TheWrap Special Report: Blockbusters like “Black Panther” have taken the spotlight, but the vast majority of films are still directed by white filmmakers
While blockbusters like “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” have made headlines in recent years as flag-bearers for the push for diversity in Hollywood, studio films with nonwhite directors remain the exception rather than the rule.
For the last five years, only 68 of the films given a wide release by Hollywood’s six major studios — just 15% — were directed by a person of color, according to a study by TheWrap. That’s far out of step with the U.S. population, which stands at 60% white, 18% Latino, 13% Black and 6% Asian, according to U.S. Census data from 2019. And the Motion Picture Association’s annual THEME report shows that 45% of frequent moviegoers last year were nonwhite, with 26% Latino, 9% Black and 7% Asian.
TheWrap’s analysis shows no consistent progress for directors of color — with 2018 marking the best year for representation. Nonwhite filmmakers directed or co-directed 22.1% of big studio releases in 2018, including Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” But representation dropped to 16.6% last year, with films like Jordan Peele’s “Us” and Andrés Muschietti’s “It: Chapter Two.”
These findings are consistent with TheWrap’s annual survey of female directors, which found that only 15% of films released in 2019 had a female director — last year at least marked progress from 2018, when a woman directed only 3.8% of all studio releases.
Among the studios, Universal Pictures had the best track record over the last five years — hiring Black, Latinx or Asian directors for 21.3% of its wide releases, followed closely by Sony, with 20%. In 2018, Sony achieved a record in representation when fully two-thirds of its release slate had at least one nonwhite director.
Paramount, which releases fewer films than most of the legacy studios, lagged far behind its competitors, hiring directors of color for only 7% of its films. For two of the last five years, 2015 and 2017, the studio only released films from white filmmakers.
All studios declined to comment for this story but confirmed the makeup of their slates.
Since the demands for diversity reached a fever pitch with the rise of #OscarsSoWhite five years ago, several African American filmmakers like Jordan Peele (“Us”) and Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”) have released some of Hollywood’s biggest hits, joined by breakthrough work by Asian American filmmaker Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”), Taiwanese-American Justin Lin (“Star Trek Beyond”) and Latinx directors such as Argentine director Andy Muschietti (“It”).
Darnell Hunt, a UCLA sociology professor who has researched representation in Hollywood, believes that the insular nature of the industry has held back talent from underrepresented groups.”There is a network component to Hollywood. In an industry that’s very insular, those who get an opportunity to direct a studio film work with people who are comfortable with them,” he said. “It gets hard for women and people of color to break in because they don’t have the track record with those who have been hired to run those projects.”
Hunt added that the breakthrough success of some directors could lead to a new diversity surge in the future. “When a Coogler or a DuVernay, someone committed to diversity, does break through, they can develop a whole new pipeline of talent around them,” he said. “As we see more filmmakers of color get opportunities, they will in turn help develop the network needed for others to get their opportunities.”
Other efforts are in motion to create more opportunities for directors of color. Earlier this year as part of its contract with the Directors Guild of America, major studios agreed to hold twice-annual meetings with the DGA “to discuss ongoing efforts to develop and expand theatrical feature film directing opportunities for individuals from underrepresented groups.” The guild has also formed a new committee with creative executives from major studios to focus on expanding diversity among directors.
For the purposes of this survey, films from studio indie wings like Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics were not included even if their films achieved wide release because those labels tend to rely more on acquisitions than in-house productions and therefore have less say in who directs a project. (They will be noted in the studio breakdowns below.)
In addition, the survey does not include films released in the first quarter of 2020 — before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down movie theaters worldwide. So that rules out films like Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah’s “Bad Boys for Life” for Sony and Miguel Arteta’s “Like a Boss” for Paramount.
Here’s how the studios stack up for the five years between 2015 and 2019.
While Disney has expanded its distribution plans with the 2019 acquisition of 20th Century Fox and Searchlight, its main label has released far fewer films than its competitors. Though the studio had no directors of color among its 10 films released last year, two such films were released each year between 2015-18. Among those films were Ryan Coogler’s juggernaut “Black Panther” and Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time,” which made her the first black woman to direct a film with a budget of over $100 million. Pixar also contributed three films that had at least one director or co-director of color: “Inside Out,” “The Good Dinosaur” and “Coco.”
Among the films from POC filmmakers that Disney has coming down the pipeline are four from Marvel Studios. Coogler will return to direct the “Black Panther” sequel while Taika Waititi, who directed “Thor: Ragnarok” in 2017, will direct the sequel “Thor: Love & Thunder.” Joining them are Chloe Zhao and Destin Daniel Cretton, who are directing “Eternals” and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” Kemp Powers will become Pixar’s first Black co-director with the release of “Soul,” while Domee Shi, director of the Oscar-winning short “Bao,” is developing her own feature for the studio.
