From margins to mainstream: Asians and Pacific Islanders in Hollywood

| Report

The US film and television industry has an unmatched influence on popular culture and broader attitudes. The stories it tells and the trends it sparks reverberate in every corner of the country.

By many outward measures, the influence of the Asian and Pacific Islander (API) community on the film and television industry has never been greater. On-screen, for example, Everything Everywhere All at Once took top honors during the 2023 awards season, and Hong Chau is an ascendant star following her Oscar nomination for The Whale. Behind the camera, Chloé Zhao and Taika Waititi have both won Oscars and helmed Marvel Cinematic Universe films, putting them in the top echelon of Hollywood directors. Multihyphenates Mindy Kaling and Dwayne Johnson continue to create critically lauded projects. Meanwhile, a steady stream of overseas movies and TV shows over the past few years has included sensations such as Parasite, Squid Game, and RRR.

Our in-depth analysis finds API representation has made significant gains over the past several decades. This progress is encouraging. But much work still remains for API actors and other professionals to catch up with their non-API peers on nearly all metrics.

This report, conducted in collaboration with Gold House, examines the entertainment industry through multiple lenses to identify the factors that could contribute to the underrepresentation of API professionals. Our analysis covers API participation in both on- and off-screen roles across film and television (see sidebar “About the report”).

Why is greater API representation a source of opportunity for entertainment executives? Simply put, the industry is missing out on the chance to boost its bottom line by billions of dollars. The industry is in flux: streaming services are seeking new sources of revenue, and movie studios are weathering uneven box-office trends. Studios have an opportunity to cast a wider, more inclusive net to bring content to new audiences. API consumers are already particularly engaged on streaming platforms, and producing and distributing API content in these channels could translate to greater engagement and revenue for the industry.

This report offers a set of ideas the industry could pursue to expand opportunities for API professionals in film and TV and create more authentic portrayals of API characters. We acknowledge there is no single solution—addressing representation and authenticity is nuanced, and talent casting relies on an ecosystem of stakeholders. However, we believe the steps in this report could also motivate API consumers to spend more on entertainment, creating a virtuous circle within the industry.

A multibillion-dollar opportunity for the industry

In 2023, McKinsey surveyed 1,000 API consumers in the United States to learn about their perceptions of representation. (For more information about the research and analysis, download the full report.) Survey results revealed that half of respondents would be willing to spend more money and time on film and TV if their experiences were represented more authentically. A closer look at spending habits uncovers significant disparities among groups of consumers. Our research found that Asian American consumers1 earn approximately 30 percent more in annual income, on average, compared with their peers of other races, and they spend less of their income (70 percent for Asian consumers versus 78 and 81 percent for White and Black consumers, respectively). And they spend even less of their income on film and television—approximately 0.4 percent compared with about 0.9 percent for White and Black consumers (Exhibit 1).

Asian Americans spend significantly less of their income on film and television than other groups.

Our survey also explored perceptions of authenticity and the willingness to spend both money and time on media. Nearly half of API respondents living in the United States indicated they would spend more money on film and TV and consume more content if API experiences were more authentically represented (Exhibit 2).2 This sentiment was more pronounced among consumers aged 18 to 44, who represent a large portion of the rapidly growing population of API consumers.

Nearly half of API consumers would spend more money or time on more API-authentic film and TV, especially those in younger age brackets.

The industry could improve content for these consumers by creating films and shows featuring portrayals that are more authentic of the API experience. API leaders in the entertainment industry echo consumer perceptions. In a separate survey of Hollywood executives, more than eight in ten respondents agreed that increasing on-screen API representation in US-produced content could result in higher spending by API households on film and television.

To estimate this opportunity, consider that increasing the willingness of API consumers to spend on API-authentic content could generate about $2 billion a year in additional spending on film and television. In an alternative scenario, if API consumers spent the same share of their income on film and television as White consumers do, the opportunity rises to $4 billion annually. This potential broadening of the market for API consumers would help studios and streaming services as they find their way through a shifting consumer landscape. A Nielsen study found that streaming, including YouTube (see sidebar “Streaming and API inclusion”) has the greatest share of screen for API actors compared with broadcast and cable. Asian Americans allocate 27 percent more time to streaming than the general population—a signal that increased representation could be key to greater engagement.

Given demographic trends, the total value at stake will likely only increase in the future. The US API population grew from 10.8 million in 2000 to 19.5 million in 2019, a jump of more than 80 percent. It is expected to almost double to 37.9 million—nearly 9 percent of the US population—by 2060. Our projections indicate that by 2060, the total opportunity to capture additional spending could rise to approximately $4 billion to $8 billion a year in today’s dollars if spending and income patterns continue.

These figures likely underestimate the impact of greater and more-authentic representation: more time spent on consuming content can result in higher advertising revenue on streaming and social media, and this indirect effect is not reflected in the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Surveys.

Examining API representation in film and television

Although the industry has made visible progress on API representation over the past several decades, this pattern has not necessarily convinced API consumers that their experiences and stories are being authentically portrayed. Getting to the root sources of this perception requires deeper examination.

API consumers don’t perceive authentic portrayals in media

Understanding the perceptions of authenticity among API consumers is the first step to implementing effective solutions. Our survey found widespread dissatisfaction among API consumers: less than 30 percent of respondents believe their racial and ethnic identity is authentically represented in film and television (Exhibit 3). This negative perception is more acute for East Asians, Southeast Asians, and Pasifika respondents. The results highlight an opportunity to move the large group of neutral respondents into the positive perception category.

Less than 30 percent of APIs feel they are authentically represented in US-produced media.

Such impressions are also shared by API entertainment industry experts. According to our survey, more than 80 percent of respondents do not believe API experiences are widely represented in US-produced media.

