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Women and POC Filmmakers See Sustained Growth as Directors of Top Films Despite Pandemic

Streamers also outpacing traditional studios in hiring female and underrepresented talent, new report on filmmakers from USC shows

For the last three years, women and underrepresented directors in Hollywood saw sustained growth and progress in opportunities to direct the year’s top films, despite the complications at the box office due to the pandemic.

The optimistic data comes from a new study from the USC Anennberg Inclusion Initiative, which this year attempted to account for the pandemic and aimed to identify where real progress has taken place and where there’s still room to grow.

Of the top films in 2020, 15% were directed by a woman — an all-time high — and while only 12.7% of the films in 2021 were directed by women, USC Annenberg considers this persistent, sustained growth for women dating back to 2018.

“This is the first sustained increase we have seen in the percentage of women directors since 2007,” Dr. Stacy Smith said. “Even when we examined several different samples of top-grossing films to account for the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the results held. This tells us that we are seeing a true increase in the percentage of women directors of top-grossing films, though there is still room for growth to match the 51% of women who comprise the U.S. population.”

As Dr. Smith notes, that’s still miles away from gender parity based on the U.S. population. And the study also found that underrepresented directors behind the camera also skyrocketed in 2021 to 27.3% compared to 23.2% in 2018, though it’s below the proportional representation to the U.S. population of 39.9%.

But many of these gains did not help the percentage of women of color, who still directed fewer than 2% of all the top-grossing films across the last 15 years, or 18 films and 15 individual women in that span.

“It’s clear from the data that the perception of a woman director in Hollywood is a white woman, while underrepresented means an underrepresented man,” Dr. Smith added. “Yet our analysis also shows that women of color receive the highest average and median Metacritic scores for their work, outperforming white men and women as well as men of color. It’s not the quality of work by women of color but ongoing biases and prejudices that impede progress.”

The Inclusion Initiative is also starting to take into account the increasing factors from streamers that are not generally represented at the box office, and the report argues that the big four streamers (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, HBO Max) are outpacing the percentage of women and underrepresented directors for original films than the theatrical film slates.

In fact, the authors of the report looked at film slates for six of the major studios and two mini-majors and found that of the 913 directors included in the analysis, 11.1% were women and 17.8% were underrepresented. Only 3% of directors were women of color. And there is still not one year in which every studio has hired at least one woman director. Moreover, 34 of 56 film slates did not feature even one woman of color director.

“Not only can companies make inclusive hiring decisions, but our data shows that some of them do,” said Dr. Smith.

“We see this with the choices that Donna Langley is making at Universal and what Jennifer Salke is doing at Amazon Studios,” Dr. Smith continued. “The streaming results forcefully demonstrate that the future of inclusion is on streaming platforms that recognize the diverse audiences they serve and provide content by directors from a variety of different backgrounds.”

USC Annenberg is also announcing the AI2 Accelerator, a $25,000 scholarship launched by Smith and the Inclusion Initiative to support a woman of color in film school as she completes a thesis film and prepares to enter the industry during her senior year in school.

The goal is to support talented women of color, particularly those that want to tell large narrative stories (comic book, VFX-driven, etc.) and make an impact on the world. The winning director will also meet with a set of industry-leading advisers throughout her senior year. Applications for the Accelerator will open later this spring with the winning director announced ahead of the 2022-23 school year.

“The AI2 Accelerator is designed to launch a next generation filmmaker by providing a suite of resources: financial, relational, and informational. With this program we are specifically targeting the place where we have seen the least progress over the last decade and a half and taking aim at the biases that continue to thwart inclusive hiring,” Dr. Smith said. “I am thrilled to be able to support a talented woman of color with both a scholarship and the wisdom and insight from the incredible advisors who have signed on to this program.”