Women, people of color drive viewer ratings for top streaming films

Netflix Lauren London, left, and Jonah Hill in a scene from ’You People,&r
Netflix Lauren London, left, and Jonah Hill in a scene from ’You People,’ a Netflix film.
Part 2 of the Hollywood Diversity Report on film studies the state of streaming as the industry looks to contract

Arts + Culture

Part 2 of the Hollywood Diversity Report on film studies the state of streaming as the industry looks to contract

Key takeaways

  • Women made up the majority of viewers for nine of the top 10 streaming films of 2023, while households of color were also overrepresented as viewers for nine of the top 10.
  • Among creators, women and people of color still find more opportunities in streaming than in theatrical productions but continue to face limited resources as white male directors helm the few high-budget projects.
  • Women reached proportionate representation as leads in films but were most likely to star in films with smaller budgets and continue to lag in terms of overall cast.
  • People of color remain underrepresented behind the camera, but they reached proportionate representation in terms of total cast on screen and their largest share of film leads for the first time in the report series.

Earlier this year, researchers for the Hollywood Diversity Report found that women and people of color drove box office numbers and were more in tune with what makes a movie a global success.

Their impact extends beyond the theaters: Women and people of color also led the charge for higher ratings at home, according to the second part of the latest film report, which focuses on the top streaming releases of 2023.

The Hollywood Diversity Report, now in its 11th year, provides annual in-depth analyses of the industry - behind and in front of the camera - as well as comprehensive breakdowns of the audiences and what they’re watching in the theaters and at home.

In 2023, women and people of color were drawn to streaming film releases in a big way. For nine of the top 10 releases and 17 of the top 20 ranked by household ratings, women represented the majority of viewers. Similarly, households of color exceeded their population share and were overrepresented as viewers for nine of the top 10 streaming films and 18 of the top 20 streaming films, like "The Mother" (55.9%) and "You People" (50.0%).

"Women and people of color are key audiences that simply cannot be ignored by Hollywood," said Ana-Christina Ramón, co-founder of the report and director of UCLA’s Entertainment and Media Research Initiative. "Once again, we found that successful streaming films are propelled to the top by households of color. And, among the highest-rated films, women are the majority of the viewers."

The state of streaming

Even though the pandemic showed audiences embracing major studio releases in the comfort of their own homes, the industry shifted its focus back to theaters.

Streaming releases took a hit in 2023 as the rapid expansion of streaming took a toll on studios, strikes loomed large and the film industry struggled to return to pre-pandemic revenue numbers. Studios continue to approach productions - and their costs - with caution.

"We’re seeing the industry contract," said Darnell Hunt, UCLA’s executive vice chancellor and provost, and co-founder of the report. "The boom of streaming is fizzling out, as streaming films are getting the greenlight and less investment goes into the ones that actually move forward."

The total number of English-language streaming films dropped 28.6%, from 161 in 2022 to 115 in 2023. Of the top 100 films examined in this report, almost a third were comedies (30%), with a larger share of comedies released on streaming compared to theatrical releases in 2022 and 2023.

More than half of the top streaming film releases had budgets under $20 million compared to 30.3% of the top theatrical releases. Meanwhile, a quarter of top theatrical films (25.7%) had budgets of $100 million or more, nearly eight times the share of top streaming films (3.2%) in the same budget range.

As studios cut projects and financing for streaming, the researchers urge industry leaders to think twice before turning their backs on recent gains in diversity.

"Increased diversity in front of and behind the camera continues to draw audiences in," Ramón said. "It reflects the world we live in and will resonate more deeply with youth who are already majority BIPOC and who have become accustomed to seeing themselves reflected in animated films and content produced on social media."

They also emphasize the importance of staying the course and not going back to what’s considered "safe."

"We know investing in diversity isn’t a risk," said Hunt, who is also a professor of sociology and African American studies. "It should be considered a strategic business imperative if Hollywood wants to survive."

A mixed bag of opportunity

The streaming cuts come as the report shows once again that streaming originals were far more diverse than theatrical releases in front of and behind the camera.

