Stacy Smith and Marc Choueiti.
USC Annenberg / Brett Van Ort

It Doesn’t Get Better: No change for female, black, or Asian film directors in a decade

So much for liberal Hollywood. A research brief released today shows that women and people of color rarely get a seat in the director’s chair. 

The first-ever Inclusion Brief includes new data on movies released in 2016. Authored by Professor Stacy L. Smith and the Media, Diversity & Social Change (MDSC) Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, the report, entitled “Inclusion in the Director’s Chair.” It is the most comprehensive intersectional analysis of directors of motion pictures to date, combining data on the gender, race, and age of filmmakers working on 1,000 top-grossing films released between 2007 and 2016. The results reveal that for female, Black, and Asian directors, Hollywood is anything but the land of opportunity.  

Just 4% of all directors across the 1,000 top films from 2007 to 2016 were female, a ratio of 24 males to every one female director. Moreover, only three Black females, two Asian females, and one Latina have worked as directors on 1,000 top-grossing films over the last 10 years. The majority of female directors (80%) worked on only one top-grossing film across the time frame, including all three of the Black female directors. Slightly more than half (54.8%) of male directors only worked once over the 10-year sample. The researchers conclude from this evidence that there has been no change in the last decade.

“For the last decade, female directors of color have been nearly invisible in the director’s chair,” said Dr. Stacy L. Smith, founding director of the MDSC Initiative. “The data speak loud and clear. When Hollywood thinks female director, they think ‘white woman.’ When only 7 directing opportunities across 1,000 go to women of color, hiring practices need to change. These findings also show researchers cannot simply report on gender any longer. The experiences of white women differ dramatically from women of color.”  

The report also examined the number of directing opportunities for males and females between 2007 and 2016. Male directors worked on as many as 14 movies in 10 years, while the cap for women was set at 4. According to the researchers, female directors’ age contributes to these employment disparities. Male directors work on top-grossing films throughout their adult lives—from their 20s to their 80s. Females, in contrast, work across just four decades—their 30s to their 60s.

The paltry percentages of female directors of top-grossing films stand in contrast to more robust figures of women working on short films and independent features. The authors draw upon previous research by the MDSC Initiative that shows that 28% of narrative short film directors worldwide are female, as are 27.3% of directors in the Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Dramatic Competition section across the last 10 years. “The data reveal what I have called the fiscal cliff for female directors,” said Dr. Smith. “As the prominence and prestige of directing opportunities increases, the percentage of women hired for the job decreases.”

Prospects for Black and Asian directors are similarly bleak. The report examines the prevalence of directors from these groups over the last decade (2007-2016). Across 1,000 top movies, only 5.1% of directors were Black and 3% were Asian. This translates into just 27 individual Black directors and 17 Asian directors working on top films released since 2007. Once again, the researchers indicated that no meaningful change occurred over time.

“Our research consistently shows that behind the camera, directing is predominantly an occupation held by white males,” said Dr. Smith. “When the lens is this skewed, it offers a tilted view of society to audiences—one that lacks the perspective of women and people of color.”

For Black directors, opportunities to work on top-grossing fare are also limited in nature. Black directors were most likely to direct drama or comedy films. Over three-quarters (78.6%) of the films featured one or two top-billed cast who were Black or African-American. These findings suggest that Black directors are attached to content that aligns with their racial identity, rather than their talent.

The report includes an analysis of the number of movies by female, Black, and Asian directors released by the major film distributors in the last 10 years. For female directors, Warner Bros. released 10 movies by women over the last decade, the highest of the distributors. 20th Century Fox, Sony, and Universal released seven female-directed films each. However, none of the companies in the report have released at least one top-grossing movie per year with a female director since 2007.

The number of films by Black directors released by major distributors ranged from 0 to 16 movies. At the top was Lionsgate, followed by Sony, with nine Black-directed films released from 2007 to 2016. Disney was the worst performer with regard to distributing films by Black directors. Universal led amongst movies with Asian directors, distributing 10 movies in the 10-year time frame.

