A 2018 box office boom — for black directors

A new study reveals a dramatic improvement in black directors working across the 100 top-grossing films, though there has been little change for other industry positions.

Black Panther or BlacKkKlansman could take home a Golden Globe on Sunday, but they are also signs that 2018 delivered some much-needed change to Hollywood. For the first time in over a decade, Hollywood studios hired a greater percentage of black directors to helm top-performing films. A new study out today sheds light on the phenomenon and documents areas where progress is still needed.

The report, entitled “Inclusion in the Director’s Chair” analyzes new data on movies released in 2018. Authored by Professor Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, the report is the most comprehensive intersectional analysis of directors of motion pictures to date. A total of 1,335 directors working on the 1,200 top-grossing films released between 2007 and 2018 were assessed for gender, race, and age. For the first time, the study includes data on producers and multiple below-the-line film crew positions across 300 top movies from 2016 to 2018. The analysis also focuses on women in executive and leadership ranks at major media companies. 

“Sixteen of the directors of the top 100 movies last year were black — this historically high figure is nearly three times greater than the six black directors working in 2017 and twice as many as the eight black directors working in 2007,” said Professor Smith. “While we do not see this finding mirrored among female or Asian directors, this offers proof that Hollywood can change when it wants to.”

Only 4.3% of all directors across the 1,200 top films from 2007 to 2018 were female, a ratio of 22 males to every one female director. Moreover, only five black females, three Asian females, and one Latina have worked as directors on those 1,200 films, with no evident change over time. In 2018, just four female directors worked across the 100 most popular movies. Asian directors fared no better, as they represented only 3.6% of 2018’s top 100 film directors. Across the 12-year sample, just 3.1% of the 1,335 directors studied were Asian.

The study observed that roughly 11% of the Produced by credits on the top 300 movies of the last three years went to individuals from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. Films with underrepresented producers were more likely than films without an underrepresented producer to be directed by an individual from an underrepresented racial/ethnic group. Similar, though less pronounced, results were found for the relationship between female producers and female directors.

In the inaugural analysis of below the line positions, the researchers observed gender differences in certain roles. The jobs of cinematographers (97%), editors (84.5%), production designers (81.7%), and composers (97.7%) were all predominantly held by males. There were no female gaffers across the films studied, and only one woman had the title of best boy electric. Women fared better as 2nd Assistant (33.6%) and 2nd 2nd Assistant Directors (31.9%), and as Unit Production Managers (31.7%), though were still outnumbered by their male counterparts. Very few women worked as 1st Assistant Directors (9%).

One of the major conclusions of the study is the absence of women from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups across the positions studied. “Women of color are nearly invisible in film production — whether as directors, producers, or in below-the-line crew positions,” Professor Smith said. “A mere 1.4% of editors, 1.5% of production designers, and 1.6% of producers were women of color. Only one woman of color worked as a composer across the 300 films we examined and there were no underrepresented female directors of photography.”

The new report also includes a profile of the executive ranks at seven major entertainment companies. Across all seven corporations, 25% of the board members were female — an improvement over the 18.8% observed last year. Only 6% of all Board seats were held by women of color. Just 17.3% of the C-suite positions (CEO, CFO, CTO, etc.) at these companies were held by women. Focusing more closely on film executives, 22.5% of President and Chairperson roles went to women, while females were more likely to appear in EVP, SVP, and VP positions. Women of color filled just 6% of all film executive team roles.

These seven major companies were the subject of another analysis, which examined how many female, black, and Asian directors worked across each organization’s film slates over the past 12 years. Notably, Sony distributed five films with black directors in 2018 — the highest performing company in the analysis. Disney’s releases in 2018 included two films with a black director; these are the first black directors on any Disney films appearing across the 12-year sample. 

Other study findings include an assessment of the age of directors, agency representation, and the genre of films made by women, black, and Asian directors. The authors also offer solutions for consumers and companies to address the ongoing disparities by gender and race in employment opportunities. The report is the latest from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and can be found online here.

