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More Women Than Ever Are Directing Major Films, Study Says


More Women Than Ever Are Directing Major Films, Study Says

From the earliest days of Hollywood, women directors have been staggeringly outnumbered by men. While that still holds true, in 2019 there was a notable shift.

According to new research, more than 10 percent of the directors on last year’s top films were women, which was more than twice as many as in 2018 and the highest number in over a decade.

The top-grossing films featuring female directors in 2019 included “Captain Marvel,” “Frozen II,” “Hustlers,” “Abominable,” “Little,” “Little Women,” and “Queen & Slim.” The study, by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California, found that of 113 directors attached to the year’s top 100 films, 12 were women, compared with just five in 2018.

Examining the 1,300 top films from 2007 through to 2019, the Annenberg researchers found that on average just 4.8 percent of directors were women, yet that spiked to 10.6 percent in 2019. Last year’s historic high extended beyond box office hits: 15 percent of the directors of all films released by major companies last year were women, another record.

“This is the first time we have seen a shift in hiring practices for female film directors in 13 years,” said Stacy Smith, who heads the initiative.

However a rival study, also released Thursday, painted a less rosy picture.

In the latest Celluloid Ceiling report, Martha Lauzen, head of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, looked at, among other things, a larger group of 2019 films, the top 500, and found that women in key behind-the-scenes jobs were outnumbered four to one by men. That figure remained unchanged from 2018.

Lauzen also found that 14 percent of women worked as directors on those films, down from 15 percent the previous year. And nearly a third of those films had one woman or none working as directors, writers, editors, cinematographers and executive producers; conversely, 1 percent of those films had hired one man or none in similar positions.

“It’s odd to talk about reaching historic highs when women remain so far from parity,” Lauzen said in a statement.

Still, narrowing her focus to last year’s top 100 films, Lauzen did find that more women held 20 percent of those key jobs, up from 16 percent the year before. As with Annenberg, Lauzen also found that a record number of women directed the top 100 films in 2019, however likely due to differing methodology, she arrived at another result: Her research indicated that women comprised 12 percent of directors on those films, up from 4 percent the year before.

She cautioned that it was premature to herald 2019 as a turning point, saying any trend would not be discernible until figures from 2020 and 2021 were revealed.

Male domination of the industry endures despite evidence showing that audiences respond equally to films irrespective of a director’s gender.

Analyzing scores from the aggregator site Metacritic, the researchers at Annenberg found that critical reception for male- and female-directed films was virtually identical; but that films directed by women of color were more critically lauded than any other group. Even so, of the 1,300 films they examined between 2007 and 2019, less than 1 percent had a woman of color in the director’s chair.

Meanwhile, a Fandango poll of fans revealed that the most anticipated films of 2020 star and are directed by women. They include Patty Jenkins’s “Wonder Woman 1984,” “Black Widow,” which stars Scarlett Johansson with Cate Shortland directing, and “Birds of Prey,” starring Margot Robbie and directed by Cathy Yan.

The Annenberg study found that among studios, Universal Pictures had the best track record last year for hiring female filmmakers: just over a quarter of its directors in 2019 were women. Paramount had the fewest — zero — and indeed has not hired a women to direct any of its films in the last five years.

The paucity of women who have received directing nominations for major awards over the last year is in keeping with a stubbornly entrenched trend. The Annenberg researchers found that of the 273 directing nominations doled out at four major awards shows over the past 13 years, just 14 nominations, or 5.1 percent, went to women. All 14 nominations went to four women: Ava DuVernay, Angelina Jolie, Greta Gerwig and Kathryn Bigelow, who is the only woman to ever win an Oscar for directing (for “The Hurt Locker”).

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