Finding Basic Diversity in Film Reviews

When Adele Lim sat down to write the screenplay for the 2018 box office hit, Crazy Rich Asians, she had only the goal of accurate Asian-American representation in mind.

"We never get a chance to tell a story about our people, the Asian-American experience, for a major Hollywood movie. Let's just go balls out for this," she said.

Even with the golden 'certified fresh' halo gracing the film's Rotten Tomatoes unbeatable score of 92 percent, Lim worked without making critics opinions a priority.

"It was never about appeasing any one person," she said. "You just let the chips fall where they may in terms of what critics see or don't see about it."

Even when you think it's obvious that an outlet will go after a Latino or a person of color to write a story, sometimes they don't actually think about that.

Lim and her co-writers had more than just critics and Asian-Americans in mind, they sought to appeal to the masses, which worked--making them the highest-grossing romantic-comedy in the U.S. in a decade at $165 million.

"We knew the people we wanted to reach and whether they were Asian or not. If you weren't Asian, there was enough specificity in it that you would feel like this is why I want to watch the movie because it's a whole different world, it's fascinating."

Adele Lim speaks at a 2018 LA Film Festival panel.

Although the art of film is meant to transport viewers to another world for anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours, studies show that people experience more positive reactions toward characters and situations that resonate with them and are familiar to the groups they identify with. For example, underrepresented female reviewers rated underrepresented female-lead films higher than any other group at 6.8 out of 10 and white male reviewers rated underrepresented female-lead films lower than any other group at 5.9 out of 10 according to the recently released USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study that analyzed data from the top 100 movies of 2017.

This psychology stems beyond just the entertainment we consume but to our inherent implicit bias. Male and female students in school tend to perform better in a class when they have a teacher of the same gender according to a study by Thomas Dee, a professor of education at Stanford. Using Department of Education data on 25,000 eighth graders from 1,000 schools, boys fell behind girls by the equivalent of three and a half months when they had a female teacher instead of a male one.

With the extreme gap of white males making up 53 percent of critics and underrepresented females making up just nearly 9 percent according to the Annenberg study, there's a clear oversaturation of a single perspective in the reviews that can make or break the success of our movies.

Freelance entertainment journalist Carlos Aguilar has felt the weight of this gap in his own experiences trying to break into the criticism world as a Latino. He said he's noticed no attention getting paid to a critic's background when assigning them to review a film, saying that demographic relevancy gets overlooked by publishers. Aguilar mentioned the Academy Award winning animated film, Coco, which he says received exclusively white male and female reviews, without a single voice from a Latinx writer by a major outlet.

"Even when you think it's obvious that an outlet will go after a Latino or a person of color to write a story, sometimes they don't actually think about that," Aguilar said.

He thinks this can be particularly problematic when reviewers aren't aware of basic cultural matters that are relevant to analyzing the work.

"The reviews for Coco last year by white writers would use very cliche Spanish language like 'there was a fiesta,' or 'margaritas and pinatas.' Every spanish word they could think of was thrown in there in a very corny way," he said.

Accurate analysis of film content is especially relevant in today's society where consumers turn to friends, family and trusted sources for recommendations of where to spend their time and money. With more people turning to streaming services, movie fans will wait until their SVOD service of choice posts the movie online. They will skip the movie theater experience entirely, resulting in a hit to the box office numbers that traditionally reflect the success of a film.

Critical acclaim is no filler phrase, as the majority of movies that scored fresh on the Tomatometer also made it through to the Big Picture slot at Academy Awards, with 250 films either nominated or winners in the category from 1947 to 2017 according to Reuters.

Just this year have major organizations and outlets started making the effort to actively pursue diverse voices to be heard on their platform. The Sundance and Toronto International Film Festivals announced in June that they are committed to allotting at least 20 percent of press credentials to underrepresented journalists hoping to cover the screenings and events at the 2019 week-and-a-half long festivals. Rotten Tomatoes says they recently added 200 diverse voices to their critic pool by revising the criteria that considered someone a critic, but that those currently considered 'top-critics' will remain the same.

