The last two years saw box office chaos, a flurry of commitments from studios to underrepresented communities, and the second-ever woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director. But did 2020 and 2021 bring any true change in the composition of directors working behind the camera? A new study offers insights on where there has been progress and where there’s room to grow alongside the launch of a new program aimed at increasing the presence of women of color behind the scenes.
The report, entitled Inclusion in the Director’s Chair, is the latest from Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, and resumes the Initiative’s annual look at gender and race/ethnicity of top-grossing directors. The study includes an assessment of the top-grossing films from 2007 to 2021, as well as an analysis of major and mini-major studio slates, a look at the pipeline for directors, popular streaming platforms, and awards recognition.
The report also includes an announcement of the new AI2 Accelerator, launched by Smith and the Initiative as a solution to the lack of women of color hired to direct top-grossing films. Supported by a set of notable industry advisors, the Accelerator is a $25,000 scholarship designed to support a woman of color in film school as she completes a thesis film and prepares to enter the industry.
The study shows that there has been progress behind the camera. Across 1,542 directors and 15 years of top-grossing movies, 5.4% were women. The percentage of women directors reached 15% in 2020, an all-time high. The increase from 2018 to 2020 persisted into 2021, when the percentage of women directors was 12.7%.
“This is the first sustained increase we have seen in the percentage of women directors since 2007,” said Smith. “Even when we examined several different samples of top-grossing films to account for the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the results held. This tells us that we are seeing a true increase in the percentage of women directors of top-grossing films, though there is still room for growth to match the 51% of women who comprise the U.S. population.”
The percentage of directors from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups also reached a 15-year high watermark in 2021, when 27.3% of directors who were underrepresented. This figure is an increase from 20.5% in 2019 and 17.5% in 2020. The overall percentage of underrepresented directors across 15 years was 14.8%, which is still below proportional representation to the U.S. population (39.9%).
Despite these gains, the percentage of women of color did not change across the study. Fewer than 2% of all top-grossing directors were women of color across 15 years. This is a total of only 18 top-grossing films directed by women of color and 15 individual women of color who worked on a top-grossing movie during the time frame.
“It’s clear from the data that the perception of a woman director in Hollywood is a white woman, while underrepresented means an underrepresented man,” said Smith. “Yet our analysis also shows that women of color receive the highest average and median Metacritic scores for their work, outperforming white men and women as well as men of color. It’s not the quality of work by women of color but ongoing biases and prejudices that impede progress.
To complement the top-grossing analysis, the authors also examined film slates from 6 major and 2 mini-major studios. Of the 913 directors included in the analysis, 11.1% were women and 17.8% were underrepresented. Only 3% of directors were women of color. There is still not one year in which every studio has hired at least one woman director. Moreover, 34 of 56 film slates did not feature even one woman of color director.
One arena that presents a more promising picture for women and underrepresented directors is streaming platforms. Examining films across four streaming platforms (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, HBO Max), the report shows that these distributors outpaced top-grossing movies in the percentage of women and underrepresented directors of original film content.
“Not only can companies make inclusive hiring decisions, but our data shows that some of them do,” said Smith. “We see this with the choices that Donna Langley is making at Universal and what Jennifer Salke is doing at Amazon Studios. The streaming results forcefully demonstrate that the future of inclusion is on streaming platforms that recognize the diverse audiences they serve and provide content by directors from a variety of different backgrounds.”
The report also provides an update on awards recognition for directors across four major awards organizations: the Academy Awards, the Golden Globe Awards, the DGA Awards, and the Critics’ Choice Awards. Since 2008, 8.9% of directing nominations across these awards went to women and 19.4% to underrepresented directors. Only 3 individual women of color have been nominated for these four awards in the past 15 years.
To address the ongoing disparities facing women of color, Smith and the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative are launching the AI2 Accelerator. This is the first program from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative to directly support filmmakers and to bolster the pipeline for young creatives. The AI2 Accelerator will award a $25,000 scholarship to a woman of color to use for expenses related to creating a student film during her senior year at a U.S. film school. The goal is to support talented women of color, particularly those that want to tell large narrative stories (comic book, VFX-driven, etc.) and make an impact on the world. The winning director will also meet with a set of industry-leading advisors throughout her senior year. Applications for the Accelerator will open later this spring with the winning director announced ahead of the 2022-23 school year.
Project advisors include: Donna Langley, Chairman, Universal Filmed Entertainment Group; Kevin Feige, President, Marvel Studios; Jennifer Salke, Head of Amazon Studios; Jody Gerson, Chairman and CEO, Universal Music Publishing Group; Halle Berry, Academy Award-winning actor, director and producer; Melina Matsoukas, DGA Award- and Grammy Award-winning director; Kathryn Bigelow, Academy Award-winning director and producer; J.J. Abrams and Katie McGrath, Co-CEOs Bad Robot; Lindsay Galin, Co-President of Talent, Rogers and Cowan PMK; Phillip Sun, Co-Founder, President, and Managing Director, M88; Maha Dakhil, Co-Head, Motion Picture Group, Co-Head, International Film Group, Board Member, CAA; Brenda Robinson, Co-Founder, Gamechanger Films, Board Chair Film Independent; Jay Shetty, #1 New York Times best-selling author, Purpose Coach.
“The AI2 Accelerator is designed to launch a next-generation filmmaker by providing a suite of resources: financial, relational, and informational. With this program we are specifically targeting the place where we have seen the least progress over the last decade and a half and taking aim at the biases that continue to thwart inclusive hiring,” said Smith. “I am thrilled to be able to support a talented woman of color with both a scholarship and the wisdom and insight from the incredible advisors who have signed on to this program.”