People of color and women continued to find more opportunities behind the camera in streaming versus theatrical. The share of streaming films for directors of color reached 31.0%, compared to theatrical at 22.9%. Women’s share in streaming, 31.0%, nearly doubled theatrical (14.7%) and increased from 25.0% in 2022.

For the first time in this report series, the share of film lead roles for actors of color reflected the current population. They played 45% of leads in streaming films versus 33.3% in 2022.

Women reached proportionate representation (51%) in film lead roles, up from last year (48.5%). But they fell in terms of overall cast to 40.8%, compared to 44% in 2022.

Films with a majority diverse cast were more prevalent, accounting for more than a third of the top streaming films in 2023 (35%), up from the previous year (25.3%).

Filmmakers who represented different racial, ethnic and gender backgrounds also brought more diversity to the screen. Casts of films directed by a person of color were more racially and ethnically diverse and gender-balanced than those directed by white men. Streaming films directed by women of color had the highest share of gender-balanced casts.

However, people of color and women remain underrepresented in an industry of limited resources and opportunities.

"Creators that represent diverse backgrounds face a mixed bag," said co-author and UCLA doctoral candidate Michael Tran. "On one hand, they have a chance to lead or participate in these streaming projects, but then the studios are putting on the brakes financially and there is less room to show success."

White women directors were the most likely to have the smallest budgets: 84.2% of their films came in under $20 million as women directors overall faced a $50 million budget ceiling. Big-budget films remain reserved for white men, as three directors in this category received budgets of $100 million or more for streaming.

White male leads also had the most opportunity to star in a streaming film with bigger budgets: 57.2% starred in projects of $20 million or more. The majority of white women leads (77.5%) and people of color leads (58.6%) starred in films with budgets under $20 million.

Similar to top theatrical releases, no lead actors with visible disabilities were in 2023’s top streaming releases; actors with a known disability made up less than 5% of all film roles in top streaming releases.

Audiences show the way forward

When the industry feels pressure from Wall Street, the researchers have seen the studios revert to the status quo, with diversity pegged as the first to go. But audience data and ratings indicate a different path for studios.

"This is how you keep subscribers - give them what they respond to and clearly want to see," Ramón said.

For the majority of the top 20 films, household and individual viewers were overwhelmingly women and people of color. They preferred streaming films, such as "You People" and "Murder Mystery 2," which featured even more racially and ethnically diverse casts than in 2022. Ratings across almost all demographic groups were highest for streaming films with diverse casts, specifically those with 41%-50% people of color.

Social media engagement peaked for streaming films like "Red, White & Royal Blue" and "Rebel Moon: A Child of Fire" with casts in that same diversity interval. Each household or viewer group’s top 20 included at least 15 films with casts featuring more than 30% people of color.

"You People," with a cast made up of more than 40% women and at least 20% actors with a known disability, ranked No. 1 overall among viewers ages 18-49, men and women in that age bracket, and Black audiences. It also made the top five for the other demographic groups in the study: Asian, white, Latinx and other.

"2023 clearly shows that diversity in film makes good business sense at home and in the theaters," Hunt said. "Diversity isn’t an impediment. It’s a draw."

This report looked at the top 100 English-language, scripted films released in 2023 on major streaming subscription platforms, including: Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, Disney+, Hulu, Max, Netflix, Paramount+ and Peacock.

Additional findings

  • Only two to three films from each household or viewer group’s top 10 streaming films featured casts where more than 20% of the actors had known disabilities.
  • Only three to five films from each group’s top 20 list had casts with proportionate disability representation.
  • A majority of the top streaming films with a BIPOC writer also had a BIPOC director (71.4%), while nearly two-thirds of those with a woman writer also had a woman director (63.4%).
  • Almost three-quarters of top streaming films in 2023 were written by white writers (72%).
  • Individual racial and ethnic groups continued to have varying degrees of representation. Latinx (8%) and Asians (4%) were underrepresented among film leads, while Native actors (1%) approached proportionate representation. Black (16%), multiracial (12%), and Middle Eastern and North African (4%) actors were overrepresented.