Oscars Gender Gap: Docs, Foreign Language Films Still Way More Likely to Have Female Directors

Just 18 percent of Oscar-eligible English-language narrative films had a female director this year

Last Updated: September 24, 2018 @ 12:37 PM

With all the buzz over woman-directed films this year — from Patty Jenkins’ blockbuster “Wonder Woman” to Greta Gerwig’s indie darling “Lady Bird” — you’d think female filmmakers would have a better shot at the Oscars this year.

Far from it. Of the 274 narrative, English-language features eligible for the Academy Awards this year, only 18 percent have a female director or co-director, according to an analysis by TheWrap. Similarly, just 19 percent of 26 eligible animated features have at least one woman at the helm.

The odds are twice as strong for women in documentary features, where 35 percent of the 170 eligible entries were directed by woman.

And even in the Academy’s foreign language category, women are better represented: 28 percent of the record 92 submissions this year had a female director — including the films put forward by such supposedly unprogressive countries as Afghanistan, Iran and Palestine.

Overall, there was a female director (or co-director) on 136 of all 536 deemed eligible this year — that includes the Best Picture contenders from the list released by AMPAS on Tuesday as well as foreign-language and doc features that will only be considered in those categories.

That adds up to 25 percent, a small increase from last year, when 22 percent of 410 eligible features had at least one female filmmaker.

But it hardly reflects — at least in raw numbers — the strides made this year by women like Jenkins, Gerwig or Dee Rees, whose period drama “Mudbound” earned widespread acclaim and two Golden Globe nominations earlier this year.

And any which way the figures get parsed, it’s still a far cry from 50/50 gender parity.

“The increase in Oscar-eligible films by women directors in 2017 could, at least in part, reflect a rebound after a bad year,” said Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.

Lauzen’s studies have shown that over the last two decades, women’s representation in a film director’s chair has ranged from a low of 5 percent to a high of 11 percent of the top 250 domestic grossing films. “Most years, it varies between 6 percent to 9 percent,” she told TheWrap. “Because fewer women directed films in 2016, it would not be surprising to see the number rebound in 2017 as a part of the normal fluctuation.”

While each Oscar-eligible category saw percentage increases this year, they tell a similar story as last year (see chart below). “It is not surprising to see that women directors fare better in the documentary than the narrative feature category,” Lauzen said. “Traditionally, documentaries have been more welcoming of women than narrative features.”

chart women directors oscar eligible 2016 academy awards 2

Of course, the issue doesn’t lie with the Academy itself but rather the list mirrors an ongoing gaping disparity between men and women who get hired to helm films.

Women accounted for only 7 percent of directors working on the top 250 highest-grossing films in the U.S. and Canada last year. That is 2 percent below 2015’s also low percentage of 9 percent, according to Lauzen’s ongoing tally. And when you consider a wider swath of the top 500 films, Lauzen said, “Women accounted for 11 percent of directors in 2016, down 1 percentage point from 12 percent in 2015.”

The highest-grossing films aren’t always Oscar contenders. But the landscape in indie films for women, while better, has a lot of room to improve. Women directors increased slightly from 28 percent in 2015-16 to 29 percent in 2016-17, according to the annual study “Women in Independent Film.” It represents an overall increase of 7 percent from 2008-09.

Hiring more women directors increases chances at gender parity throughout the whole a production. Films with at least one female director employed greater percentages of women working as writers, editors, cinematographers, and composers than films with exclusively male directors, according to Lauzen.

And, who knows, said Lauzen, 2017’s increase of Oscar-eligible women directors “could signal the beginning of a meaningful upward trend in representation.”

Brian Welk contributed to this report.