The researchers also examined agency representation of female, Black and Asian directors. The majority of these directors are represented by top agencies in Hollywood. “Although female, Black, and Asian directors have representation by some of the best agencies in the business, their employment opportunities are still limited. It is imperative to understand where the break down occurs between getting an agent and getting work,” said Dr. Smith.

The researchers further examined the genre of films made by women and Asian directors. Finally, the authors offer solutions for different groups—including those who hire and represent directors, A-list talent, philanthropists, and the public. The report is the latest from the MDSC Initiative, and can be found online here.

About USC Annenberg Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative

The Media Diversity & Social Change Initiative (MDSCI) at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is a leading think tank studying diversity in entertainment through original and sponsored research. MDSCI findings create valuable and sought after research based solutions that advance equality in entertainment. Dr. Stacy L. Smith is the Founder and Director of the MDSCI. Dr. Smith and the MDSCI examine gender and race on screen and behind the camera in cinematic content as well as barriers and opportunities facing women and people of color in the entertainment industry. The MDSCI also conducts economic analyses related to diversity and the financial performance of films. In 2015, Dr. Smith was named the #1 Most Influential Person in Los Angeles by LA Weekly. Dr. Smith has written more than 100 journal articles, book chapters, and reports on content patterns and effects of the media In terms of the popular press, Dr. Smith’s research has been written about in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, Newsweek, The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, and NPR. She has a co-edited essay in Maria Shriver’s book, A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything (2009). Dr. Smith and the MDSCI’s most recent research reports include the Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment (CARD) and a series of landmark studies with Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles. To learn more, visit or follow on Twitter @MDSCInitiative.

About the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

Located in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California, the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is a national leader in education and scholarship in the fields of communication, journalism, public diplomacy and public relations. With an enrollment of more than 2,200 students, USC Annenberg offers doctoral, graduate and undergraduate degree programs, as well as continuing development programs for working professionals, across a broad scope of academic inquiry. The school's comprehensive curriculum emphasizes the core skills of leadership, innovation, service and entrepreneurship and draws upon the resources of a networked university in a global urban environment.

Key Findings

Prevalence of Female Directors. A total of 1,114 directors were evaluated for gender, with 96% (n=1,069) male and 4% (n=45) female. This translates into a ratio of 23.8 male directors for every one female director. The percentage of female directors in 2016 (4.2%, n=5) does not differ from the overall point statistic sample wide nor does it deviate by 5% from the percentage of female directors in 2007 (2.7%, n=3). Thus, there has been no meaningful change in the prevalence of female directors across the top films from 2007 to 2016. 

Across the 10-year sample and 45 directing jobs, only three female directors were Black and three were Asian. Clearly, Hollywood’s perception of women directors is that of a white female.

The average age of male (46.2 years) and female (47.4 years) directors at the time of a film’s theatrical release did not differ. However, female directors of top-grossing movies work from their 30s to their 60s. In contrast, male directors work across seven decades—from their 20s to their 80s. The span of females’ careers is limited whereas for males it appears to be limitless.

Females most often helmed dramas (40.9%), followed by comedies (29.6%) and animated features (11.4%). Females rarely directed movies that were science fiction/fantasy (6.8%), action (4.6%), or thrillers (4.6%). Only one woman directed a horror film (2.3%). Females rarely direct in lucrative genres such as action or thriller, but overwhelmingly work on drama or comedy films. Males, in contrast, work across all genres.

Overall, 612 unique or individual directors worked across the 1,000 movies evaluated. Only 5.7% (n=35) of these directors were women and 94.3% (n=577) were men. This calculates into a gender ratio of 16.5 male helmers to every one female helmer.

More than half of directors (56.2%) only worked on a single top-grossing film in the years evaluated. Females were far more likely than males to make only one fictional movie, however.  80% of women made only one movie in the years studied, while 54.8% of men worked only once.

Over 45% of the male directors in the sample made two or more films across the 10-year time frame. This is true for 20% of the female helmers in the sample. Male directors made as many as 14 films between 2007 and 2016, while the cap for female directors was 4. The top-performing male director was Tyler Perry, whereas the top-performing female director was Anne Fletcher.

