Despite ‘Barbie’, Female Directors Still Vastly Underrepresented in 2023’s Top-Grossing Films

A USC Annenberg report finds that only 12.1% of the year’s top films were directed by women

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"Barbie" behind the scenes (Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

While Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” was the highest-grossing film of 2023, women were still woefully underrepresented behind the camera when it came to the year’s top films. According to a new report from Dr. Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, titled Inclusion in the Director’s Chair, only 12.1% of 2023’s top films were directed by women.

The report also looked at the top-grossing fictional films from 2007 to 2023 and found that only 6% of the top-grossing films in that time frame were directed by women.

“Over more than a decade and a half, the percentage of women in top directing jobs has not even grown by 10 percentage points,” Dr. Smith said in a statement. “These figures are not merely data points on a chart. They represent real, talented women working to have sustainable careers in an industry that will not hire them into jobs they are qualified to hold solely because of their identity.”

In 2022, 9% of the top-grossing films were directed by women, so the increase in representation remains a long way from parity. Using the average or median Metacritic scores, the report found there was no meaningful difference in a film’s critical consensus whether it was directed by a man or a woman.

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USC Annenberg’s Inclusion in the Director’s Chair Study, 2023

The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative report also broke down representation by studio. In 2023, Universal Pictures had the strongest showing with four top-grossing films directed by women, followed by Lionsgate with three female directors and Walt Disney Studios with two. Over the 17-year period Universal again wins out with a total of 27 women (9.2%) hired to direct a top-grossing film followed by Warner Bros. (6.6%), Sony (6.3%), Disney (6.1%), Lionsgate (4.9%), 20th Century (4.3%) and Paramount (1.6%).

As a counter to the statistics from the major traditional studios, the report found that 26.9% of Netflix’s 65 fictional films released in 2021 were directed by women and 54.6% of the films in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival from 2021-2024 were directed by women. Clearly, a more balanced slate is possible.

The report also found that there has been no meaningful change in directors from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.

In 2023, 22.4% of directors were not white men, which is only a slight tick up from the 20.7% of directors in 2022 who were people of color and below the 27.3% observed in 2021. Over the 17-year time frame, 15.7% of directors were underrepresented.

In 2023, only 3.4% of directors were women of color. Across the 17-year sample, 1.4% of directors were women of color, yet films directed by women of color earned the highest average and median Metacritic score when compared to movies directed by white men, white women and underrepresented men.

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USC Annenberg’s Inclusion in the Director’s Chair Study, 2023

The report concluded that women and people of color are not being hired in ways that represent their proportion in the U.S. or their percentage in the industry pipeline, and proposed three “tangible solutions” for change moving forward.

One is the Proof of Concept Accelerator program from Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and Dirty Films, which aims to accelerate the path to large-scale filmmaking for underrepresented directors. Another is filing a formal Title IX complaint with the EEOC. And a third is providing “a roadmap for changing hiring practices at the legacy and mini-major studios.”

With 2024’s biggest-budget films almost entirely directed by men, the inclusion numbers going into this year don’t look great either.

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