Female Directors of Top-Grossing Films Reached 13-Year High in 2019: Annenberg Study

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures
Greta Gerwig directing 'Little Women'

The percentage of female directors from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups has dropped from last year's 21.4 percent to 16.8 percent.

Women in film have experienced historic highs in 2019, though female filmmakers still have a long way to go.

According to the latest study from USC's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, the number of top-grossing films from female directors reached a new high in the past year. The study found that 10.6 percent of the directors of 2019's top-grossing movies were women, which is the highest percentage in more than a decade, 13 years to be specific, and a major jump from 2018's 4.5 percent.

"We’re finally seeing some traction," said Stacy L. Smith, one of the study's authors, in a statement. "A confluence of factors have led to a real moment in 2019."

Films like Greta Gerwig's Little Women, Lorene Scafaria's Hustlers, Olivia Wilde's Booksmart, Lulu Wang's The Farewell and Melina Matsoukas' Queen and Slim helped the percentage of female-helmed movies grow to new heights. Additionally, Jennifer Lee co-directed Frozen II and Anna Boden co-directed Captain Marvel, which were two of the most successful global releases of the year.

Smith wrote in the study that she believes there are a number of reasons for the improvement, including new hiring practices. "One notable reason for this jump in 2019 was that Universal Pictures had five films with women directors at the helm in the top 100 movies," noted Smith.

While the number of female directors has increased in the past year, the study found that the percentage of female directors from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups has dropped from last year's 21.4 percent to 16.8 percent. The ratio of white directors to underrepresented directors is approximately 5-1. Historically less than 1 percent of all directors in the last 13 years were women of color. Only two underrepresented directors, Ava DuVernay and Jennifer Yuh Nelson, had more than one movie appear across the 1,300 films sampled.

The study also examined Metacritic scores and found that women of color received the highest median and average Metacritic scores for their films compared with those helmed by white males, underrepresented males and white females. "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," said Smith.

A slate analysis included in the study assessed the inclusion of directors across eight companies distributing movies from 2015 to 2019.  The overall percentage of female directors across those five years and eight companies was 9.8 percent in 2019, which is the highest percentage of female directors working yet. But of the 40 slates examined, 26 did not feature a single woman of color as a director.

From 2015 to 2019, 34.5 percent of feature film directors in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival were women. Additionally, 20 percent of U.S. fictional films to debut on Netflix in 2019 were directed by women. "Legacy studios must recognize that the world and talent pipelines look vastly different from their hiring practices and act to reflect that reality," said Smith.

The study also touched on the controversy surrounding the Golden Globes frequently shutting out female directors. From 2008 to 2020, only 5.1 percent of best director nominees at the Golden Globes, Academy Awards, DGA Awards and Critics' Choice Awards were women. In that time frame, only four women have been nominated for these awards. Kathryn Bigelow is the only female director to ever win an Oscar.

The upcoming year looks promising for female directors, the study highlighted. Mulan was directed by Niki Caro, while four major superhero movies — Birds of Prey, Black Widow, Wonder Woman 1984 and Eternals — were helmed by female filmmakers.

"2020 will be an extraordinary year for female directors," said Smith. "That's important, because we're seeing women being given opportunities to direct action movies and not just smaller, independent films." She continued, "Progress will come when females are given the opportunity to carry movies behind the camera across genres and budget ranges."