Tyler Perry Presents Peeples, Lionsgate

Last year, GLAAD introduced the first annual Studio Responsibility Index (SRI); a new report examining the quantity and quality of LGBT representation in mainstream Hollywood film, and the results were quite surprising. Despite consistent conservative labeling of Hollywood as a liberal propaganda machine, GLAAD found that LGBT representations in contemporary Hollywood films tend to be far more scarce and regressive than those on television.

Sadly, little changed in the following year. Out of the 102 releases GLAAD counted from the major studios in 2013, 17 of them (16.7%) contained characters or impressions identified as either lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. In most cases, these characters received only minutes - or even seconds - of screen time, and were often offensive portrayals.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Sony Columbia Pictures

This was a depressing realization, particularly when one considers the cultural currency these films still carry and their popularity with audiences on a global scale. Studies have repeatedly shown* that seeing an LGBT story in the media can foster understanding and acceptance of LGBT people, but the images present in contemporary Hollywood film are rarely significant enough to leave much of an impact. In many cases, they may even be doing more harm than good.

In countries like Russia or Uganda, recent discriminatory laws based on misinformation, dangerous stereotypes, and old-world prejudice are making it increasingly difficult for LGBT people to live free and happy lives. Hollywood has the chance to encourage greater understanding with the films they export, but at the very least, they must stop producing representations that could validate misconceptions and fears about LGBT people. Anything less is dangerously irresponsible.

In response to last year’s unfortunate findings, the most common question we heard was “Why does mainstream film seem to be so far behind the times?” Through meetings with film professionals following the release of the Studio Responsibility Index, we got the chance to directly ask the question. From Hollywood executives, we repeatedly heard “We’re not getting scripts with LGBT characters,” while screenwriters told us, “The studios don’t want to make films with LGBT characters.” The truth is probably somewhere between these two accusations, but if one thing is certain, it’s that nothing will change until there are significant cultural shifts within the industry itself. And the impetus for that may lie in the second most common question we heard: “Why is television doing so much better?”

Battle of the Year, Sony Columbia Pictures

As most of its viewing audience can tell you, TV seems to have entered another golden age, where the programming is not only incredibly thematicaly diverse (and prolific), but is also fertile ground for creators to tell truly unique and innovative stories. Not by accident, it’s also the best place in popular culture to find complex and resonant representations of LGBT people that connect with a mainstream audience. There are a few lessons to be gleaned from TV’s increasing audience domination that would also help the state of LGBT representation in mainstream film.

The word “fatigue” is frequently used when writing about the state of Hollywood film to explain poor audience reception and box office returns. It’s indicative of the fact that innovation and original ideas are in short supply. For the industry to thrive and evolve, it must produce groundbreaking and sometimes “risky” stories that set themselves apart. That also means letting go of old assumptions about what sort of characters an audience will embrace. The current economics of film aren’t always “risk-friendly,” but the runaway success of female-driven films like The Hunger Games and Frozen prove that outdated conservative formulas are worth breaking.

Taking those risks will bring in new audiences, and if the Hollywood film industry wants to remain viable long-term, the number one audience they should be chasing is young people. As networks like MTV and ABC Family have realized, the world these young audiences know is a diverse one. They are far more likely to have peers or friends who are openly LGBT than their parents were, and the TV shows depicting their world often reflect that. The competition for the attention of young consumers is certainly fiercer than it’s ever been, but film won’t win it by relying on old formulas and creating worlds they don’t relate to.

Broken City, Fox

Change certainly doesn’t come easy to some Hollywood studios who have long relied on mass-appeal products, but TV has demonstrated that mainstream audiences will fully embrace LGBT characters and stories. Yes, some of the most groundbreaking shows in recent years have been inclusive, but so have some of the safest bets. You don’t need to look any further than Modern Family as evidence; a warm-hearted, intergenerational family comedy series that prominently features a gay couple with an adopted daughter. And for five years, it’s been a hit with liberal and conservative audiences alike, demonstrating that American viewers are much more accepting and forward thinking than they are often given credit for.

Film does still matter. It was one of the first ways our country could share cultural experiences on a mass scale, crossing the boundaries of location, education, and class. To this day, that is still largely true; Hollywood film reflects much about who we are as a society, and expresses our values to a global audience as one of our biggest cultural exports. But it’s rarely a complete picture. It is important that Hollywood also reflect our nation’s full diversity rather than shy away from it. Not just for society’s sake, but for the sake of Hollywood’s own relevance and longevity.

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