Overall API representation has increased thanks to content originating outside the United States

The past two decades have seen a dramatic jump in the share of films distributed in the United States with API representation in on-screen lead roles. From 2018 to 2022, API actors made up 14 to 20 percent of on-screen lead roles in US-distributed films. However, films produced outside the United States, especially those produced in the Asia–Pacific (APAC) region, account for 70 to 90 percent of those films.

This influx, enabled in part by the popularity of streaming services starting in the mid-2010s, has resulted in skyrocketing representation—from just 2 percent in 2002 to double digits two decades later (Exhibit 4). Meanwhile, the share of films produced in the United States increased from 2 percent to just over 3 percent during that period, meaning API actors are underrepresented by 50 percent in US-produced films relative to the 6 percent API representation in the US population. This discrepancy contributes to a notable divergence: API content from other countries has boosted overall representation, yet API consumers in the United States do not feel their stories are being authentically portrayed.

API on-screen representation in film has increased, propelled by films produced outside the United States.

Another way to gauge the impact and influence of films is by their box-office revenues. For movies released in the United States from 2018 to 2022, films with API leads produced outside the United States made up less than 2 percent of total US box office, whereas those produced in the United States accounted for nearly 8 percent.

API content faces genre challenges in both film and television

API actor appearances are not all equal. A closer examination of the nature of lead roles and representation of API actors in film and television can provide a more accurate view.

As noted earlier, API actors account for about 3 percent of both lead and supporting roles in films produced in the United States—roughly half the level of API representation in the US population. During the 2018–22 period, about 280 films had at least one API lead, and just over half of those were API race-agnostic. The percentage of API race-agnostic films was even greater when considering only the films with a wide theatrical release (more than 600 theaters). Almost two-thirds of these films were API race-agnostic, with a substantial number of them being action and adventure films. As a result, fewer of the films seen by larger audiences told API stories or featured characters with API backgrounds. We found a similar pattern in television episodes.

As in film, the representation of API actors in television varies considerably by genre. From 2018 to 2022, more than 55 percent of the approximately 903 episodes with API leads were race-agnostic. Fully 35 percent of the 903 episodes with API leads were part of animated series, compared with 12 percent for shows without an API lead (Exhibit 5). The greater percentage of animated shows is driven by a smaller percentage of dramas and nonscripted shows (for example, reality TV).

More than one-third of TV episodes with API leads are animated shows, compared to one-eighth of TV episodes with leads of other races.

Off-screen talent and on-screen representation appear to be mutually reinforcing

In interviews with experts in the entertainment industry, we delved into how off-screen talent and on-screen representation could reinforce each other. Executives sounded a common refrain: people in key off-screen roles (directors, writers, producers, and showrunners) have influence on who gets cast in on-screen roles, and lead actors often request to work with specific people or profiles. The cycle is mutually reinforcing.

Our analysis found the presence of API talent off-screen is connected with higher API representation on-screen. Among US-distributed television shows with no API talent in key off-screen roles, about 3 percent had at least one API lead. But more than 21 percent of shows with at least one API person in a key off-screen role had an API lead (Exhibit 6). The pattern is even more pronounced in US-produced films. Among movies with no API talent in key off-screen roles, just under 6 percent have at least one API lead. But when an API professional is in an off-screen role, the share of films with an API lead goes up to 37 percent.

This dynamic highlights the question of cause and effect: are API lead actors getting roles because API off-screen professionals advocate for them, or the other way around? Further, are API professionals more likely to take off-screen roles on productions that feature API stories, or vice versa? Regardless, the connection of these factors demonstrates the need for greater API visibility in media.

The presence of API talent in key off-screen roles is consistent with higher on-screen API representation.

Ideas to increase API representation and authenticity

Addressing the visibility and authenticity of API representation in film and television could unlock significant rewards. One challenge is the breadth of stakeholders who must be mobilized: every film and television production involves scores of people making multiple decisions a day. As our analyses and surveys uncovered, the challenges for API representation span the industry’s entire ecosystem. Although we don’t have all the answers, we have distilled our analyses and discussions with industry leaders into a few big ideas that could help the film and television industry tap into this multibillion-dollar opportunity for API content:

  1. Increase the likelihood that API projects will be approved and distributed. Promoting API representation in leadership positions with decision-making authority can help authentic stories make it from the page to the screen.
  2. Increase financial support for API projects and creators. Securing marketing funds can not only increase the possibility of commercial success but also potentially boost the revenues and reach of successful films.
  3. Invest in API off-screen talent. Ensuring that API professionals have the same opportunities as their peers calls for a greater emphasis on hiring and promotion for off-screen roles as well as investments in skill development and apprenticeship.
  4. Expand the criteria for evaluating projects. Traditional comparables may not be the right way to assess success for API projects. Broadening the definition for not just API projects but all projects (for example, adding international box office potential and evaluating critical acclaim) could help the industry evaluate content from different perspectives.
  5. Continue to understand the state of API representation. Making progress over the long term requires regularly tracking data and identifying trends for specific groups and intersectionalities. With this increased visibility, industry leaders could develop a shared understanding of persistent challenges and the most effective interventions.

These ideas are just a start. Given the changing nature of the industry, executives could also explore creative solutions to improve representation, such as analyzing the potential of ad sales through API content.

Our research demonstrates the film and television industry has several compelling reasons to champion API representation in front of and behind the camera. However, it doesn’t need to act out of altruism. The reward for getting it right could be a windfall of billions of dollars in annual revenues—and the prize will only grow. Capturing this opportunity would require a broader shift among decision makers in how capital is allocated for projects.

Progress won’t be easy, but when the enhanced richness and authenticity of storytelling could be accompanied by such a substantial opportunity, the business case is clear.

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