Top Films in 2019 Made Few Gains In On-Screen Representation, Study Finds

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Courtesy of Films

Of the 1,447 directors, across the 1,300 movies studied by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, only 13 women of color directors were behind the camera.

As Hollywood keeps reckoning with systemic issues of racism in light of nationwide protests against police violence, a new study that examines race, gender, LGBTQ and disability representation finds that, year-over-year, gains both on and off-screen have remained minimal or largely stagnant.

The study from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative is the latest annual continuation of the groups' massive report that looks at representation in the year's top 100 grossing features, with the latest iteration spanning 1,300 films from 2007 to 2019 and 57,629 characters. 

"The overall ecosystem of cinematic storytelling is still one in which girls, women, and people of color are marginalized and minimized," reads the release introducing this year's findings.

In 2019, 43 of the year's top films had a girl or woman in a leading or co-leading role, which is a slight uptick from 2018's 39, and a major jump from 20 in 2007. But, when looking at all speaking characters, there has been little progress in 13 years. The percentage of female-identified speaking characters was 34 percent in 2019, compared to 29.9 percent in 2007.

According to the study, there has been no meaningful increase in Black, Hispanic/Latino, or Asian characters in 2019 from 2018.  Across the 100 top films of 2019, the researchers found that 33 films were missing Black/African American women onscreen, 55 were missing Asian or Asian American women and 71 were missing Hispanic/Latinas.

The percentage of total white characters decreased 11.9 percentage points since 2007, but there has been no significant increase in the percentage of characters from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups in the same time frame.

In 2019, just 2.3 percent of the speaking characters in the films studied were shown with a disability, a number that is consistent over the last five years. (27 percent of individuals live with a disability in the U.S. population, according to U.S. Census domains.)  But the number of movies with a lead or co-lead with a disability increased year-over-year, from 9 films in 2018 to 19 films in 2019. 

1.4 percent of all characters in the top films of 2019 were from the LGBTQ community, making up 61 total speaking characters. The study notes that this percentage of LGBTQ speaking characters in 2019 was not meaningfully different than 2018, but is nearly three times greater than the number in 2014. 

The number of women directors reached a high in 2019, with 12 women directing the top 100 films, an increase compared to 5 directors in 2018 and 3 in 2007. Zooming out, across 1,447 directors over 13 years, only 4.8 percent were women, with only 13 women of color directing a top film across the 1300 movies studied. However, there was little progress for non-white directors. Across 13 years, 6.1 percent of directors were Black, 3.3 percent were Asian, and 3.7 percent were Hispanic/Latino.

The 2020 Oscars saw The Joker's Hildur Gudnadottir become the first woman to win Oscar for best original score. Across the top 2019 features, six women were employed as composers, a high across the study's thirteen years.

According to the study's finding, Universal is the studio leader in representative storytelling. In 2019, 50 percent of the studio's 18 titles that were a part of the report featured a female lead or co-lead, 25 percent were directed by women, and 44.4 percent featured non-white leads or co-leads.

While Paramount did lead in other key representative figures, with 44 percent of their 2019 titles featuring non-white speaking roles, the study found that across the studio's 9 studied releases zero were directed by women. Lionsgate and Warner Bros. also had zero women in the director's chair across their 13 and 12 studied theatrical releases, respectively.

“After 13 years, it is not clear what might convince entertainment companies to change,” said Dr. Stacey L. Smith, the architect of the study. “Despite public statements, the data reveal that there is still apathy and ambivalence to increasing representation of speaking characters overall in popular films. This is both the easiest representational gap to address and one that is essential to strengthen the pipeline to more prominent roles.”