TheWrap’s annual survey of wide-release films from major studios shows only modest improvement for women behind the camera
While most of the legacy Hollywood studios have shown some progress in hiring female directors, Lionsgate stands alone: The Santa Monica-based mini-major has given a wide theatrical release to only one film directed by a woman since 2016 — and has no such films on its 2020-2021 slate at all.
Lionsgate last released a film with a female director in August 2018 — Susanna Fogel’s Kate McKinnon-Mila Kunis comedy “The Spy Who Dumped Me” — just months after Motion Picture Group chairman Joe Drake and president Nathan Kahane took over the studio and began developing an “artist first” strategy that has been slowed by distribution and production delays caused by the pandemic.
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But female directors have been notably absent from the team’s wide-release slate so far — though several projects are in development and Kelly Fremon Craig next month will begin shooting an adaptation of the classic Judy Blume novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” targeted for release in 2022. (A rep for Lionsgate declined to comment for this story. )
Still, Lionsgate is an outlier given the industry-wide focus on expanding opportunities for women behind the camera. According to a new analysis by TheWrap, 17.6% of the 112 films produced by the top six legacy studios and set for wide theatrical release in 2020 or 2021 had a female director or co-director. That marks a slight improvement from the 15% achieved in 2019 but a big jump from 2018, when just 4% of studio films were directed by women.
Women in Film’s Kirsten Schaeffer expressed disappointment at how few gains women have seen at Lionsgate and other studios. “We first put out our statistics on the lack of female directors six years ago, and while we weren’t expecting overnight change, we thought there would be much more progress than this,” Schaeffer said.
While increasing awareness has led to women directing a handful of films in each studio’s slate, Schaeffer believes it will take a much more concentrated and conscious effort to reach parity goals. Women in Film has been working closely with women in major executive positions at Hollywood studios, including TriStar President Nicole Brown, who is on Women in Film’s board, and Marvel Studios EVP of Production Victoria Alonso, who has partnered with Women in Film on its ReFrame campaign and has been involved in hiring women to direct five of Marvel’s next six Disney+ series, including Kari Skogland for the upcoming “Falcon and the Winter Soldier.”
Dr. Stacy L. Smith, who runs the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, said studios also need to address other issues: “How many of these directors are women of color? How many will make more than one studio movie in their careers?” she asked. “The challenges facing women directors do not end with being hired for a single studio film. The industry must continue to invest effort into moving the needle for women of all backgrounds behind the camera.”
And Schaeffer added another question: What kinds of films do these women get to direct? “It’s always been OK for white men to tell anybody’s story,” she said. “We have to make it so that others can do the same.”
To take account of the dozens of movie release date changes forced by the pandemic, this year’s survey combined totals for films released by each major studio in 2020 and 2021 to cover both the reduced number of films that landed in theaters last year and the films heading for reopened theaters this year, many of which were initially set for 2020 release. Films initially intended for wide theatrical release but that moved to streaming or on-demand, such as Niki Caro’s remake of Disney’s “Mulan,” are also included in each studio’s total.
Films from indie divisions like Sony Pictures Classics, Focus Features and Searchlight Pictures are not included in this survey, as those studios rely more on acquisitions than in-house productions and typically have less say in choosing a project’s director. However, films directed by women from those studios will be noted below along with any major projects in development for streaming with female directors. Read more about the female directors hired by the other major Hollywood studios below.
Lionsgate lags well behind the other studios in terms of hiring women to direct its major wide-release films. The mini-major saw much of its production plans upended by the pandemic, and it does not have any films it produced with a female director on its 2020 or 2021 slates. The studio did acquire a handful of films directed by women for limited theatrical and on-demand release during the pandemic, including MJ Bassett’s “Rogue,” Castille Landon’s “Fear of Rain” and Tara Miele’s “Wander Darkly.”
Still, writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig is about to begin shooting an adaptation of the Judy Blume classic “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” starring Rachel McAdams. And the mini-major has at least four other films with female directors in development, including an Angela Davis biopic from Julie Dash and “Shadow Force,” an action-drama starring Kerry Washington and Sterling K. Brown from “Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker” unit director Victoria Mahoney.
With the acquisition of 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight, Disney has vastly increased the number of films it releases. Of the 25 films surveyed in the 2020-21 period, four Disney-distributed films had female directors: Niki Caro’s “Mulan” and Thea Sharrock’s “The One and Only Ivan,” both of which were initially planned for theatrical release but later moved to Disney+, and Marvel Studios’ “Black Widow” and “Eternals,” which are directed by Cate Shortland and Chloé Zhao and will be released this year after getting bumped from 2020 dates.
A spokesperson for Disney noted that the studio is also developing several major series and straight-to-streaming films for Disney+ that will be directed by women. Straight-to-streaming films include Julia Hart’s “Stargirl,” Sharon McGuire’s “Godmothered” and Lena Khan’s “Flora and Ulysees.”
