BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (May 12, 2011) – As Hollywood heads into its annual summer blockbuster season, few if any, major films will feature minority characters, due to studio executives’ fears that white audiences will stay away, which a new Indiana University study appears to confirm. In a new research paper, Andrew J. Weaver, an assistant professor of telecommunications in IU’s College of Arts and Sciences, conducted two studies to test whether the racial makeup of a film’s cast could influence the decisions of white audiences. His findings appear in the Journal of Communication.
Last year, only two of the 30 highest grossing films featured major non-white characters.
Recent controversies have erupted over the making of several films lacking minority casting, such as Peter Jackson’s remake of J. R. R. Tolkien’s children’s book The Hobbit and The Last Airbender, which was adopted from a cartoon featuring Asian characters. Media reports about a live-action version of the Japanese cartoon “Akira” indicate that only white actors so far are being cast for obviously Asian characters.
“There is an assumption in Hollywood that whites would avoid movies with majority black casts, or any minority cast for that matter,” Weaver said in an interview. “You see this whitewashing of films — even films that have minority characters written into them are being cast with whites.”
In his study, Weaver set out to test if the perception was accurate and found that, all things being equal, minority cast members lead white audiences to be less interested in seeing certain films.
“I don’t think it’s because whites are uncomfortable and are consciously avoiding these kinds of films. The participants in these studies weren’t thinking explicitly about the race of the actors when they made their decisions. It’s more about a perception that if there are minority cast members in it, then whites don’t see themselves as part of the intended audience,” he said.
“And I think that’s in large part because of the way that films are marketed these days,” he added. “You have this whitewashing of the mainstream films, and the only time that you see minority casts are for films that are marketed very specifically toward minority audiences.
“Hollywood’s sort of given up on the idea that you can have crossover success with a minority cast,” he said. “You get this discrimination in the casting of roles, where they’re going to cast whites if at all possible to maximize the audience.”
Weaver’s paper discusses two scenarios: race-neutral films where there is no dominant racial orientation – such as action films – and traditional romantic comedies. In each instance, subjects were presented with 12 fictional synopses of new movies. Web pages were created for each movie and the race of the characters was manipulated to create different versions.
The versions included an all-white cast; a 70 percent white cast with two white leads; a 70 percent white cast with a white and a black lead; a 70 percent black cast with a white and a black lead; a 70 percent black cast with two black leads; and an all-black cast.
After looking over the pages, which were modeled after those found at the Internet Movie Database, the participants were asked how often they watched movies, whether they did so in a theater or at home, and about their racial attitudes.
A sample group of 79 white undergraduate college students who participated in the action movie study generally indicated that the race of cast members in a film did not influence whites’ desire to see a film in general.
“This is not to say that race does not matter, of course,” Weaver explained in the paper. “Preexisting racial attitudes moderated this relationship, such that whites who were low in color-blind racial attitudes were more interested in films with mostly black casts than they were in films with mostly white casts.
“A more complex relationship between actors’ race and selective exposure begins to emerge when other factors are considered,” he added. “For example, those who were frequent movie viewers preferred white casts to black casts in the celebrity condition, but light movie viewers showed no such preference.”
Another sample group of 68 white students participated in the paper’s second study that focused more on Hollywood’s bread-and-butter, the romantic comedy, where race clearly had more of an impact.
“The higher the percentage of black actors in the movie, the less interested white participants were in seeing the movie,” Weaver wrote of the second group. “Importantly, this effect occurred regardless of participants’ racial attitudes or actors’ relative celebrity . . . This finding would also seem to lend credence to producers’ concerns about casting black actors into these kinds of romantic roles.”
While Weaver is discouraged by his research findings, he does point out that better understanding of the role of race could give Hollywood a better sense of how it can successfully target films with minority casts to the majority audience.
“Many films are written with race-neutral roles — they’re just cast with white actors,” the professor said in the interview. “A good first step would be casting minority actors in those roles, but I think the marketing question is a really interesting one.”
His next study will focus more on how minority-cast films are marketed.