Key findings

Film Directors 

Gender. A total of 112 directors helmed the 100 top-grossing films of 2018. 96.4% were men (n=108) and only 3.6% of directors were women (n=4), which calculates into a gender ratio of 27 to 1. The four women directors were Ava DuVernay (A Wrinkle in Time), Kay Cannon (Blockers), Abby Kohn (I Feel Pretty), and Susanna Fogel (The Spy Who Dumped Me). The percentage of female directors has not changed over time. The 12-year high occurred in 2008, when 9 women directed across the annual sample of 100 movies. 

While the average age of directors did not vary by gender (Males=46.5 years, Females=46 years), career span did. Males work across 7 decades (20s-80s) whereas females work across 4 (30s-60s).

Looking at employment opportunities, a total of 704 individual or unique directors helmed one of the 1,200 top-grossing films (658 men, 46 women). The range of work experience varied by gender, with men (1-17 films) having a larger directing span than women (1-4 films). The vast majority of female directors (83%) only made one film within the top-grossing sample in comparison to 54% of their male peers. The male director that has worked the most was Tyler Perry (17 films). The top-performing female director was Anne Fletcher (4 films).

Males were more likely to direct action films than were females, with a gender ratio of 68 to 1. Gender differences were also observed for science fiction films (34.7 males to 1 female) and thrillers (44 males to 1 female). Females were more likely than males to helm comedies (35.7% vs. 25.6%) and dramas (33.9% vs. 18%).

95.6% of female directors had agency representation. Creative Artists Agency (CAA) represents the most women helmers (39.5%) followed by United Talent Agency (25.6%) and William Morris Endeavor (23.3%). 38 of the 45 female directors (84.4%) are members of the Directors Guild of America.

Examining distributors, Warner Bros. has distributed 12 films with female directors attached over the sample time frame. The distributor least female-friendly is Paramount Pictures. There is no year between 2007 and 2018 in which every distributor has hired or attached at least one female director to a film. The most frequent number of female directors across 12 years of film slates is 0.

Race. In 2018, a total of 16 black directors (14.3%) worked across the 100 top films of 2018. Of the black helmers, 15 were male and only 1 was female. 2018 has the highest number and percentage of black directors across the 12-year sample time frame. The number of black helmers in 2018 is 2.7 times higher than the number in 2017 and twice as high as 2007. However, this jump is almost solely due to black male directors and not their female counterparts.  

Of the 36 individual black directors in the sample, over half (58.3%) have one directing credit across 1,200 films. This percentage does not deviate meaningfully from their non-black peers (56%). 79 movies had one or more black directors attached. Black helmers were most likely to direct dramas (36.7%, n=29) followed by comedies (32.9%, n=26) and action films (13.9%, n=11). A total of 4 horror (5.1%), 4 thriller (5.1%), 3 science fiction/fantasy movies (3.8%), and 2 animated films (2.5%) were directed by black helmers.

33 of the 36 (91.7%) black directors had current agency representation, with the most clients at CAA (33.3%) followed by WME (27.3%) and UTA (15.1%). Of the 36 black directors, 94.4% are members of the DGA.

In terms of distributor, it is clear that the top performer in 2018 was Sony (5 films) followed by Universal Pictures (3 films). Both 20th Century Fox and Disney increased representation by attaching two black directors to movies in their 2018 slates. Over time, Lionsgate has distributed the most movies (n=20) with black directors. But the majority (n=17) of these films were by one helmer, Tyler Perry.  

A total of 4 Asian directors (3.6%) worked across the 100 top films of 2018. All four of these directors were men (Aneesh Chaganty, Jay Chandrasekhar, Jon M. Chu, James Wan). Unlike their black counterparts, there has been no change in the number or percentage of Asian directors over the 12-year sample time frame. Only 39 top directing jobs have been filled by Asian men and 3 by Asian women.  

Two-thirds of all Asian directors (66.7%) only have one directing credit across the sample, which was significantly higher than their non-Asian peers (55.8%). Asian helmers were less likely than non-Asian helmers to have directed 2 or 3 movies during the 12-year sample. The top-performing Asian directors were James Wan (6 films) followed by M. Night Shyamalan (5 films) and Jon M. Chu (5 films). 

