hands holding film slate
A new report from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative reveals that there was no change for women and people of color behind the camera in 2023.

Was 2023 the year of the woman director? Survey says… no

Was 2023 the Year of the Woman? With the success of Barbie, Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour, and Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé, it might be tempting to think so. But a new report indicates that 2023 was business as usual when it came to top-grossing films with women directors.

The report, Inclusion in the Director’s Chair, comes from Associate Professor of Communication Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, part of the Initiative’s annual examination of gender and race/ethnicity of top-grossing directors. Top-grossing fictional films from 2007 to 2023 were examined alongside an assessment of early career opportunities for women and underrepresented directors.

For women, there were no major gains in 2023. Of the 116 directors evaluated in 2023, 12.1% were women. Across all 17 years and 1,769 directors, 6% were women. There has been an increase from 2007, when the percentage of women helmers was 2.7%. Yet there’s little to celebrate, given that in 2022, 9% of top box office directors were women.

“Over more than a decade and a half, the percentage of women in top directing jobs has not even grown by 10 percentage points,” Smith said. “These figures are not merely data points on a chart. They represent real, talented women working to have sustainable careers in an industry that will not hire them into jobs they are qualified to hold solely because of their identity.”

In 2023, 22.4% of directors were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. This is consistent with the 20.7% of directors in 2022 who were people of color, and below the 27.3% observed in 2021. Over the 17-year time frame, 15.7% of directors were underrepresented. Once again, the study demonstrated that there was no difference in the average or median Metacritic scores for films by white or underrepresented directors. Despite making films of equivalent quality, underrepresented directors work much less often.

Given the findings on gender and race/ethnicity, it was no surprise to the study authors that the percentage of directors who were women of color has not changed at all. In 2023, 3.4% of all directors—four in total—were women of color. Twenty-five directors across the 17-year sample, or 1.4% of all directors studied, were women of color. This figure represents 19 unique women of color who have worked at least once as a top-grossing film director. Notably, films by women of color earned the highest average and median Metacritic scores when compared to movies by white men, white women, and underrepresented men.

As in previous years, the study provides data on how many women and underrepresented directors worked on top-grossing films from legacy and mini-major distributors. For women, Universal Pictures (9.2%, 27 women directors) is the leader among companies. For underrepresented directors, Lionsgate (21.7%, 31 underrepresented directors) led the companies evaluated. No distributor released more than 5 films by women of color in 17 years, and there has still not been one year where at least one woman director worked on a top-grossing movie at every company.

“For the companies and industry members who want to believe that the director problem is fixed, it is nowhere near solved,” Smith said. “To see real progress, the process for making hiring decisions must change, and the reasons women and people of color still face obstacles must be addressed. This is why I announced the Proof of Concept Accelerator with Cate Blanchett and Coco Francini—to help women, trans, and non-binary filmmakers bring their stories to the screen and reduce the gap between making a short and a feature for directors from these communities. It’s essential to continue to press for change, and these numbers provide evidence of just how far there is to go.”

The report is the latest from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.