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New study reveals the number and percentage of female directors of top films reached a 13-year high in 2019

The start of a new decade brings with it the hope that the entertainment industry’s track record for hiring female directors has finally changed. New research, out today, reveals that 10.6% of the directors of 2019’s top movies were women — the highest percentage in more than a decade.

The research brief is the newest from Professor Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. The study examined the prevalence of female directors working across 1,300 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2019. The report also provides insight into the percentage of directors from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups and looks specifically at women of color working as directors.

The findings demonstrate that 12 women directed one of the 100 top films in 2019. While the overall percentage of female directors across the 13-year time frame remains 4.8%, 2019’s number was the highest across the years examined.

“This is the first time we have seen a shift in hiring practices for female film directors in 13 years,” said Professor Smith. “One notable reason for this jump in 2019 was that Universal Pictures had 5 films with women directors at the helm in the top 100 movies. Yet there is still much more progress needed to reach parity for women behind the camera.”

The percentage of underrepresented directors reached 16.8% in 2019, a dip from last year’s high of 21.4%. Four women of color helmed a top 100 movie in 2019. Smith cautions against celebrating this peak, however. “Less than 1% of all directors across 13 years were women of color,” said Smith. “In fact, 13 women have directed a top film in 13 years. While 2019 is a banner year for women, we will not be able to say there is true change until all women have access and opportunity to work at this level.”

The study examined Metacritic scores for the films across the sample. While there were no differences in average or median Metacritic scores for male- or female-directed movies, or for those by white versus underrepresented directors, one major difference did emerge. “Women of color received the highest median and average Metacritic scores for their films compared to white male-, underrepresented male-, and white female-directed content,” said Smith. “Yet, women of color are least likely to work as directors across the top 100 films each year. These findings suggest that when companies seek to hire ‘the best person for the job,’ they are not relying on objective criteria, but on a subjective view of storytellers.”

The authors included a slate analysis, assessing inclusion of directors across 8 companies distributing movies from 2015 to 2019. The results revealed that the overall percentage of female directors across those 5 years and the 8 companies examined was 9.8%, with 2019 the year in which the highest percentage of female directors worked (15%). Yet, of the 40 slates studied, 26 did not feature a single woman of color as a director.

As a comparison, the researchers studied the pipeline for female directors. From 2015 to 2019, 34.5% of directors of feature films in U.S. Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival were women. Additionally, 20% of Netflix’s 2019 directors of U.S. fictional films were female. “Netflix’s value for inclusion is reflected in their 2019 slate,” said Smith. “Legacy studios must recognize that the world and the talent pipeline look vastly different from their hiring practices and act to reflect that reality.”

The study also shines a light on top award nominees from 2008 to 2020. Only 5.1% of Best Director award nominees across the Golden Globes, Academy Awards, DGA Awards, and Critics’ Choice Awards were women. Only 4 individual women have been nominated for these awards, and just one woman (Kathryn Bigelow) has won. In contrast, 94.9% of nominees were male.

“A bias that fails to acknowledge women’s leadership is pervasive throughout the entire awards ecosystem,” said Smith. “Whether it is the Golden Globes, the Academy Awards, the DGA Awards, or the Critics’ Choice Awards, we see that women’s achievements behind the camera are still not seen or celebrated by their peers or the press. Until we shatter the stereotype of who can be lauded as a director, we will not see change in this area.”

The report is the latest from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, and can be found online here.