Eight Women Directed a Top 100 Movie in 2017, Study Finds (Exclusive)

Greta Gerwig, Jordan Peele, Taika Waititi and Dee Rees - Split - Photofest - H 2017

Six black and five Asian helmers also made it into last year's top 100 club, according to USC's second annual 'Inclusion in the Director's Chair' report.

The good news is that three more women directed a top 100 film in 2017 compared with the year before.

The bad news is that just eight female helmers are represented in the second annual Inclusion in the Director’s Chair study, published Thursday by the University of Southern California. And, following a sadly familiar pattern, none of this year's class of female top performers had directed any of the 1,000 top-grossing films in the decade prior.

“As we said last year, most female directors are ‘one and done’ when it comes to helming popular films, particularly women from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups,” says Dr. Stacy L. Smith, whose Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at USC is behind the study. “Real change means that we see women working across multiple years and that the number of opportunities for female directors expands each year.”

Patty Jenkins' upcoming Wonder Woman sequel and Ava DuVernay's Reese Witherspoon and Chris Pine starrer A Wrinkle in Time suggest future iterations of the study will include a couple of repeat appearances. But progress so far has been slow. The share of female director on the top 100 list rose from 4.2 percent to 7.3 percent from 2016 to 2017, but throughout the decade, the figure has been flat, with women directors accounting for just 4.3 percent the total since 2007.

The comprehensive study analyzed the race and gender of directors of the 100 highest-grossing movies at the U.S. box office every year between 2007 and 2017, which made for a sampling of 1,110 films and 1,223 directors (some were helmed by a team). Women were found to have much shorter career longevity than their male counterparts. With the addition of the eight new women to the list, the percentage of female helmers who had just one directing credit in the study’s sample rose from 80 to 83.7 percent, compared to 55.3 percent of men. (Not all eight women on the 2017 list were making their directorial debuts — Jenkins’ breakout Monster was released 14 years ago and Pitch Perfect 3’s Trish Sie made Step Up All In in 2014, which grossed outside the top 100). And, once again, there were no women directors in their 20s, 70s or 80s on the list, although 38 men in those demographics were represented, including three septuagenarians. It’s worth noting that Detroit just missed the top 100 and Mudbound was released by Netflix, so Kathryn Bigelow and Dee Rees are not included in the study. Also, although Thor: Ragnarok's Taika Waititi is of Maori descent, the study did not count him among Asian directors because the U.S. Census Bureau designates Pacific Islanders as a separate category.

While female filmmakers have made some, limited progress, the report observed that hiring practices for directors of color have not improved. Out of the 109 helmers of 2017’s films, just six were black and five were Asian, virtually unchanged from recent years. Just eight of the 1,223 total directors in the sample were women of color and just one of the eight women to make the top 100 list for 2017 — Everything Everything’s Stella Meghie — is black; the other seven are white.

More than a quarter of the 38 movies helmed by Asians were animated, while black directors were most evenly spread across drama (41.3 percent), comedy (36.5 percent) and, to a lesser extent, action (11.1 percent). However, the study notes that the overwhelming majority of the 63 films helmed by a black director — 81 percent — feature a black lead.

“This tendency to hire black directors only for films that ‘match' the racial background of the director severely limits how often these individuals can work,” Smith and her co-authors Marc Choueiti and Dr. Katherine Pieper wrote.

The study also examined the track record of the big six studios, plus Lionsgate, when it came to releasing movies helmed by women or directors of color. From 2007 through 2017, Warner Bros. distributed 12 films directed by women, more than any other studio, while Universal released the largest number of Asian-helmed movies (five of which were from its Fast and Furious franchise). Meanwhile, Lionsgate’s long-running relationship with Tyler Perry pushed it to the top of the black director category — the prolific multihyphenate is responsible for 15 of Lionsgate's 18 releases from black filmmakers. Perhaps shockingly, Disney has not distributed a single picture helmed by a black director since at least 2007. (DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time, set to bow March 9, will be the first.)

For the first time, the USC report also included a gender analysis of studio executives. While women comprised nearly a quarter (23.6 percent) of leadership positions across the board, the gender gap unsurprisingly widened as ranks rose. Women represent 41.2 percent of vps to executive vps but just 23.9 percent of presidents. And the studios’ parent companies are even less gender-balanced, with women occupying only 18.8 percent of board seats and 17.9 percent of C-suites.

Sony and Comcast do not have a single female chief executive, although Japan-based Sony has the only top exec who isn’t a white male (president and CEO Kazuo Hirai). At 31.8 percent, Viacom has the most female representation in the C-suite. The company also comes closest to achieving gender parity on its board, with five women and six men. Meanwhile, more than half of the media companies — including 21st Century Fox, Sony, Comcast and Lionsgate —have just one woman on their board of directors.

“It is no surprise that an industry which does not hire female directors also lacks women in leadership roles across the organizations that finance and distribute content,” Smith says. “Inclusion is not a onetime problem to be solved; it is a systemic issue that must be addressed by individuals at all levels of these companies. If these companies are going to meet the push for 50-50 by 2020, this data shows how far they have to go.”