Reflecting on the Oscars one month later: is streaming driving diversity in film and TV?

Oscars red carpet
Head shot of Orson Nava

Article by: Dr Orson Nava

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Diversity, independent film-making, and streaming took centre stage at the Oscars last month. But does this success mark an actual step change in the industry since the #OscarsSoWhite years of 2015 and 2016? Could streaming, in fact, be the game-changer the industry needs?


It was heartening to see Michelle Yeoh and Everything Everywhere All at Once take-home seven Oscars, crowning a fine year for independent film.

As the first woman of Asian heritage to be awarded Best Actress, this was certainly a benchmark moment for diversity. Another promising moment came with the award for the short film An Irish Goodbye, starring actor James Martin, who has Down's syndrome.

Until recently, young people with learning or physical disabilities had nowhere to look in the film industry. Yet there are strong links between neurodiversity and creativity. Their achievements are sure to inspire young film makers who may now see themselves as on the margins of the industry.

So are we really entering a new age, where diversity goes mainstream in film-making?


Back in 2015, the all-white acting Oscars nominations prompted a storm of protest on social media. A 2015 study from the University of Southern California found that little had improved since 2007 in terms of gender, race or sexuality in film. Only 30% of the characters in top grossing films were female, and few were LGBT+. Behind the camera, just 5.8% directors were black and 2.4% were Asian.

The researchers noted several films on the horizon that might indicate a sea change. Since then, the Black Lives Matter movement and Oscars for people of colour have kept the issue in the spotlight.

But more jaded industry experts believe that such changes could turn out to be merely performative. After all, similar charges were levelled in the 1990s – and led to only temporary improvements.

Streaming: the game-changer

However, one change is here to stay. Streaming has fundamentally shifted the landscape for global film distribution and broadcasting.

Netflix and other platforms understand that tokenism will no longer satisfy a diverse audience in a global cultural economy. The success of Squid Games shows that audiences across the globe want to see productions that reflect their world, made by a diverse directors, producers and casts.

Increasingly, British people from under represented backgrounds are turning to online platforms to get their voices heard too. Blue Story, a feature film from 2019 set in London, began life as a series of self-funded episodic dramas on YouTube; its director, Rapman, now works in the USA.

The UK film industry

In a powerful essay for the Sunday Times in 2020, Idris Elba highlighted the importance of diversity in film, praising independent cinemas for their contribution.

Idris Elba

However, the British film industry is still largely white and middle class, with up to a third of professionals educated at fee-paying schools. [CB1] 

The BFI issued standards in 2014 that aimed to boost BAME presence in production crews and content matter. Yet research by Dr Clive Nwonka in 2020 found the standards were failing to make significant headway in tackling discrimination against BAME workers.

In TV, the BBC faces a similar challenge, and has now set itself a mandatory target: at least 20% of off-screen talent must come from under-represented groups. And ITV is working with Birmingham University’s Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity to improve racial and disability equity in its content.

Unpaid labour

Entertainment is a high-status sector, affording many workers huge privilege. However, many projects are unfunded or underfunded. Pilots often have microbudgets, so people are forced to work for free. Some productions are more exploitative, offering unpaid work despite big budgets.

For would-be film makers from disadvantaged backgrounds, who cannot afford to work unpaid or invest in their artistic vision or career, this remains a huge challenge.

Behind the camera

If you look at British adverts, a traditional route into the industry, you might be impressed by the diversity on screen - but advertising industry research suggests it’s often overestimated. Behind the camera, most crews are white, able-bodied, and male. So, mainstream TV, film and advertising projects all struggle to get diverse crews.

Part of the problem is that, outside of the industry, there is a lack of awareness of the wealth of opportunities available to work in off-screen roles, including production, distribution, FX and so on.

Our national broadcasters and big budget film production companies need to do more to communicate these opportunities and to seek out and nurture people from diverse backgrounds.

There is a lesson here for educators too. Higher education has a vital role to play in helping students to see the breadth of roles in which they could apply their skills and abilities, as well as working with industry to understand skills gaps and tailor courses to ensure that graduates are ready for work.  

At Ravensbourne University London we pride ourselves on our inclusion and provide students with opportunities to collaborate on real world industry projects, offering work-based learning in every year of a student’s studies. The result us in an undergraduate employment rate of 87% after six months. Many of our third year and postgraduate students start work in industry before they have even completed their studies.

While the streaming companies are leading the way in attracting this talent, now is the time for the rest of the industry to engage with a broader range of voices, perspectives and stories that will be change the face of our film and television awards in the years to come.