Just Add Five

Each year, my Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative assesses the gender of all speaking characters (those saying one or more words on screen) across the 100 top-grossing films.  In 2013, only 29.2% of all speaking characters (4,506 evaluated) on screen were female.  This percentage has not moved very much over time.  In 2007, the percentage of speaking characters that were female was 29.9% and in popular films released between 1990-1995, it was 28.7%.  Other researchers have found similar results.  For instance, in a sample of films theatrically released between 1946 and 1955, only 25% of characters were female.  Clearly, females have been facing a representational roadblock on screen for decades even though they comprise 50% of the population.

So, what would it take to change this percentage?  To be honest, not much.  If filmmakers just added five female speaking characters to their current slate of projects (without taking away or changing any of the male characters) and repeated the process for four years, we would be at parity.  Yes, you read that correctly. The gender imbalance in top-grossing films would correct in just four years.  I should note that this tactic would not take away jobs from male actors.  It would just add five female actors on screen saying one or more words.  Just add five is a slightly different approach -- but along the same vein -- as what actor Geena Davis called for last year in a blog post for The Hollywood Reporter.

Now, you might wonder what just adding five would cost.  Per film, the expenditure is cheap.  A call to the Screen Actors Guild-AFTRA revealed that hiring an actor to say one or more words on screen only costs $880.00 per day. Just adding five female actors on screen would cost a total of $4,400 per film.  Of course, this rate will increase over time as characters are added and with SAG-AFTRA agreements.  Given that the top 100 films per year typically make at least $25 million domestically, adding $4,400 to the production costs seems like a very small ask. 


Perhaps your next question is where to add female characters?   The five you add do not need to be female leads, co leads, or even supporting characters--though, if that is your intent, we will hardly stand in your way.  Most characters in a film are inconsequential to the storyline.  My research has shown routinely that the typical feature film depicts roughly 45 characters on screen.  The lion's share of those characters only say a few words.  For example, a person serving food at a local restaurant (e.g., "here by yourself again?"), a research analyst working on a computer (e.g., "we traced her cell phone") or a police officer addressing citizens (e.g., "The 405 is closed due to an alien invasion") are speaking characters not usually relevant to the plot.  But, given entrenched social stereotypes, these occupational roles are often implicitly or explicitly cast along traditional gender lines.  This process, repeated time and time again, undoubtedly contributes to the gender imbalance we continue to see on screen.  Your efforts can change this, and with just a few keystrokes.      

Just adding five female characters has an additive effect.  If five female characters are added to every movie this year, then next year we will start at a higher overall industry norm for female speaking characters on screen.  The same will happen the following year, and the year after that.  Change will only occur when writers and casting directors begin to think about how tertiary characters appear in films.  In some movies, this may be difficult.  Films about war, a male basketball team, or a historical picture about Watergate may cast very few females because of the subject matter.  But, if we look across an entire studio’s slate of films, there should be ample room to get to parity across multiple stories and compensate for those few movies that skew male on screen.  And, you need not be concerned that the films will tip female.  My MDSC research reveals that very few films (only 2 in 2013) have more females than males.  And, gendered balanced films are rare across the top 100 movies each year between 2007 and 2013.

Just adding five is one small solution to the gross gender imbalance that plagues the movie industry.  The remedy is simple and one that many in Hollywood wouldn't even notice.  I know this because we conducted a study (funded by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media) interviewing roughly 100 content creators and asked them (among many other questions) if a gender-balanced script would raise a red flag.  Over 95% responding to the question said "no."  Further, almost a third spontaneously reported that they wouldn't even notice if a story featured gender parity.  Most importantly: over half responding to the question indicated that gender balance would not impact a film's bottom line. Clearly, this is low hanging fruit for those reaching for change. 

Overall, the solution is simple: Just add five female speaking characters to scripts going into production. Then, repeat this process for an additional three years and do not look back.  If each of the major studios and production companies creating content agreed to do this, we would reach parity in just four years. This would be a historical shift and one whose time has come.  If you run a studio or production company, or are a development executive and are still wondering how this might work, email me.  I am happy help find ways to just add five female characters to your films.  It is possible to preserve the sovereignty of the story you are trying to tell while contributing to gender equity on screen for males and females alike.  Just add five—and in four years film characters might actually represent the audience they are trying to entertain.

Written with assistance of Marc Choueiti & Dr. Katherine Pieper.  For more information go to Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at USC Annenberg   

Cross-posted with permission from The Wrap.