20th Century Fox
Prior to merging with Disney last year, 20th Century Fox released eight films with directors of color between 2015-19, starting with Mexican director Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Oscar-winning “The Revenant.” Other films released by the studio include two from “Kung Fu Panda 2” director Jennifer Yuh Nelson: “Kung Fu Panda 3,” which she co-directed with Alessandro Carloni, and her live-action debut feature “The Darkest Minds.” Fox also released George Tillman Jr.’s adaptation of the Black Lives Matter-inspired novel “The Hate U Give” as well as “Widows,” Steve McQueen’s follow-up to the Best Picture-winning “12 Years a Slave.”
Now named 20th Century Studios, the Disney-owned label does not currently have any directors of color on its reduced release slate. Indie wing Searchlight Pictures is another story. The studio released several Oscar winners from directors of color in recent years, including Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit,” Inarritu’s “Birdman” and Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” and has several films coming up from nonwhite directors. Among them are Waititi’s sports comedy “Next Goal Wins,” Chloe Zhao’s drama “Nomadland” starring Frances McDormand, and del Toro’s psychological thriller “Nightmare Alley.”
Warner released 14 films from directors of color over the last five years, starting with Ryan Coogler’s “Creed” in November 2015. While the Burbank studio released six films from directors of color between 2015-17, and more recently has formed and deepened relationships years with several notable filmmakers. Among them: Muschietti, who set a new box office record for horror with “It” in 2017 and returned for a sequel last year, and Jon M. Chu, who made headlines in Hollywood in 2018 with the rom-com blockbuster “Crazy Rich Asians.” James Wan, a Malaysian-born Australian who has long partnered with Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema on the “Conjuring” universe, directed the DC Films hit “Aquaman” in 2018.
All three directors are returning for future films on Warner’s slate. Wan has finished filming “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” and is expected to direct “Aquaman 2” as well. Chu is the director of the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights,” and Muschietti has been signed to direct DC Films’ “The Flash,” as well as an adaptation of the anime series “Attack on Titan.”
#OscarsSoWhite started with the snub of a Paramount release, “Selma,” Ava DuVernay’s 2014 biopic that only received one other Oscar nomination besides Best Picture. But since that film, the studio has only released four films with nonwhite directors: Justin Lin’s “Star Trek: Beyond,” Denzel Washington’s “Fences,” Tyler Perry’s “Nobody’s Fool” and Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man.” A fifth film — “The Cloverfield Paradox,” from Nigerian-American filmmaker Julius Onah — was produced by Paramount but then sold to Netflix in 2018. Earlier this year, Paramount released the comedy “Like a Boss,” from Puerto Rican director Miguel Arteta. And the studio has set Antoine Fuqua’s action film “Infinite” for release next year.
Sony Pictures had an all-white film slate in 2015 and 2017, but in 2018 it became the first studio ever to have a POC-majority slate. Ten of the studio’s 15 films released that year had directors of color, including the Oscar-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which Peter Ramsey, who is Black, co-directed with Bob Persichetti and Rodney Rothman. Other films include Fede Alvarez’s “Don’t Breathe” and “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” Fuqua’s “The Equalizer 2” and remake of “The Magnificent Seven,” and F. Gary Gray’s “Men in Black: International.”
The studio also released “Bad Boys for Life” earlier this year from directing team Adil & Bilall. Indie wing Sony Pictures Classics released nine films from POC directors over the last five years, including Chloe Zhao’s “The Rider” and Sebastian Lelio’s Oscar-winning transgender drama “A Fantastic Woman.” Future films in development include Denzel Washington’s “Journal for Jordan” starring Michael B. Jordan, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s African drama “The Woman King” starring Viola Davis and George Tillman Jr.’s untitled biopic of champion boxer George Foreman.
Universal Pictures boasts the best representation for nonwhite directors over the last five years. Through partnerships with production outlets like Will Packer Productions and Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions, the studio has made progress in building its list of regular directors of color.
Noteworthy too is just how many of the studio’s films from nonwhite directors have also been its biggest box office successes, from low-budget hits like Peele’s “Get Out” and “Us” to big-budget tentpoles like the “Fast & Furious” franchise, the last two installments of which were directed by Justin Lin and F. Gary Gray.
That trend will continue with upcoming released like “Candyman,” directed by Nia DaCosta and produced by Peele, and the next “Fast and Furious” film, “F9,” directed by Lin. Jason Blum’s Blumhouse, which signed Black filmmaker Gerard McMurray to direct “The First Purge” in 2018, has Mexican director Everado Gout attached for “The Forever Purge,” set for release next year. Other directors with projects slated or in development include M. Night Shyamalan, Chris Rock and Eva Longoria.