Playback Spring 2020: Serving up solutions

The spring 2020 issue covers the implications of the BTLR report and delves into the wave of big acquisitions and other growing trends in Canadian media.

In any business, the bottom line is, well, the bottom line.

So when the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative released a myth-shattering report last month on how gender and race/ethnicity of lead characters relates to economic success at the box office – I was all ears.

The authors of the Ticket to Inclusion report – based on a study of 53,178 characters in 1,200 top films from 2007 to 2018, in tandem with examinations of more than a dozen production, distribution, and exhibition factors – found that the strongest predictor of box office success was very simple.

Financial performance has everything to do with the number of theatres in which a movie was released, the strength of the storyline, and the spend on marketing and production.

The data shows that films with underrepresented female leads received lower median production budgets (US$19M) compared to white females (US$31M), underrepresented male leads (US$38M) or white male leads (US$52M). This diminishing scale of funding extends to domestic and international marketing figures; fewer dollars are allocated to promote women of colour than the other groups.

And when it comes to casting in some of the most lucrative genres, women of colour are virtually excluded from the top-grossing categories of action or sci-fi/fantasy, as well as sequels.

Yet the biased belief persists that films starring women or visible minorities aren’t bankable projects.

“This is a finding that cannot be ignored and is consistent with what activists, advocates and artists have been saying for years,” said Stacy Smith, USC Annenberg associate professor and founder of the Initiative. “Stories with underrepresented leads/co-leads make money. Period.”

The report is obviously more nuanced, but it’s clear that it is in the best interest of executives to #leveltheplayingfield by providing the same production funding and marketing to all films of a similar genre, regardless of gender or race/ethnicity.

The good thing, the report shares, is that all of us in the screen-based entertainment industry have a role to play in the change because of our influence. And our imaginations.

Storytelling is a powerful tool to influence beliefs and behaviour and engender broader cultural change.

It brings me back to my university days, when I was assisting in interviewing applicants for a top role at Ryerson University’s women’s centre and an insightful comment challenged my thinking.

One of our chief concerns was racism on campus. Each candidate was asked how she would tackle this issue. “I would start by checking my own biases,” said the winning candidate, a white woman.

That message was brought to the fore recently when I met with Tonya Williams, one of the first black Canadian actresses I remember seeing on TV. (The founder of Reelworld Film Festival is now on our Content Advisory Board at the Banff World Media Festival.)

Williams mentioned how at every event she attends she looks for BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of colour). She makes a point of introducing herself.

While attending Prime Time in Ottawa, I took that lesson to heart. I introduced myself to Kulbinder Saran Caldwell of REALLIFE, a boutique agency representing diverse and neuro-diverse writers. It’s the first of its kind founded by a woman of colour in Toronto.

A few minutes later, I sidled over to Natasha Semone Vassell, a producer who runs her own company, Diva Film Productions, and was looking for an Iranian writer.

Bringing the two together was one of the highlights of the conference. And it was good business.

The bottom line: If we want to see the change – be the change. Just use your imagination.

Liza Sardi
Editor-in-chief & content director,
Playback & Banff World Media Festival

Stories from this issue:

Programmer profile: CBC Kids and YA
Setting up for a new growth cycle
AVOD’s revenue potential in a growing streaming-focused market
Discovery Canada: Capturing the nation’s imagination for 25 years
Playback’s 2020 Hall of Fame: Tom Jackson