Netflix Shows Major Gains for Women of Color in Inclusion Study, Expands Pipeline Programs with Shondaland

Shonda Rhimes, creator of “Bridgerton” and the upcoming prequel series “Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story,” is known for creating powerful screen stories that center women (particularly, women of color) and a diverse range of characters of all gender, racial, ethnic and sexual identities.

But, as Rhimes began to focus on ensuring her Shondaland productions were equally diverse behind the scenes, she came to recognize a key role in that mission: the line producer.

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“You look around the set and it’s great to have a Black director or a Black writer and Black actors and then the entire crew doesn’t really represent America or the world,” Rhimes said in a virtual symposium with Netflix chief content officer Bela Bajaria, chairman of Netflix films Scott Stuber, filmmaker Tyler Perry (“A Jazzman’s Blues,” “A Madea Homecoming”) and researcher Dr. Stacy Smith. “If you have a line producer who is on board with what you are feeling, then your crew is completely different. Your crew is completely representative of the world.”

That’s why Rhimes’ Shondaland and Netflix partnered on two DEIA programs – the Ladder program and the Producers Inclusion Initiative, which trains people from historically underrepresented communities as line producers within the studio system. Both programs are part of Netflix’s $100 million commitment to diversity and inclusion via their Fund for Creative Equity, founded in 2021.

After piloting the Ladder program on the set of “Bridgerton” season 2 and officially launching the program with six trainees on the set of “Queen Charlotte” in the U.K., Shondaland and Netflix, with the support of IATSE, will roll out the Ladder program in the U.S. this year on the upcoming series, “The Residence.” This round of the program will place 13 trainees in production and technical roles across multiple departments.

The new pipeline programs were revealed during a discussion about the latest study from Dr. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative research team, which examines inclusion across Netflix’s scripted films and series from 2018 through 2021.

The team examined a total of 546 fictional English-language, Netflix original, live-action narratives (249 fictional films, 297 series) for this investigation. These projects were assessed for several inclusion metrics: gender, race and ethnicity (both in front of and behind the camera), as well as LGBTQ+ and disability representation. The USC Annenberg team was first approached by Netflix in 2019 and is set to complete the comprehensive study every two years, through 2026.

“We see notable gains this year, which should serve as an example to the rest of the entertainment industry. Inclusion is possible and necessary to reflect the world we live in,” Dr. Smith said in a video presentation laying out the research. “However, it’s essential to take an intersectional look across multiple identity groups to really understand where progress is being made, and where gains are desperately needed.”

Smith highlighted five findings from the study:

  • Netflix has achieved gender equality in leading roles for both film and series, with 55% of the content featuring a girl or woman as the lead or co-lead, with a near 15% gain in male creators and directors telling female-driven stories.

  • The company promotes women leaders behind the camera at a rate that is above the industry average. Women of color as series directors increased from 5.6% in 2018 to 11.8% in 2021, and over the last four years, Netflix has hired 16 women of color to direct films, when the same number of women have been hired to direct top grossing films in the last 16 years.

  • Netflix stories focus on people of color, achieving proportional representation of race and ethnicity of Black, Asian or multiracial leads and co-leads, though representation for Latino characters remains below population metrics. Gaps also persist for Middle Eastern/North African, Indigenous and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander communities.

  • Taking an intersectional look on screen and behind the camera reveals assets and deficits in terms of access and opportunity, with women of color as a priority as protagonists. Women of color have also increased significantly as series directors, increasing from 6% in 2018 to 12% in 2021, with similar gains observed for writers and creators. In 2021, 8 women of color worked as series creators, with the percentage leaping from 3.9% in 2020 to 9.5%.

  • Netflix’s LGBTQ+ and disability representation needs improvement. In 2021, 20.3% of Netflix films and series leads/co leads were LGBTQ+ characters, but more than half of films and series (55.1%) did not feature an LGBTQ+ speaking character, though those figures have declined over the last four years. Netflix has not yet reached proportional representation for LGBTQ+ individuals with portrayals still tending to focus on gay characters rather than the entire spectrum of LGBTQ+ identity.

In a blog post released with the study, Bajaria explained the importance of the research and what Netflix hopes to achieve by examining its metrics biennially.

“Growing up as an Indian girl in the U.K., Zambia and later America, I noticed that nobody looked like me on TV or in the movies I loved and that no one was telling stories like mine. Soon after getting my foot in the door at a network and giving notes on dozens of scripts a month, I realized that my heritage is a superpower: it allows me to see stories from different perspectives,” Bajaria wrote. “We know that more inclusion behind the camera leads to better representation on screen.”

On the panel, Perry offered kudos to Netflix: “I’ve never seen anyone drill down to this degree of information so that change can happen. So that gives me a lot of hope going forward.”

