At Netflix, Black Directors Find a Friendlier Home in Hollywood

13% of Netflix’s English-language features in 2019 were directed by black directors vs. 5.5% in theaters
February 28, 2020 at 1:17 pm UTC

The most recent edition of UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity report found that in 2019, black directors accounted for 5.5 percent of those helming the year’s top theatrical releases. 

But while representation on the silver screen remains low, Netflix Inc. has more than twice the share of films helmed by black directors, who have made eight of its roughly 60 English-language feature releases, or 13 percent, in 2019, according to figures seen by Morning Consult. And experts say the expansion of the streaming market could give directors from underrepresented groups more chances. 

Darnell Hunt, director of UCLA's Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies and co-author of the Hollywood Diversity Report, noted that Netflix is operating on a different business model than traditional television or film, with no focus on ratings. Broadcast and cable have often prioritized shows that will earn high ratings and bring in a bounty of advertising dollars, but with Netflix, the focus is on attracting and retaining subscribers.

“Netflix is motivated to produce a diverse package of things, which then creates opportunities for people of color or women who would never get shot in broadcast or cable because of the ratings criterion,” Hunt said. 

He also cited a lack of diversity in executive suites at traditional studios, which are responsible for greenlighting film production, as one of the main reasons for a dearth of representation in Hollywood. And when people of color are given the chance to direct a film, he said, it’s typically a film targeted at a specific audience, not a broad audience. 

But Netflix can afford to “take more chances” on content, according to Les Rose, a professor of practice in the broadcast & digital journalism department at the S.I. Newhouse School and an Emmy Award winner, who cited the streaming service’s subscriber numbers (more than 167 million worldwide, according to its most recent letter to shareholders) and its deep pockets as a reason for its flexibility. (Netflix declined to comment for this story.) 

By contrast, a Morning Consult analysis found that Hulu has released just two narrative films, with its third, “Big Time Adolescence,” premiering in March. None of the films were directed by black directors. 

As for Amazon Studios, among its 11 narrative feature films from a diverse array of filmmakers, both in ethnicity and gender, one 2019 release, “Les Misérables,” was helmed by a black director.

Apple TV+ and Disney+, both services that launched in November 2019, have also released a limited number of original films on their services. Apple TV+ released “The Elephant Queen” and “Hala” in 2019, while Disney+ debuted “Lady and the Tramp,” “Noelle” and “Togo.” None of these films were directed by black filmmakers. 

Amazon Studios was not immediately available for comment, while Hulu, Apple TV+ and Disney+ did not respond to request for comment. 

As more streaming services debut, Rose said, the need for new and compelling content will increase -- and so will the need for new and underrepresented voices.

“When you have that much content to fill, you’ve got to keep it fresh,” he said. “It would be a horrible business decision to not allow diverse directors. They represent different points of view, which represent different parts of the audience.” 

This year, Netflix has already released films from Tyler Perry and Dee Rees, and will distribute Spike Lee’s latest film, “Da 5 Bloods,” as well as films from Prentice Penny, David E. Talbert and Gina Prince-Bythewood. 

Amazon Studios will distribute two films from black filmmakers -- “Selah and the Spades” and “Sylvie’s Love” -- later this year, as well as additional films from traditionally underrepresented filmmakers. 

Black-helmed releases from traditional studios include: Lionsgate Films’ “Antebellum,” which is co-directed by Gerard Bush and is set to hit the big screen in April; Nia DaCosta’s “Candyman,” from Universal Pictures, slated for June, and Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “King Richard” from Warner Bros., to premiere in November. 

Sarah Shevenock previously worked at Morning Consult as a reporter covering the business of entertainment.

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