Study: Films Directed by Women Receive 63 Percent Less Distribution Than Male-Helmed Movies (Exclusive)

ava duvernay selma set david oyelowo - H 2015
Atsushi Nishijima

ava duvernay selma set david oyelowo - H 2015

The data uncovered in Slated's analysis of nearly 1,600 features reveals a "trust gap" when it comes to movies made by women.

Although female filmmakers systematically face fewer resources and opportunities than their male counterparts, their movies tend to reap a greater return on investment, a new study exclusively obtained by The Hollywood Reporter has revealed.

Slated, the online film-financing hub launched in 2012, spent six months analyzing 1,591 features — nearly every movie that was released theatrically on at least one screen in the U.S. between 2010 and 2015. The company found that films produced by, written by or starring women enjoyed a greater average return on investment than those made by men.

This outcome was especially true for movies with budgets of more than $25 million, where female-penned projects tended to nearly quadruple their investment, with a best-in-show average 3.72 ROI. (Universal's $40 million Fifty Shades of Grey, adapted by Kelly Marcel, notched a studio-high ROI of 12.14, while the highest overall ROI for a female-fronted film was 12.34 for Lynn Shelton's $125,000 dramedy Your Sister's Sister, which starred Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass and Rosemarie DeWitt.) Only one category showed financial loss — low-budget films directed by women, which averaged an ROI of 0.66.

"Why are woman directors performing so low in low-budget films compared to everybody else? That's what led us down the rabbit hole," Slated CEO Stephan Paternot tells THR. His team examined various culprits, including genre, where they found that female helmers made movies in various genres in the same proportion that men do, with the same proportional degree of success. 

In other words, "Women are not picking chick flicks. They are picking all the same types of movies that the market is going to see," Paternot says. "Really, there is one very clear smoking gun for female directors, and that's absolutely, unequivocally screen count."

At the studio level (i.e. films with budgets of more than $25 million), distribution was roughly equal between male- and female-led films. But when it came to smaller pictures, Slated found the most startling disparity of all. On average, low-budget films directed by women were released on only a third as many screens that male-directed movies under $25 million received, a ratio of 242 to 646. And this distribution gap perpetuates the chronic problem facing women in film, especially when it comes to the fact that they are routinely given 25 percent smaller production budgets than their male counterparts.

"Women are being given fewer films, and not only is that true, but they're having to make their movies with less money, so they're doing it with one arm tied behind their back. That effectively puts less production value up on the screen, meaning movies with a little narrower scope," says Paternot. " And once the product is all made, assuming it's as good despite having less money, it's then handicapped by being shown on two-thirds fewer screens. Those movies just don't get seen. So then there's this ongoing perception that women just aren't really into the movie industry, and if they do make stuff, it's not quite as good."

This dysfunctional cycle comes down to a failure to trust female filmmakers despite the facts. "This is the institutional bias, that you've somehow been taught as you've risen the ranks in the studio, that it's a safer bet to go with a man," Paternot continues. "That's the trust gap. The women have given you better financial results, yet your gut's still telling you to give them less money to work with. And the indie distributors are choosing not to take a risk on women's movies.

"Women are being given less money on their movies, but their ROIs are higher across the board. So people are making more money off of women's films than they are off of men's films. Women are crushing it, but nobody knows this. That's the joke. Everybody thinks if you bet on women, you lose. But the data is saying, if you're really in this just to make a return on your capital, you should be betting on women," he concludes.