Much of the panel conversation, moderated by filmmaker Elvis Mitchell (who helmed the Netflix documentary “Is that Black Enough For You?!?”), focused on the industry-wide implications of this data and the need to escape binary terminology (categorizing a project as a “Black movie” or a “Latinx rom-com”) that limits creatives’ opportunities and builds a road block to diversity and inclusion.

Perry answered first, noting that he’s spent his career catering to a specific audience — largely made up of Black women — but he’s wary of the industry’s tendency to make a judgment on a project’s viability based on those “genre” labels.

“If it’s successful, let it be successful on the merit of what it is and not have everything be blanketed. [Saying,] ‘Well, that doesn’t work anymore because this this didn’t work. Musicals don’t work anymore because that musical failed.’ Let’s look at everything on an individual basis because I think I’m living proof that genre works really, really well.”

The panelists largely agreed with Perry’s point. While the streamer embraces the cultural specificity of a movie like “The Harder They Fall,” a Western that featured an all-Black cast, or a show like “Never Have I Ever,” a coming-of-age comedy about an Indian-American teen girl and her family, categorizing it as such is limiting.

“The way that we approach it — because we can actually access so many consumers with our brand — we’re selling to everyone,” Stuber said. “We’re not actually isolating in the marketing terms that I think sometimes happens in traditional theatrical of ‘Who’s this for?’ We can broaden out in terms of aspiration of audience.”

Smith offered another perspective: the data doesn’t support those types of limiting ideas, in fact it often disproves them.

“A lot of mythologizing around success or failure is what I like to refer to as ‘Adventures in missing the point,’” Smith said. “And what I like to bring to that is data to overthrow how people may replicate this mythologizing around town.”

One statistic that didn’t make the report, Smith told Variety was a ranking of the average Metacritic scores for Netflix films from 2020 and 2021, which underscores the fact that underrepresented women directors “have the highest quality and punch at the highest level in their storytelling prowess.”

Not only did films with women directors outperform films by men directors (women’s films earned an average 60.6 score on Metacritic compared to men’s 53.2) and films from underrepresented directors outperform those by white directors (63.7 to 51.4), but, most impressively, films from underrepresented women directors (66.4) performed 16 points higher than those from white male directors (49.6). [To note: the average score for underrepresented men directors was 63, while white women directors’ average was 58.2.]

“Having data like that really starts to overthrow the mythologizing about success and failure because you don’t want people cognitively focusing on one thing,” Smith explained. “Decisions are best when you look at an aggregate pool of data and then make a decision. Not based on one singular experience.”

The data, Stuber added, provides Netflix with the opportunity to “broaden our voice” as a company, and in hopes of finding and supporting the next Perry and Rhimes, the company will expand Emerging Filmmakers Initiative. It launched in 2022 as a short film program for underrepresented storytellers, especially women and people of color.

“It’s the aspiration to find who that next storyteller is, and it’ll all be women and people of color behind the camera,” he said, adding that the program is set to expand into a feature film initiative in the coming years. “It’ll be run by two women of color, so they’ll see themselves on the other side of the table.”

The panel also discussed disability representation, a metric where Netflix underperforms. While 27.2% of the U.S. population identifies as having a disability, the study showed the characters with disabilities have been underrepresented in Netflix films or series during this time period, with just 1.1% of all characters presenting a disability.

“I think this area is a huge growth opportunity for us and for the industry overall,” Bajaria said, noting Netflix’s partnership with the Inevitable Foundation and Easterseals via the Creative Equity Fund as the first step in doing the work to increase those numbers and provide their creatives the support they need to bring these stories to life both accurately and respectfully. “These partnerships are really the first way for us to do this and to have impact.”

To the question of what’s holding back disability representation in Hollywood, Rhimes answered from a creative’s perspective.

“I think we’ve spent a lot of time on my shows sort of jumping right in and trying really hard to make sure things are representative,” Rhimes said, “[But] even in my writers rooms, there’s a little bit of fear of getting it wrong. Instead of being afraid, you ask the questions, you do the research. People want to see people who look like them on screen.”

Click here to read the executive summary describing inclusion in Netflix’s original U.S. scripted films and series, or here for the full report.

Find more information here about Netflix’s Fund for Creative Equity, as the company has invested $29 million, partnered with 80 organizations and established more than 100 pipeline programs in 35 countries across the globe — including the newly announced Gold Producers Accelerator presented by Gold House, AUM and Netflix in the US; Canada’s imagineNATIVE Production Mentorship Program; India’s Netflix x Film Companion Take Ten Program; and Ukraine’s European Audiovisual Entrepreneurs (EAVE), House of Europe, the New York Film Academy and the Ukrainian Film Academy.

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