LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - When the Academy Awards are handed out Sunday evening at Hollywood’s Dolby Theater, there’s a good chance that at least one of the honored films will have a protagonist of color. Four of the nine Best Picture contenders fall in that camp: "Fences," "Hidden Figures," "Lion" and "Moonlight."
That’s different from just two years ago, when the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite began scolding the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for overlooking minorities in its nominations.
But Hollywood still falls short in terms of recognizing Latino talent, some observers say.
"The Hispanic market in the United States is very important to the success or failure of a movie, but Hollywood does not pay attention to Hispanic people – either in front of or behind the scenes," said Santiago Pozo, CEO of Arenas Entertainment, a Los Angeles-based firm that markets entertainment programing to U.S. Hispanics.
Only two Latinos are among this year’s Oscar nominees: Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, for the film "Silencio," and American Lin-Manuel Miranda, of "Hamilton" fame, for a song ("How Far I’ll Go") in the Disney animated movie "Moana."
New diversity report
In their newly issued "2017 Hollywood Diversity Report," researchers at the University of California Los Angeles found that Latinos – along with other minority groups – remained strongly underrepresented.
The researchers studied 168 theatrical films released in 2015 – the most recent year for which data could be analyzed. They also examined 1,206 television shows released during the 2014-15 season.
The report found that though Latinos represented nearly one out of five Americans that year – almost 19 percent – they weren’t reflected proportionately in these films. It did not give a specific percentage for their representation.
Since the first annual report in 2014, "what we’ve found … is that there hasn’t been a lot of progress at all in film in terms of diversity," said Darnell Hunt, who directs UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies.
He noted television has done better.
Reflecting power structure
Hunt attributed the limited film diversity to Hollywood’s power structure, in which white men run most studios and determine whether to approve a project.
"When they do decide to pursue diversity, the first thing that comes to mind as a white man is, well, African-American," said Hunt, who is black. "They’re not thinking about Latinos in the same way. They’re not thinking about Asian-Americans in the same way. Maybe they don’t understand those communities or cultures as well as they think they understand African-Americans."
He added that, too often, the resulting black-focused film is "stereotypical. … African-American often becomes the stand-in for diversity."
"How many Latino names do you see in the movie credits?" echoed businessman Pozo of Arenas. "How many Latino names do you see as movie studio executives?"
One of those names in movie credits belongs to Gustavo Borner, founder and chief engineer at Igloo Music Studios, which worked on sound for "La La Land." The musical has been nominated for Oscars in 14 categories. Borner himself has won multiple Grammys and Latin Grammys.
He downplayed discrimination in the Hollywood he knows.
"In 'La La Land' alone, we already have three or four people who are Spanish speakers – Latinos," said Gustavo Borner, a native of Argentina. "I haven’t seen any door closed to anybody because of a passport or [skin] color or whatever."
Borner also worked on the dark comedy "Birdman," which won several Academy Awards in 2015. The academy presented Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu with gold statues for best picture, best director and best original screenplay.
Demographics may affect films
The bottom line may push movie studios toward more diversity, Hunt said.
Films with more diverse casts do better at the box office, his study found. Minorities bought 45 percent of all movie tickets sold in the United States in 2015.
"Latinos were particularly well represented among minority ticket buyers, accounting for 23 percent of ticket purchases alone," the study said. They "also accounted for 23 percent of all frequent moviegoers."
"The American population is about 40 percent minority right now" and growing, Hunt pointed out. "People want to see their stories, they want to see characters that look like them, characters they can identify with."