In Hollywood, female directors are usually “one and done.” There is a 29% difference in the percentage of women of color who made just one top-grossing film between 2007 and 2016 (83.3%) and the percentage of non-Black and non-Asian males who made only 1 movie (54.3%).

The majority of female directors (97.1%) have agency representation. 42.4% of female directors are currently represented by Creative Artists Agency (CAA), 24.2% by William Morris Endeavor Entertainment (WME), and 24.2% by United Talent Agency (UTA). While women have allies in the entertainment industry, they still rarely work behind the camera in film.

Prevalence of Black Directors. A total of 1,114 directors between 2007 and 2016 were assessed for race, with 5.1% Black (n=57). Of these 57 helmers, 54 were male (94.7%) and 3 were female (5.3%). Similar to our findings with female helmers, there has been no change in the percentage or number of Black directors over time.

Over three-quarters (78.6%) of the films by Black directors featured one or two top-billed actors who were Black. Only 21.4% of the films featured two top-billed actors who were not Black. Black directors most often work on films that feature Black actors as the top-billed cast, which may limit the opportunities they have to work in Hollywood.

Most films by Black directors were dramas (41.1%), followed by comedies (37.5%). A handful of films (10.7%) were action movies, and few Black directors worked on science fiction/fantasy films (3.6%), thrillers (3.6%) or horror movies (1.8%). Only one animated film had a Black director. 

Removing repeat credits, a total of 27 Black directors (4.4%) out of 612 individuals helmed at least one top-grossing movie between 2007 and 2016. 

Black directors are less likely to work repeatedly than directors who are not Black. Two-thirds of Black directors (66.7%) only worked once across the decade evaluated, which is 11% higher than directors that are not Black. None of the Black female directors in this sample directed two or more top-grossing fictional films across the 10 years examined.

Of the 27 unique Black directors, 88.9% had current representation. Over one-third (36%) were represented by CAA, while WME and UTA each represented 24% of the Black directors in this sample.

Prevalence of Asian Directors. Only 34 Asian directors (3%) worked across the 1,000 top films from 2007 to 2016, with 91.2% male (n=31) and 8.8% female (n=3). Consistent with female and Black helmers, there has been no change in the percentage of Asian directors from 2007 to 2016.

Asian directors were most likely to helm animated (27.3%) and horror films (24.2%). Five Asian filmmakers created movies in the action arena (15.2%), five in the science fiction/fantasy realm (15.2%), and four in dramatic movies (12.1%). Only 1 Asian director helmed a thriller (3%) or a comedy (3%).

Nearly one-fifth (19.2%) of the movies helmed by Asian directors featured one or two top-billed actors who were Asian. Over three-quarters (80.8%) of the films by an Asian director featured two top-billed actors who were not Asian. In contrast to Black directors, Asian directors’ opportunities do not seem to be linked to their racial heritage.

Looking at unique or individual Asian directors, the 34 credits were held by a total of 17 different helmers, which is 2.8% of the 612 unique directors overall. The majority of Asian directors only worked on one film (58.8%), similar to directors who are not Asian (56.1%). Only one of the two Asian female directors worked on more than one film across the last 10 years.

64.7% of Asian directors currently have an agent. Over half (54.6%) were represented by agents at WME, while 27.3% had an agent at CAA.

Film Distribution Analysis: 2007-2016. The company with the highest number of female-directed films over the last 10 years is Warner Bros. 20th Century Fox, Sony, and Universal each released seven female-directed movies in the past decade. Lionsgate and Paramount released the fewest movies with female directors, with only three each. Across the 10-year time frame, none of the companies examined in this report have released at least one movie per year with a female director that appeared in the sample of top-grossing fare.

In terms of Black directors, Lionsgate outperforms the other distributors, with a total of 16 movies. Sony released nine films with a Black director across the same time period.

Disney did not distribute one movie by a Black director in the last decade that appeared in our sample of 1,000 top films.

Among Asian-directed films, Universal was the leader, with 10 movies distributed in the last 10 years. Lionsgate released just one movie helmed by an Asian director, while Sony and Warner Bros. distributed two films each by Asian directors.