Study Finds Sustained Progress for Female Directors and Filmmakers of Color

For the first time in a long time, Dr. Stacy L. Smith is feeling optimistic. The director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative has been studying the gender and race breakdown of Hollywood’s top-grossing directors since 2007, and finally has some good news to report. For the first time since her work began, Smith has seen sustained progress for women and people of color working behind the camera.

Over the 15 years of the study, which analyzed 1,542 directors, only 5.4 percent were women. In 2020, that percentage rose to 15 percent and in 2021, it stood at 12.7 percent. Despite that recent drop, and despite the fact that the proportion is nowhere close to reflecting the American population, which is 51 percent female, Smith is encouraged that the numbers have stayed in the double digits for a sustained period of time.

“I think that the people that are running these large companies that are largely responsible for about 90 percent of the market share are finally starting to diversify,” Smith said in a phone interview. “And we’re not only seeing this with gender, we’re also seeing big gains with race/ethnicity in the second year of the pandemic. Despite the uncertainty around the box office, there seems to be a concerted effort to correct the biases of the past.”

The news comes the day after “The Power of the Dog” director Jane Campion made history, becoming the first woman to be nominated twice in the best director category for the Academy Awards. (She was previously nominated in 1994 for “The Piano.”)

When it comes to underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, which includes Black and Latino filmmakers, the percentage of directors reached a 15-year high: 27.3 percent. The group with the least amount of traction directing features are women of color, who still make up only 2 percent of the total.

“When Hollywood thinks of a woman director, they’re thinking of a Caucasian woman, and when they think of a person of color directing, they’re thinking about a male,” Smith said, pointing to the fact that female directors of color earn the highest reviews according to Metacritic yet most often are given lower production budgets and fewer marketing dollars from their studio beneficiaries.

To address this disparity head on, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative is starting a $25,000 scholarship program for a woman of color during her senior year at an American film school. In addition to the financial aid, the winning student will be advised by a group of Hollywood executives and talent, including Donna Langley, the chairman of the Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, and Jennifer Salke, the head of Amazon Studios, among others.

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The study also examined original films being created at the streaming companies and found the percentages to be much closer to parity. Amazon, in particular, had a strong showing in 2020 and 2021, with women accounting for 15 of its 40 directors (37.5 percent), and 13 of its 40 directors (32.5 percent) coming from underrepresented groups. Disney+ landed second with 29 percent female directors and 29 percent directors of color. HBO Max’s numbers topped out at 19.5 percent for female directors and 31.7 percent for underrepresented groups, while Netflix was in fourth place with female filmmakers making up 18.1 percent its slate and directors from underrepresented groups, 26.3 percent.

“These are data-driven companies,” Smith said. “Streaming gives them access to data and decision-making with viewers in mind in a way that the box office has been more elusive.”

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