How to Increase Latin-American Representation in Film
What a Recent Horror Blockbuster Can Tell Us About the Importance of Representation
Scream VI has been a raving success at the box office this past month. It is not altogether surprising for a myriad of reasons. Beloved franchises will always have their built-in audience looking for recurring characters, adjacent storylines and callbacks to previous films. Additionally, the experience of watching a horror film in a movie theater is hard to duplicate elsewhere. The dim lighting, projector screen and surround sound, along with the collective audience reaction, amplify every scary or funny moment. Thus, horror is the genre most likely to excel despite the downturn in movie theater attendance. Even with all of these factors working in Scream VI’s favor, there is another less talked about influence on its success.
Like its 2022 predecessor, Scream VI consists of two Latin American co-stars, Jenna Ortega and Melissa Barrera, playing fiercely loyal sisters. The decision to cast the two actresses is a shrewd move given one of Hollywood’s best-kept secrets. According to a 2019 report by the Motion Picture Association, Inc., White and Black people are both underrepresented in the frequent moviegoer category relative to their overall population (with frequent moviegoers being defined by the Motion Picture Association as ‘people who attend the theater at least once a month’). While White people make up 61% of the population, they only constitute 55% of frequent moviegoers. Black people are 12% of the population but only 9% of frequent moviegoers. Asians and other ethnicities attend the movies at about an equal rate to their percentage of the population.
Hispanics, despite only being 18% of the overall population, comprise an astounding 26% of frequent moviegoers. What accounts for this impressive turnout? For starters, the movie industry is based in Los Angeles, California. The population of the city, second largest in the U.S., and the surrounding area are roughly 50% Hispanic. As there are more theaters, early screenings, and movie-related special events in the area relative to the rest of the country, it follows logic that they could be disproportionately attended by the overwhelming ethnic group in the region. According to the Wall Street Journal, major chains like AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. pay attention to where Latinos are densely populated when deciding where to build their theaters. This suggests that in addition to the ethnic demographics of the film industry’s location, peripheral businesses make deliberate efforts to reach Latinos by setting up in proximity to them.
In spite of this overrepresentation, Hispanics tend to be underrepresented on screen, particularly in blockbuster movies. The USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism conducted an Inclusion Initiative in 2019, selecting 1,300 popular films spanning back to 2007 and doing a breakdown by the ethnicity of each character. On average, Hispanic/Latinos only made up 5% of the total characters, far less than their percentage of the population or frequent moviegoers. In no particular year did Hispanic/Latino characters make up more than 7.2% of the total on screen.
As far as lead characters go, only 3.5 percent of the 1,300 (roughly 46) included a Hispanic/Latino protagonist. Out of these lead actors, only Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Lopez had multiple leading roles in this timespan, meaning other Hispanic/Latino actors did not get the opportunity for extended screen time and increased exposure to the movie-going audience. Not being recast as central characters denies actors the ability to become household names, which would increase the excitement around their presence in upcoming projects. Felix Sanchez, the chairman and co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, points out that, “…even if there are Latino roles, the movie is generally told through a white person experiencing a Latino environment. You don't see stories truly told from a Latino perspective." To this point, many Hollywood productions are indeed set in Los Angeles neighborhoods, often predominantly Hispanic. However, the members of that community are removed from the story or pushed to the background.
In the battle for more representation, equally important to creating more roles is creating a diverse set of characters. The overwhelming portrayal of Hispanic characters are impoverished citizens, immigrants, or criminals, often drug dealers and cartel leaders. Frequently, English is not the characters’ first language. Female Hispanic characters are more likely than White, Black or Asian actresses to be scantily clad or nude on screen. Often, diversity efforts fall short of creating quality representations and simply place the same character on screen in various stories. Amidst putting more Hispanic/Latino faces on screen, directors and producers must remember to also present original, unorthodox depictions to elevate beyond monolithic portrayals.
So what’s a good way to accomplish this goal? The best method to accomplish on-screen diversity is to have diversity amongst the decision makers. Having more writers, producers, and directors of Hispanic origin will likely allow more of such actors to gain opportunities and more innovative stories to be told. Out of the 1,300 films in the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, only 4.2% had Hispanic/Latino directors. Just 3 directors were female and of Hispanic origin. Such underrepresentation behind the camera most certainly translates to the big screen. The initiative suggests putting pressure on organizations such as talent agencies, advertising agencies, philanthropists and film festivals. Additionally, legislators and film offices can enforce tax measures that incentivize productions to hire Hispanic/Latino individuals. All of these proposals are valid, but the best way to see an increase in the representation of an ethnic group is to provide that group with hiring power.
Progress involving diversity measures often comes slow. A narrative to never fall for is the notion that there is a dearth of talent or desire. There are plenty of aspiring and capable individuals waiting for the chance to show their abilities. Many major cities in the U.S. have Hispanic/Latino film festivals for those interested in contributing or learning. Such cities include Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Portland, Miami, Seattle, Vancouver, and of course, Providence, Rhode Island. Additionally, major non-profit coalitions such as the Latino Film Institute, Cinema Tropical, and Film Freeway can provide both more information and a hub for discovering talented artists.
Case, A., Z. Mercado and K. Hernandez (2019). Hispanic and Latino Representation in Film: Erasure On Screen & Behind the Camera Across 1,300 Popular Movies. USC Annenberg School of Communication of Journalism. https://assets.uscannenberg.org/docs/aii-hispanic-latino-rep-2021-09-13.pdf
Fritz, B. (2013) Hollywood Takes Spanish Lessons As Latinos Stream to the Movies. The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324049504578545812929816462
Miles, K. (2013) Latinos Attend More Movies Than Anyone Else But Are The Least Represented On Screen. HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/latinos-movies_n_4221232
Motion Pictures Association, Inc. (2019) Theme Report.