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Asians Go See the Most Movies, Yet Hollywood Represents Them the Least Onscreen

Asians really love watching white people act. That’s the conclusion people can draw from one recent study on movie-going habits of different ethnicities.

The National Association of Theater Owners ran their annual Theatrical Market Statistics Report which reports that out of all ethnic groups, Asians went to the movies the most in 2016. On a per capita basis, Asian-Americans saw 6.1 movies. Americans of Hispanic descent went 4.6 times, African-Americans came in at 4.2 times and Caucasians pulled up the rear with 3.2 times.

Interesting that the report also shows Asian-Americans and African-Americans actually saw more movies than the previous year, while Caucasian and Hispanic moviegoers saw less.

Yet while Asian-Americans go to the movies most often, they also have the least representation onscreen in Hollywood. One of the more recent studies comes from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. According to that study, “Asians represented just 5.1 percent of speaking or named characters across film, television and digital series in 2014, and at least half of those projects featured no such Asian characters at all.” Furthermore, only “3.9 percent of characters in 2015’s 100 highest-grossing films were Asian, and none were leads.”

While these percentages come from 2014 and 2015, a couple years prior to the National Association of Theater Owners’ report, it’s safe to assume these percentages haven’t changed much. Consider that out of 1,500 Oscar nominations in the history of the Academy Awards, about 16 have gone to Asian actors. Four of those sixteen went to Ben Kingsley. So, assume Asian representation hovers around that 5% mark.

If Asian-Americans go to the movies the most, will Hollywood begin to put more Asians onscreen? After all, any company tailors their product to consumer tastes.

The answer is probably pretty obvious.

Hollywood is always slow to change. Even as the movie-going public becomes more diverse, Hollywood is likely to put out the same movies they’ve always pumped out featuring white actors.

Hollywood, on the surface, will say that a shift is underway. People have become more active in calling out studios for whitewashing, such as Disney’s casting decisions for Mulan.

When an early draft of Disney’s upcoming live-action Mulan adaptation included a Caucasian love interest, fans gathered more than 19,000 signatures and created the Twitter hashtag #MakeMulanRight, prompting Disney to promise to cast a Chinese love interest.

Julia Kim, an Asian-American casting director, says “Asians are no longer being quiet about the injustices of the casting.” Petitions such as the one for Mulan show that “their voices are getting louder, because they know the talent is there. They’re like, ‘Okay, we may not get [the part], but you can’t give it to someone else without at least trying to explore what we have to offer.’”

Also, while 5% of the roles go to Asians, how many of those roles are for Chinese food delivery guys? If Asian-Americans get 10% of the film roles and all 10% are stereotypical Asian parts, that’s not progress.

Hollywood should pay attention to the changing demographics of their movie-going audience. Will Asian-Americans continually accept the lack of non-Caucasian roles? Probably not. If that’s the case, Hollywood has a business decision to make: evolve their product to fit the tastes of their customers.

Asian-Americans should also continue to exercise their activist voices and their economic power to keep the pressure on Hollywood. If they’re putting down $12 to see Logan or Arrival way more than any other groups are, they have a strong say in how Hollywood represents Asian-Americans.

While Hollywood increases their diversity, they should also ask themselves another question: why aren’t white people going to the movies as much anymore?

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