Paramount Pictures, the studio producing The Last Airbender, is America’s oldest running movie studio–founded in 1912. A previous Racebending.com article took a look at the studio’s early history of casting Asian American actors in lead roles: Paramount Pictures and Asian Americans: A Tarnished Legacy. This article will focus on Paramount Pictures’ diversity in terms of their most recent, top-billed lead actors from 2000 to present and beyond.
A UCLA study found that industry-wide, men are 3 times more likely than women to be the first billed lead, and that 4 out of 5 lead roles go to an actor who is white. We were curious about how Paramount would line up, particularly since Paramount promised the Asian American community diversity statistics in November 2009 but never delivered. Volunteers Sirajah Raheem, Renee Starling, and Marissa Lee took a close look at Paramount Pictures films distributed and/or produced by the company from 2000 to 2009 and also 2010 and beyond.
Why Look At First Billing?
Our count of lead actor diversity at Paramount is based on the idea that diversity isn’t just who is hired, but who is hired in what positions. Who gets the best roles? Who achieves prominence?
“Credit is often the most fought-over issue in a [Hollywood] negotiation, because credit represents a number of the juiciest points to win: Ego, power, and fame are all tied up in where your name appears on screen or in advertising. Because of the importance of credits…this section of a contract can take up pages and pages.
“Depending on your clout, you want to be the first credit, the largest credit, and the most often mentioned credit of anyone connected with the picture. In any advertising, it’s your name that gets mentioned and–if you’re an actor–your picture that gets shown, your voice that gets heard, and your film clip that gets played. source
Various types of Credit include Main Title Credit (before the movie starts), End Title Credit (after the movie is over), Paid Advertising Credit (mention during commercials and publicity), Above-the-Title Credit (name shows up on top of the movie name in promos and on screen), and Billing Block Credit (the block of text on posters and trailers.)
For our review, we simply looked at which actor is listed first on imdb.com. Even if several actors have received top billing or above the title billing, someone is always listed first.
For an example of top billing in action, check out Warner Bros Pictures’ Oceans Eleven (2001).
Although Oceans Eleven has an ensemble cast–including actors like Matt Damon, Bernie Mac, Andy Garcia, Don Cheadle, Shaobo Qin–George Clooney (in the role of the titular Danny Ocean) was clearly given star billing for this movie. A dispute involving above-the-title billing is rumored to be the reason why Don Cheadle is not listed in any of the movie’s closing credits. Had Cheadle been given above-the-title billing, he would have alphabetically preceded Clooney.
Our review of actors in top billing was necessarily subjective, but the cultural ethnicity and gender of most of Paramount’s top-billed actors like John Travolta, Angelina Jolie, and Samuel L. Jackson are well established in the public sphere. For animated characters like Shrek the Ogre, Spongebob Squarepants, and Eliza Thornberry we looked to the gender and ethnicity of the voice actor. We simply tallied the first actor billed, (for example: Malin Ackerman in Watchmen, Chris Pine in Star Trek, Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears, Jamie Foxx in The Soloist, Noah Ringer in The Last Airbender.)
How Does Paramount Stack Up? – Gender
Paramount didn’t stack up all that well when we looked at gender.
In March 2010, the Motion Picture Association of American released statistics indicating that women go to movies more than men do. Women bought 55% of the movie tickets sold in 2009, but looking at the gender of Paramount’s first billed actors, you wouldn’t know it. Hollywood is a male dominated industry and the same appears to be true at Paramount.
Actresses of color fared the worst. Only one movie released in 10 years starred an actress of color–Queen Latifah in Last Holiday (2006). Out of 30 lead actresses, only one actress–Queen Latifah–was a person of color.
How Does Paramount Stack Up? – ETHNICITY
When it comes to first billing, Paramount clearly gives actors who are white more roles than actors of color. A whopping 86% of Paramount films distributed or produced in the last decade starred a white performer.
Out of 133 movies either produced or distributed, 17 had a black lead actor and only one had an Asian actor–Parry Shen in the film Better Luck Tomorrow (2002). However, Paramount did not produce Better Luck Tomorrow, the company distributed the film to theaters after the film made the independent film circuit.
Over a 10 year period from 2000 to 2009, we found that Paramount did not produce a SINGLE movie starring a Latino, Asian American, or Native American actor.
Had Paramount’s leads been anywhere near proportional with the actual United States population, twenty of their films would have had a Latino lead actor, six of their films would have had Asian American actors as lead, and at least one film would have starred a Native American actor.
Ironically, even though Paramount did not give any Latino or South Asian actors top billing from 2000 to 2009, Paramount did cast actors who are white to play Latino and South Asian lead characters.
Also in the past decade, two real-life heroes from 9/11, who are African American, were depicted with white actors in supporting roles in the Paramount film World Trade Center (2006).
The Last Airbender is not the first time Paramount has bumbled in casting by giving roles that could have gone to actors of color (improving Paramount’s dismal diversity statistics for first-billed roles.)
Paramount Pictures in 2010 and Beyond
Paramount’s slate of executives was wiped in summer 2009. New Paramount Pictures President Adam Goodman met with Asian American advocacy groups in November 2009 and affirmed Paramount’s commitment to diversity. But does Paramount’s new slate of upcoming films from 2010 onward live up to this ideal?
Of the 54 already announced movies Paramount plans to produce and/or distribute this decade, about two-thirds have been cast with a lead actor. If these casting decisions are any indication, 89% of this decade’s Paramount films will star a white actor, and 94% will star a male actor.
Only two of the films so far, Warriors (2011) and Nick Fury (2012), will star black actors. One film, First Glance (2011) has Filipino American actor Dante Basco attached. And finally, a Latino single lead–if Antonio Banderas voicing Puss in Boots in a planned Shrek prequel counts. Native American actors–with not a single lead actor in the past decade–still haven’t been cast in a lead role at Paramount in this decade.
As for actresses of color? Barely given a chance to be the star in the past decade, there are currently no films in development at Paramount with an actress of color attached to star.
Actors of color and women continue to be underrepresented in Paramount’s plum roles. Placed in the context of first-billing diversity for all of Paramount’s recent films, it is disappointing that Asian and Inuit actors were not cast for the first billed role of Aang and supporting lead roles of Katara and Sokka. We hope that as Paramount continues to plan its slate of upcoming movies, the studio will create films that offer opportunities to a variety of different actors from communities currently underrepresented in Hollywood productions.