The Challenges & Impact of Black Representation in Film & TV

New research reveals the barriers that Black talent in the film and TV industry faces, the economic fallout, and solutions for creating a more inclusive, equitable workforce.

By Jonathan DunnSheldon Lyn, Nony Onyeador, and Ammanuel Zegeye

Movies and television are often an escape from and a reflection of life unfolding. They also can play an outsize role in shaping and reinforcing cultural beliefs and attitudes about race, both in the United States and internationally. Yet for the thousands of people who toil in a range of on- and off-screen positions in the sprawling film and TV industry, movies and television are something much more grounded—they are a job. And for Black professionals trying to build and sustain a career in film and TV, the industry has been, by many of their accounts, a relatively unwelcoming workplace.

While a certain amount of progress has been made with on-screen talent in recent years, and although several entertainment companies are starting to make strides toward diversity and inclusion, our new analysis shows that inequity persists and is deeply entrenched across the film and TV ecosystem. Data on the levels of diversity and representation on-screen have been available for several years. But those numbers alone, as important as they are, tell only one part of the story. We examined in detail the racial complexities and challenges of this dynamic workplace, analyzing the entire film and TV ecosystem—including studios, networks, production and streaming companies, and distributors—through the lens of the individuals who must navigate it: on-screen talent, as well as off-screen writers, producers, directors, executives, agents, crew members, and beyond.

We wanted to understand the lived experience of Black professionals along the end-to-end journey of content production and distribution, from applying for an entry-level position or pitching new ideas to shooting on location and distributing a finished product. To shed light on the scale of the racial disparities and the potential economic opportunity in addressing them, we analyzed data and reviewed multiple research reports on thousands of films and TV shows. We also conducted anonymous interviews with dozens of film and TV professionals, writers, directors, producers, agents, actors, and executives, enabling them to speak openly about the system-level obstacles and routine indignities they encounter (see sidebar “About the research”). We collaborated in this research with the BlackLight Collective, a coalition of Black leaders, artists, and executives who work in varied capacities across the film and TV industry. We hope that focusing on the experiences of those who face so many barriers will help spur solutions to improve the inclusivity of the industry for all underrepresented groups.

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Barriers that undermine equity in content development, financing, marketing, and distribution come at a substantial cost to the film and TV industry.

Our findings, which build on and corroborate McKinsey’s recent research on the Black experience in corporate America, include the following:

  • By addressing the persistent racial inequities, the industry could reap an additional $10 billion in annual revenues—about 7 percent more than the assessed baseline of $148 billion.1 Fewer Black-led stories get told, and when they are, these projects have been consistently underfunded and undervalued, despite often earning higher relative returns than other properties.
  • The handful of Black creatives who are in prominent off-screen, “above the line” positions (that is, creator, producer, writer, or director) find themselves primarily responsible for providing opportunities for other Black off-screen talent. Unless at least one senior member of a production is Black, Black talent is largely shut out of those critical roles.
  • Emerging Black actors receive significantly fewer chances early in their careers to make their mark in leading roles, compared with white actors, and they have a lower margin for error. 
  • Both film and TV still have very little minority representation among top management and boards; film in particular is less diverse than relatively homogenous sectors such as energy, finance, and transport.
  • A complex, interdependent value chain filled with dozens of hidden barriers and other pain points reinforces the racial status quo in the industry. Based on our research, we catalogued close to 40 specific pain points that Black professionals in film and TV regularly encounter as they attempt to build their careers.
  • There are four key steps that film and TV companies can take to advance racial equity in entertainment and beyond. These steps would need to be cross-cutting and, ideally, shepherded by an independent, third-party organization that the industry creates.
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Today, Black Americans make up 13.4 percent of the US population, and that percentage will increase over the next few decades.2 Just as the racial wealth gap is constraining the US economy, the film and TV industry will continue to leave money on the table if it fails to advance racial equity (see sidebar “The value of achieving racial equity in Hollywood”).

However, the unique characteristics of the film and TV industry make achieving equity a complex, system-level challenge. Tight-knit, interdependent networks dominate the landscape; unlike in many other industries, a single company’s efforts to change the racial dynamic inside its own four walls can do only so much for the entire ecosystem. In any given week, let alone an entire career, a professional working in Hollywood might have to traverse multiple separate entities—agencies, unions and guilds, studios, networks, production houses, financiers, festivals, critics, and awards establishments. At the same time, strong accountability structures (uniformly enforced HR processes and rules, for instance) and transparency are lacking in many cases. Work settings can be small and informal, including far-flung shooting locations outside the United States; the work itself is often temporary and contract based. In the same way that collective action is needed to advance racial equity in corporate America, real and lasting change in film and TV will require concerted action and the joint commitment of stakeholders across the industry ecosystem.

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