Of the 41 movies helmed by an Asian director, 24.4% were animated, 19.5% were action-oriented and 19.5% were horror. The remaining stories appeared in drama (12.2%), science fiction/fantasy (12.2%), comedy (7.3%), and thriller (4.9%). 71.4% (n=15) of Asian directors have current representation. 40% are represented by CAA and a third by WME. Just over half of all Asian directors in the sample (52.4%) are members of the DGA. 

In terms of distribution, 2018 was business as usual for Asian directors. Warner Bros increased representation of Asian directors in 2018 in comparison to 2017 and 2007. Universal Pictures has employed the highest number of Asian directors, presumably due to franchise successes such as The Fast and the Furious and Despicable Me. Lionsgate has only worked with 1 Asian director in 12 years across this sample.  

Overall, intersectionality is a large problem in the director’s chair. Women of color received very few opportunities across the 12-year time frame. Only 9 directing assignments have been filled by women of color across 1,200 top-grossing pictures. These 9 jobs were held by seven women, 4 of which were black, two Asian, and 1 Latina. Only 2 women of color have helmed 2 motion pictures in the sample time frame (Ava DuVernay, Jennifer Yuh Nelson). 

Executives: C-suite, Corporate Board Seats, and Film Teams

17.3% of top executive positions (C-Suite) in major media companies were held by women, while 82.7% were held by males. Only 4 of these women were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. Viacom has the most gender-inclusive C-suite (31.8%) while Sony and Comcast have no women in the top tier of executives.

One-quarter of corporate Board seats were held by women across the 7 companies examined. This is a noticeable improvement over last year’s report, when only 18.8% of board seats were held by women. Despite overall gains, only 5 women of color were Corporate Directors. Examining the individual companies, 50% of corporate Board seats at Viacom were held by women while Fox was the lone company this year to have just one woman (9.1%) on its board. 

Only 2 of the Chairs of major executive film teams were female. The presence of women escalates as the analysis moves lower into the chain of command. 22.5% of President and Chief positions of executive film teams were held by women, while 36.4% of VP-level roles were filled by females. Across all these positions, only 8 women executives were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups.  

Film Producers 

A total of 984 individuals received the credit “Produced by” across 300 films from 2016-2018. Overall, 82.1% (n=808) of producers were male and 17.9% (n=176) were female. This calculates into a gender ratio of 4.6 male producers to every 1 female producer. 

Less than a sixth of all producers (11.4%) were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. This result deviated by year, with the percentage of underrepresented producers in 2017 (13.9%) higher than the percentage in 2016 (8.9%). Nearly three quarters (72.3%, n=710) of all producing jobs were held by white males. White females account for 16.3% (n=160) of all producers whereas underrepresented males account for 9.8% (n=96). Only 1.6% (n=16) of all producers were women of color.

A total of 341 directors were responsible for the subset of 300 films, with 17.3% from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. The percentage of underrepresented directors has increased significantly (9 percentage points) from 13.3% in 2016 to 22.3% in 2018.  Only four women of color have directed across the 300 top films in comparison to 55 men of color, a ratio of 13.7 to 1. Films with an underrepresented producer on the team were more likely to have a diverse director attached (30.8%) than those films without an underrepresented producer (12%).  

Below the Line

Camera. A total of 266 individuals were credited as the director of photography (DP) across the top live-action films from 2016-2018 (n=265). 97% were male (n=258) and 3% were female (n=8). This translates into 33 male lensers for every 1 female lenser. None of the female DPs were underrepresented and men of color only account for 15.8% (n=42) of cinematographers sample wide. The percentage of female and diverse DPs did not vary across the years evaluated.  

99.1% of A, B, or C camera operators were male (n=529) and <1% were female (n=5). Not one female A, B, or C camera operator worked across the top-grossing live-action films of 2018. Of 281 gaffer jobs, not one was filled by a woman across three years of popular movies. Only a handful of employment opportunities went to women in the following categories: best boy electric (1 female, 292 males), key grip (4 females, 272 males), or best boy grip (8 females, 266 males).  

