Less than a quarter of Hollywood films released last year featured an LGBTQ character, according to a new report from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).
The Studio Responsibility Index found that of the 110 releases from the seven largest Hollywood studios in 2018, 20 included LGBTQ characters – an increase from 2017 and the second-highest percentage of inclusive films in the seven years since GLAAD began publishing its report.
“While the film industry should include more stories of LGBTQ people, people of colour and transgender people, studios are finally addressing the calls from LGBTQ people and allies around the world who want to see more diversity in films,” GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said in a statement on Thursday.
LGBTQ characters featured prominently last year in critical successes like Bohemian Rhapsody, the Oscar-winning biopic of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, and the royal drama The Favourite. They were also represented in box-office hits such as the superhero caper Deadpool 2 and the teen comedy Blockers.
Despite this, Thursday’s report found that more than half of LGBTQ characters in Hollywood films had less than three minutes of screen time.
One reason for this limited screen time could be that it makes it easier for studios to edit LGBTQ characters out of versions of their films intended for distribution in countries where homosexuality is criminalised or stigmatised.
“Now that exports count for some much of the studios’ income, it must be a concern for them that LGBTQ characters might have trouble getting past censors in China or the Arab world. China especially is a key market,” Richard Pena, director emeritus of the New York Film Festival and professor of film studies at Columbia University told Al Jazeera.
Bohemian Rhapsody showed in China with all references to Mercury’s sexuality removed, while the film was pulled shortly after release in several Gulf countries.
For the first time in five years, family and animated films failed to include a single LGBTQ character, according to the GLAAD report, while transgender characters were completely absent for the second year in a row.
Nicole Morse, an assistant professor of multimedia studies at Florida Atlantic University’s School of Communication and Multimedia Studies, says the lack of transgender characters in mainstream releases is deeply disappointing, if not surprising.
“Among the LGBTQ community, trans people face the highest rates of poverty and, as a result, trans people aren’t a target demographic for media producers who are interested in making money – unless the trans characters are spectacularised for a cisgender [people whose gender identity corresponds with their birth sex] audience,” Morse told Al Jazeera.
Thursday’s report also saw a notable drop in the number of LGBTQ characters who were people of colour – a figure that slipped from 57 percent in 2017 to 42 percent last year. However, within this bracket, there was a rise in representation of Asian/Pacific Islander LGBTQ characters, who in previous years were not featured in Hollywood films.
Releases from 20th Century Fox, Lionsgate, and Paramount Pictures were surveyed in the report, along with those of Sony Pictures, Universal Pictures and Walt Disney Studios.
GLAAD has been calling on studios to ensure that LGBTQ representation will reach 20 percent by 2021 and 50 percent by 2024.
“We know that inclusion is both the right thing to do and good for the bottom line,” GLAAD’s director of entertainment research and analysis, Megan Townsend, said in a statement on Thursday.
“The studios should recognise the power of LGBTQ moviegoers and the desire for stories that reflect ourselves and create and market more films for this audience who is ready to buy tickets”.
GLAAD also highlighted a 2014 reportby research firm Nielsen, which showed that compared with “straight” audiences, “queer” audiences are 22 percent more likely to see a new theatrical release more than once.
LGBTQ audience members are more likely to spread the news about films they’ve seen and give word-of-mouth recommendations, with 49 percent saying they texted, tweeted or otherwise posted about a film they saw the same day, compared with 37 percent of straight audience members, according to Nielsen’s State of the LGBT Moviegoer report.
While independent cinema has long showcased LGBTQ stories, bigger studios have been slower to adapt. But as legacy studios battle for audience attention – competing against streaming services such as Netflix and a new golden age of television – it will be essential to appeal to broader audiences who are willing to spend money on going to the cinema.
“I would love to say that it [increased representation] is because they [studios] care about supporting the queer and trans community,” Morse said. “At the same time, queer people – especially white queer people – are a significant marketing demographic.
“Within a capitalist system, representation is often more about courting advertisers and drawing in consumers than it is about transforming our world to be more open to LGBTQ people.”