Women, Actors of Color Better Represented in 2019 Films, Study Finds

Glen Wilson / Focus Features

Despite the historic high in top-grossing movies with female leads or co-leads, the percentage is still below that of the female population according to the U.S. Census, which is 51 percent, while 47 percent of movie tickets are sold to women in North America.

Despite the lack of actors of color nominated at the 2020 Oscars, 2019 was a year of positive change for inclusion in popular movies.

Research from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative examined the 100 top-grossing films of 2019 and found that there was a notable improvement in the representation of both actors of color and females.

Last year, 31 of the top 100 films featured an underrepresented lead or co-lead, which is up from the 27 films in 2018 and 13 films in 2007. Meanwhile, 16 of those films had an underrepresented female as the lead or co-lead. The number is a drastic improvement from the 11 movies in 2018 and one film in 2007 led by underrepresented females.

Women and girls were also better represented in film during the past year.  The report found that 43 of the top 100 films had a female lead or co-lead, which marks a 13-year high. In 2018, 39 films had a female lead or co-lead, while only 20 movies starred female characters back in 2007.

Despite the historic high, the percentage is still below the female population according to the U.S. Census, which is 51 percent, while 47 percent of movie tickets are sold to women in North America.

The stats prove that women of color are now better represented in films, though the inclusive stars are often overlooked during awards season. The 2020 BAFTA Awards nominated only white actors, while Cynthia Erivo is the only performer of color nominated at the upcoming Oscars.

"It is clear that Hollywood is taking steps to create more inclusive stories and that those films are connecting with audiences," wrote Stacy L. Smith, founder of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, in the report. "Yet there is also a very obvious disconnect between what sells tickets and what garners awards, (and that) points to a systemic bias at cultural institutions like the BAFTAs or the Academy Awards."

She continued, "After another year in which the major studios increased their output of films with female and underrepresented leads or co-leads, it is critical to recognize that talent is not limited by gender or race/ethnicity." 

The report also studied box office earnings and found that inclusion has been profitable for movie studios.

Walt Disney Studios outperformed its competitors by earning $4.1 billion for its female-driven content, which is more than four times as much as the next highest-grossing distributor Universal Pictures with $893 million. Disney also earned $2.7 billion for its films with underrepresented leads. The number is almost twice as much as Universal's earnings, which was $1.5 billion.

Universal championed women and underrepresented actors during 2019. The studio distributed nine movies starring females and eight featuring lead actors of color, which is more films with female or underrepresented lead actors than any other studio.

Smith found that "studios are putting money behind inclusion and the box office is responding in kind."

Despite the increase of females onscreen, the report called for more female directors. Only 12 of 2019’s top-grossing films were helmed by women. The stat follows the criticism of female directors being shut out of major awards shows including the Oscars and Golden Globes.

Lulu Wang for The Farewell, Lorene Scafaria for Hustlers, Greta Gerwig for Little Women, Marielle Heller for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and Olivia Wilde for Booksmart were among the female directors who have been overlooked this awards season.

"As the number of films starring women continues to increase, it is critical that women get the opportunity to tell these stories — as well as those with male leads," wrote Smith.

The report concluded by stating that film is on par with television in regards to the number of stories being told about girls and women for the first time in over a decade.