Editors. Credited editing jobs across the sample of films totaled to 375, with 84.5% (n=317) filled with males and 15.5% (n=58) filled with females. Roughly 5.5 males edited to every 1 female. No meaningful deviation was observed in the percentage of editors by gender and year.  

5.7% of editors were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, which did not vary by year: 2016 (5.7%), 2017 (4.1%), and 2018 (7.3%). Intersectionally, 79.9% (n=294) of editors were white men, 14.4% (n=53) were white women, 4.3% (n=16) were underrepresented men, and 1.4% (n=5) were underrepresented women. The ratio of white men editing to under-represented women was 58.8 to 1.   

Composers. 301 composers were credited across the top live-action films from 2016-2018. 97.7% (n=294) of composers were male and 2.3% were female (n=7), which is a ratio of 42 to 1. The seven women each worked once across the 3-year sample. There was no difference in composer gender by year. Few composers (9.6%, n=29) were from underrepresented racial/ethnic backgrounds. Twenty-eight of the diverse composers were men and only 1 was a woman. 

Art Department. 273 individuals were credited as production designers, with 81.7% (n=223) male and 18.3% (n=50) female. Gender deviated by year, with female production designers less likely to work in 2018 (16.3%) than in 2017 (21.6%). 

Racial/ethnic diversity is also lacking at the top of this department. 94.1% (n=254) of production designers were white and only 5.9% (n=16) were people of color. These percentages did not meaningfully vary by year. Crossing gender and underrepresented status reveals an all too familiar picture: 77.4% (n=209) of production designers were white males, 16.7% (n=45) white females, 4.4% (n=12) were diverse males, and 1.5% (n=4) were diverse females.  

Hair, Makeup and Costume Design. A full 78.5% of all hair department heads were women (n=219) and 21.5% were men (n=60). The gender ratio flips here, with 3.7 females working in this capacity to every 1 male. Women were more likely to work in this position in 2017 (83.5% and 2018 (81.9%) than in 2016 (70.2%). Over three quarters (76.4%, n=214) of makeup department heads were women and 23.6% (n=66) were men. Over time, an increase was observed with more women working in makeup in 2018 (81.3%) than in 2016 (72.8%) or 2017 (75%).   

Pivoting to costume designers, a total of 275 individuals were credited with this title. Only 15.6% of costume designers were male (n=43) and 84.4% were female (n=232). Gender differences emerged by year, with females less likely to work in 2017 (81.8%) than 2016 (87%). Only 14% of costume designers were from diverse racial/ethnic groups. No change emerged in underrepresented status over time, however. Intersectionally, 73.2% of costume designers were white females, 12.9% were white males, 11% were diverse females, and 2.9% were diverse males.   

Casting. A total of 380 casting directors were credited across the sample. 83.4% of those positions were filled with women (n=317) and 16.6% were filled with men (n=63). For females, an increase was observed in the percentage of casting directors from 2017 (80.8%) to 2018 (86.1%). 

Only 13.2% of casting directors across the sample were underrepresented. Diverse casting directors worked significantly more in 2016 (14.6%) and 2018 (15.7%) than in 2017 (9%). Crossing gender and underrepresented status, white females (72%) were more likely to work as casting directors than white males (14.8%), women of color (11.8%) and men of color (1.3%). Differences also appeared by year, with losses in employment opportunities for white men in 2018 (10.2%) from 2017 (18.9%) and 2016 (15.5%).

Directorial Teams. Four crew positions on the directorial team were examined for gender. Nearly a third of all Unit Production Manager (UPMs) were women (31.7%, n=115). The percentage of female UPMs did not deviate by year (2016=31.4%, 2017=33.6%, 2018=30%). Fewer women filled the first assistant director post (9%), again with no year to year change. Roughly a third of all second assistant directors (33.6%) and second seconds (31.9%) were women. Of these two jobs titles, a notable increase was observed for female second assistant directors from 2016 (29.4%) to 2018 (37.6%). 

The report concludes by summarizing the major trends across the study and highlighting results for executive, above- and below-the-line positions. Limitations and directions for previous research are illuminated and solutions for change are discussed.  

To download the full report, click here