For 2022, Disney currently has two theatrical titles from women on its slate: “Captain Marvel 2,” directed by Nia DaCosta, and Pixar’s “Turning Red,” directed by Oscar-winning animator Domee Shi. “Wonder Woman” director Patty Jenkins is also set to direct “Star Wars: Rogue Squadron,” which will hit theaters in 2023.
Searchlight, which released Zhao’s Oscar contender “Nomadland,” does not currently have any other films from female directors on its 2020-21 slate. However, it is prepping the feature directorial debut of Eva Longoria, “Flamin’ Hot,” which starts production this year, as well as Olivia Wilde’s “Perfect.”
Of the six studios survey, Sony comes the closest to gender parity, with six of the 21 films surveyed coming from female directors. In 2020, Natalie Krinsky’s “The Broken Hearts Gallery” and Diane Paragas’ “The Yellow Rose” were released theatrically in the U.S., while Zoe Lister-Jones’ “The Craft: Legacy” and Clea DuVall’s “Happiest Season” were released internationally but opened in the U.S. on PVOD and Hulu domestically. The studio will release Kay Cannon’s “Cinderella” and Jennifer Kluska’s “Hotel Transylvania 4” (the latter is co-directed by Derek Drymon) in theaters in 2021.
Indie wing Sony Pictures Classics has three films from women on its upcoming slate: Heidi Ewing’s “I Carry You With Me,” Eva Husson’s “Mothering Sunday” and Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s upcoming Julia Child documentary “Julia.” Along with Melanie Laurent’s “The Nightingale,” which is set for a December 2022 release, Sony has nine more films from women in development, including Eva Longoria’s “Spa Day,” Stella Meghie’s Whitney Houston biopic “I Want to Dance With Somebody” and Oran Zegman’s sequel to “Troop Beverly Hills.”
Universal’s two 2020 films directed by women were released before theaters closed in the U.S.: Floria Sigismondi’s “The Turning” and Stella Meghie’s “The Photograph.” In 2021, the studio will release another pair of films from women: Nia DaCosta’s revival of “Candyman,” which was delayed from last year, and DreamWorks Animation’s “Spirit Untamed,” which is directed by Elaine Bogan.
In last year’s survey, Universal’s indie wing Focus Features became the first Hollywood distributor whose slate was dominated by female-directed films, including Emerald Fennell’s Oscar nominee “Promising Young Woman.” Focus only has one such film on its 2021 slate — Robin Wright’s directorial debut “Land” — but does have Nathalie Biancheri’s Polish drama “Wolf” set for release in 2022 along with projects in development like Massy Tadjedin’s “Circle of Treason” and Lulu Wang’s follow-up to her acclaimed 2019 film “The Farewell.”
Back on the Universal side, a spokesperson said that the studio has 17 projects with female directors in development, including a recently announced Dracula movie directed by Chloé Zhao. Other projects include Eva Longoria’s “24/7,” Elizabeth Banks “The Invisible Woman” and “The Grace Year,” Rachel Morrison’s “Flint Strong” and Madonna’s self-directed biopic about her own career.
Aside from Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” Warner Bros. kept its theatrical releases to a minimum during the pandemic. But the pandemic-reduced 2020 slate was bookended by two DC films from women: Cathy Yan’s “Birds of Prey” and Patty Jenkins “Wonder Woman 1984.” Warner Max, a new division of the studio devoted to producing films exclusively for the streaming service HBO Max, also released the Rachel Lee Goldenberg abortion drama “Unpregnant.”
Warner Bros.’ 2021 slate has two more films directed by women — both slated to hit theaters and HBO Max simultaneously: “Reminiscence,” the feature directorial debut of “Westworld” co-creator Lisa Joy, and the fourth “Matrix” film from Lana Wachowski. Nine more theatrical projects are currently in development, including Ava DuVernay’s DC film “New Gods,” adaptations of the toy lines “Barbie” and “Hello Kitty” from Greta Gerwig and Jennifer Coyle, and a remake of “The Wizard of Oz” with Nicole Kassell.
In last year’s survey, Reed Morano’s “The Rhythm Section” was the only film directed by a woman on Paramount’s slate for 2020 or 2021. A year later, that hasn’t changed. That’s in part due to significant changes to the studio’s creative and production leadership, and also because the studio has offloaded films like Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and “Coming 2 America” to streamers like Netflix and Amazon Prime. Former Fox exec Emma Watts became Paramount’s motion picture president last June, along with production presidents Daria Cercek and Mike Ireland and Paramount Players head Jeremy Kramer.
A studio spokesperson told TheWrap that nearly 30% of the 60 films in development at Paramount have female directors attached, though the studio declined to provide specifics as many of the projects are under wraps and deals have not been finalized.