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When it comes to film, not everyone’s a critic

New study finds inequality by gender and race/ethnicity for film reviewers across 3 years and 300 movies.

Everyone may be a critic, but when it comes to film reviewers, a new study reveals that the old adage doesn’t ring true.

The report, titled “Critic’s Choice II,” is the second in a series from Professor Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and was conducted in partnership with TIME’S UP Entertainment — an affiliate within TIME’S UP’s expanding coalition of women across industries working toward safe, fair and dignified workplaces — to investigate inclusion among film reviewers. The report uses reviews of 300 top-grossing films from 2015 to 2017 posted on the site Rotten Tomatoes to assess gender and race/ethnicity of critics, including how this varies by film distributor and publication outlet.

Only 21.3% of the 59,751 reviews evaluated were written by female critics, with 78.7% crafted by male critics. This represents a gender ratio of 3.7 male reviewers to every 1 female reviewer. Critics from underrepresented racial/ethnic backgrounds composed 16.8% of these reviews compared with 83.2% by white critics. The researchers went further, assessing both gender and underrepresented status. White male critics wrote substantially more reviews (65.6%) than their white female (17.6%) or underrepresented male (13.1%) peers. Underrepresented female critics only wrote 3.7% of reviews included in the sample. Across the three years studied, there was no change over time in the representation of critics. The results for individuals designated as “Top Critics” by Rotten Tomatoes mirror those for all critics.

“This study reveals that the inequality we see among critics is not a one-time problem,” said Professor Smith, founder and director of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. “These are stable patterns that demonstrate that the conversation surrounding films and their value is not an inclusive one.”

The report also analyzed how seven major entertainment studios performed with regard to top critics’ reviews over the three years. Proportional representation of top critics did not occur across the film slates at any of the largest distributors. Among white female top critics, the range was 18.3% to 24.5%, with Universal the closest to proportional representation. Reviews by underrepresented male critics made up 9.1% to 10.4% of each company’s critics’ pool, and reviews by underrepresented female critics came in between 1.4% and 3.1% across distributors.

“The major distributors appear to be operating according to an invisible quota system that does not reflect the audience for film,” said Professor Smith. “If the studios believe that critics’ reviews play a role in the box office performance of their films, they must do better — and that includes asking publications to do more to create a diverse pool of critics.”

Publication outlets were another area of focus for researchers. Among top critics, white males wrote between 65% and 70% of film reviews at notable daily papers; daily and weekly newspapers; entertainment trades; general news outlets; and entertainment publications. The range across these outlets for white females was 6.1% to 33%, with general news scoring highest. For underrepresented males, however, the low was at general news outlets, where these individuals wrote less than 1% of all reviews, with a high of 22.7% at entertainment trades. Underrepresented female critics wrote as few as 1.6% of all reviews at general news publications and at most 3.3% of reviews at the entertainment trades.

The researchers included an invisibility analysis to examine how many films were missing underrepresented female reviewers altogether. The absence of women of color working as top reviewers was striking. Nearly half (48.3%) of the 300 films studied did not feature one underrepresented female top critic as a reviewer. Similarly, 45.4% of the 108 female-driven movies and 35.1% of the 57 films with an underrepresented actor at the center were not reviewed by even one underrepresented female top critic.

Why does it matter if films do not include women of color as reviewers? The authors offer two analyses that answer this question, though they advise the results be interpreted cautiously. When critical review scores were standardized on a scale of 1-10 and the averages compared, white male critics and underrepresented female critics scored movies with white male leads nearly equally. However, white male critics scored films with underrepresented female leads nearly 10% lower than underrepresented female critics did — 5.9 versus 6.8.

The researchers also examined differences between critics’ rating of films as “rotten” or “fresh” on the site Rotten Tomatoes. Underrepresented female critics were more likely to rate films with underrepresented female leads as “fresh” compared with white male critics. However, there was no difference between these two groups when it came to labeling movies driven by white male leading characters as “fresh.”

These findings lend support to comments made by Academy Award winner Brie Larson in June regarding the need for inclusion among film critics.

“Dr. Stacy Smith and her team’s incredible work is at the forefront of the conversation about why it’s so vital to take action to improve representation among critics,” Larson said of the current study. “She articulates why it’s important for the entertainment industry to embrace the diverse voices in film criticism that already exist and ensure that the critics reviewing movies represent the audience that sees them. We can all do our part to create access and opportunity for the perspectives that have long been missing from these conversations.”

Another key advocate for inclusion is TIME’S UP Entertainment. “TIME’S UP Entertainment is dedicated to removing the barriers that limit the diversity of our storytelling at every level, especially at a time when our audiences are so diverse,” stated Nithya Raman, executive director of TIME’S UP Entertainment. “As pointed out through this study, when film critics are overwhelmingly white and male, films may not be given the same opportunities to succeed. We will continue to advocate to ensure that the entertainment industry proactively provides access to a much more diverse pool of critics.”

Earlier this summer, TIME’S UP Entertainment, in partnership with publicists, industry executives, film critics and entertainment journalists, announced the development of CRITICAL, an opt-in database that will ultimately allow studios, talent, film critics associations and representatives to more easily find and contact entertainment journalists and critics from underrepresented groups. Once launched, CRITICAL will aim to achieve a better balance among critics and entertainment journalists who are provided access to key industry events – one that better reflects audiences and the world we live in.

The authors propose additional ways to remedy underrepresentation, pointing to recent actions taken by Sundance Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, and Rotten Tomatoes to diversify critics. The report is the latest from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, and the second in a series of reports on critics. Professor Smith will present the report’s findings during a keynote address at the Toronto International Film Festival’s Industry Conference on Friday, Sept. 7. The newest report can be found online here.

About TIME’S UP Entertainment

TIME’S UP Entertainment is an affiliate within TIME’S UP’s expanding coalition of women across industries dedicated to collectively shifting the paradigm of workplace culture for women of all kinds. TIME’S UP Entertainment works toward creating safe, fair and dignified workplaces for women across the entertainment industry.