5 Insights into Asian and Pacific Islander Presence in Hollywood

API visibility is growing in film and TV, but there’s still potential for on- and off-screen talent to tell more authentic stories

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3:46 PM HKT, Wed June 12, 2024 2 mins read

Asian and Pacific Islander (API) presence is growing in Hollywood, both on the big screen and in TV series, and spanning various on- and off-screen roles. However, despite this growing visibility, there's still untapped potential. According to new research conducted by McKinsey & Company in collaboration with Gold House, over two-thirds of API consumers in the United States express dissatisfaction with the portrayal and authenticity of their identities in media. This deficiency presents an opportunity not only for media makers to enhance their work, but also to reap greater financial rewards. Here are five key facts regarding the current state of API representation in Hollywood, as highlighted in McKinsey’s report:

1. Asian Americans earn more but consume less than other Americans

McKinsey Chart

Data from McKinsey’s 2024 report.

Based on the Consumer Expenditure Survey from US Bureau of Labour in 2022, Asian Americans earn approximately 30% more annually than their non-Asian counterparts, but spend only 70% of their income, compared to 78% and 81% for White and Black consumers, respectively. However, their expenditure on media content remains disproportionately low, accounting for only 0.4% of their income, compared to 0.9% for White and Black consumers.

2. The majority of APIs feel that their race and ethnicity is not authentically portrayed in US-produced film and TV

Every All At Once

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022). Image via A24.

In McKinsey’s survey of API entertainment leaders, over 70% of the respondents believed that their race and ethnicity is not authentically represented in American media. However, box office receipts indicate that there is an appetite for US-produced API content — US-produced films with API leads generated 7.8% of total box office in the U.S. between 2018 and 2022. With more authentic representation, these box office numbers could increase.

3. API content faces genre challenges


Beef (2023). Image via Netflix.

Although the number of films with API leads is growing, the proportion of films telling race-agnostic stories (films that do not have a storyline specific to the API experience, but with API actors in roles that can generally be played by anyone) always surpasses that of race-specific ones from 2018 to 2022. This pattern is not common in underrepresented racial groups, Films with Black leads were for instance twice as likely to be race-specific than race-agnostic. The relatively lower rate has provided fewer opportunities for API stories and experiences to be told. Furthermore, 47% of API films belong to the action and adventure genre, with only a few popular exceptions like Everything Everywhere All At Once and Past Lives. The homogenized nature of this genre further limits the diversity of API stories presented in the public.

4. Internal imbalance exists in API subgroups


Jason Momoa in Aquaman (2018). Image via Warner Bros.

One Pasifika (Pacific Islander) entertainment executive pointed out that PIs are often neglected when talking about API content. For example, between 2018 and 2022, East Asian actors dominated 50% of the leading roles, while Pasifika actors had minimal representation, and were often cast in stereotypical roles. Gender representation is also skewed in all API subgroups, with male actors dominating the scene.

Asian Women Behind the Scenes

API off-screen talent: left to right, Jenny Han, Chloé Zhao, and Sandra Oh. Image via Parade.

5. The support between off-screen talent and on-screen stars forms a mutually beneficial cycle

The presence of off-screen API talent, such as directors, writers, producers, and showrunners, correlates positively with higher on-screen API representation. The pattern is significant in US-produced films. Less than 6% of movies lacking API talent in significant off-screen positions featured an API lead. When an API professional holds an off-screen role, this figure rises to 37 percent.

To sum up, increased API representation in US media has the potential to foster diversity, as well as lead to substantial financial gain — if API consumers spent as much of their income on film and television as their White counterparts, they would be spending an estimated $4 billion dollars. Potential ideas that could help the industry move in this direction include providing financial support for both on and off-screen talent, and adopting expanded criteria for project evaluation. Investing in US API content creation could form a positive feedback cycle, in which successful API entertainment professionals could attract investors to future API projects.

Banner image by Haedi Yue.

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