberg or Woody Allen or J.J. Abrams as much as I love them all, we force a change of perspective and get people looking elsewhere.  There are plenty of female writers and directors who do more than romcoms.  I love romcoms so I love Nancy Myers and Norah Ephron as well as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, but perhaps Kathryn Bigelow is more your style.

Share with us below how you already incorporate diversity in your screenplays or how this article helped you to spot your unconscious bias.

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