Women Directed Record 12% of Top 100-Grossing Films in 2019, Study Finds

Four women of color also cracked the top 100 last year

female directors jennifer lee kasi lemmons greta gerwig
Jennifer Lee, Kasi Lemmons, Greta Gerwig (Getty Images)

A record 10.6% of the directors of 2019’s top 100-grossing movies were women, directing 12% of Hollywood’s biggest hits last year, according to the latest study by Stacy L. Smith and USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.

That’s the best gender representation since Smith and her team began studying the prevalence of female directors in 2007 — though the overall percentage remains 4.8% across all 13 years of the research. The top-grossing female filmmaker was Jennifer Lee, who co-directed the year’s No. 4 domestic box office hit, “Frozen II,” with Chris Buck.

“This is the first time we have seen a shift in hiring practices for female film directors in 13 years,” Smith said, noting that Universal alone had five films in the top 100 with female directors: Jill Culton’s “Abominable,” Melina Matsoukas’ “Queen & Slim,” Tina Gordon’s “Little,” Gail Mancuso’s “A Dog’s Journey” and Kasi Lemmons’ “Harriet” (through art-house division Focus Features). “Yet there is still much more progress needed to reach parity for women behind the camera.”

The study also found that the percentage of nonwhite directors reached 16.8% in 2019, a dip from 2018’s high of 21.4%. Four women of color directed a top 100 movie in 2019: Gordon, Lemmons, Matsoukas and “Breakthrough” director Roxann Dawson.

Despite the higher representation last year, Smith noted that less than 1% of all directors of top-grossing movies over the last 13 years were women of color. “In fact, 13 women have directed a top film in 13 years,” Smith said. “While 2019 is a banner year for women, we will not be able to say there is true change until all women have access and opportunity to work at this level.”

Smith’s study also found no differences in the average or median Metacritic scores for male- or female-directed movies, or for those by white versus nonwhite directors. However, female directors of color “received the highest median and average Metacritic scores for their films compared to white male-, underrepresented male-, and white female-directed content,” Smith said. “Yet, women of color are least likely to work as directors across the top 100 films each year. These findings suggest that when companies seek to hire ‘the best person for the job,’ they are not relying on objective criteria, but on a subjective view of storytellers.”

Over the last five years, the researchers found that the percentage of female directors at the top eight Hollywood studios was 9.8%, with the highest percentage — 15% — coming last year. Only 35% of the 40 slates included a woman of color as a director.

By comparison, 20% of Netflix’s 2019 directors of U.S. fictional films were women, the study found. And the pipeline for upcoming directors also looks promising, with women directing 34.5% of the feature films in U.S. Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival between 2015 and 2019.

“Netflix’s value for inclusion is reflected in their 2019 slate,” Smith said.. “Legacy studios must recognize that the world and the talent pipeline looks vastly different from their hiring practices and act to reflect that reality.”

The study also spotlighted the lack of award recognition for female filmmakers. Only 5.1% of Best Director award nominees across the Golden Globes, Academy Awards, DGA Awards, and Critics’ Choice Awards were women. Only four individual women — Kathryn Bigelow, Ava DuVernay, Greta Gerwig and Angelina Jolie — received nominations for any of these awards and just one woman won: Bigelow for 2009’s “The Hurt Locker.”

“A bias that fails to acknowledge women’s leadership is pervasive throughout the entire awards ecosystem,” Smith said. “We see that women’s achievements behind the camera are still not seen or celebrated by their peers or the press. Until we shatter the stereotype of who can be lauded as a director, we will not see change in this area.”