Paul Yanover, the president of Fandango which owns Rotten Tomatoes told The New York Times that, "It will always be a better product if it has more voices...we are still looking for the highest quality criticism."

Sophie-Marie Prime works as a student fellow at Rotten Tomatoes and thinks that the underrepresented voices will move into these spots after establishing themselves for some time on the site.

"The process for who is considered a top critic is based on longevity in some ways," she said.

Movie-goers weigh in:

Do you consider Rotten Tomatoes scores when chosing what movies to go see?

Although some have criticized the movie review outlet for lowering standards in order to cast a wider net, Prime thinks the independent bloggers and YouTube-based critics carry as much weight and relevant experience as writers for well-known award-winning news outlets.

"People who think that bloggers and new media critics don't have the same caliber of work as people that write for the LA Times or The New York Times or traditional legacy outlets need to do some self-reflection," she said.

Kristen Lopez who recently joined the list of Tomatometer-approved critics still gets most of her work from freelance work for smaller publications and tips on social media. Lopez identifies as a disabled wheelchair-user and has been a published writer in film criticism for over 10 years.


What are some practical ways to increase diversity in film critics today?

The online blogging outlet Slash Film was looking for a review of the film, A Quiet Place, which features a deaf character played by deaf actress, Millicent Simmonds. The site hoped to add a diverse perspective by commissioning a writer who could speak from the disabled experience.

"I got so many tweets saying, 'Kristen is the one you want to reach out to!'" she said.

Kristen Lopez speaks at a 2018 LA Film Festival panel.

As a published writer in film criticism for over 10 years, she's noticed there aren't many others like her and that the few diverse voices that are working have to make up for it.

"It's very easy to become the token person when somebody needs something written," she said.

Despite her willingness to accept any and all paying freelance opportunities and speak on behalf of the disabled community in the entertainment world, she hopes not to be the only one.

"I always tell people I should not be the only person talking about disabled representation because there are so many different disabilities out there, I don't speak for all of them nor should I," she said.

But even if both diverse films are being made and diverse critics are the ones reviewing them, writers face the pressure of appeasing their readers.

"The industry often gets one chance to make a diverse film to meet the quota, there's the one Black Panther, the one Crazy Rich Asians and the one Coco so if you say anything bad about it, you don't get another one," said Dino-Ray Ramos, Associate Editor of Deadline.

Future Filmmakers

How do you plan to implement diversity while working in the film industry?

Lopez still fights to find a balance in her writing that will please her nearly 6,000 Twitter followers as well as feed the film critic community's diversity needs.

"There's kind of a dichotomy there, people want you to praise something because it's new and then they also don't want you to call out something that's problematic," she said.

Lopez says success in the criticism world goes a step beyond just a great writing portfolio becasue of the importance of networking and seeking opportunities yourself.

A graphic of the 30/30/20/20 plan by USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative

"Twitter is a great resource to actually interact with editors on a personal level," she said. "Always be thinking of something you can write about."

In addition to reporting the data that points to a lack of diversity in film criticism, the Annenberg study also proposed various practical soultions. They conclude that, "One important method of creating change is for groups to set target inclusion goals and then work to meet them over two, four, or six years."

They provide an example of an inclusion goal called the 30/30/20/20 plan which seeks to balance critic demographic ratios to be reflective of reality. This includes 30 percent of critics being white males, another 30 percent being white females, 20 percent being underrepresented males and the last 20 percent being underrepresented females.

As the industry takes more steps to adopt accurate critics, Ramos encourages writers of all backgrounds and passions to pursue their career goals.

"I think you just have to do it if you really want to do it. If you don't try, you never know," he said.

Film Critics on Twitter

Critics use Twitter to connect with outlets looking for diverse voices.