Study finds 2019 was a 'banner year' for female filmmakers

Lulu Wang, Lorene Scafaria, Melina Matsoukas, Greta Gerwig and others led Hollywood to its most meaningful increase in several decades for female directors, according to a new study. Women directed 12 of 2019's top 100-grossing films, and made more of the year's most popular movies than ever before.

Percentage of women directing top-100 grossing movies higher than ever before

This combination photo shows, from left, Lulu Wang, director of The Farewell; Greta Gerwig, director of Little Women; Lorene Scafaria, director of Hustlers; and Melina Matsoukas, director of Queen & Slim. Women directed 12 of 2019’s top 100-grossing films in 2019, according to a study released Thursday by USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative Female filmmakers. (Getty Images)

Lulu Wang, Lorene Scafaria, Melina Matsoukas and Greta Gerwig led Hollywood to a record year for women in the director's chair. In 2019, women directed more of the most popular movies than any year before. 

Women directed 12 of 2019's top 100-grossing films in 2019, according to a study released Thursday by USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.

That percentage of female filmmakers, 10.6 per cent, is greater than researchers have recorded before, suggesting that some measure of change is finally coming to a film industry where inequality behind the camera has remained stubbornly persistent. 

It's the most meaningful increase in several decades for female directors. Despite mounting outcry, the rate of female directors helming Hollywood's top productions has long been largely stagnant. The previous high in USC's annual study was 8 per cent, in 2008. In 2018, only 4.5 per cent of the year's top films were directed by women.

"This is the first time we have seen a shift in hiring practices for female film directors in 13 years," said Stacy L. Smith, one of the study's authors.

"One notable reason for this jump in 2019 was that Universal Pictures had five films with women directors at the helm in the top 100 movies. Yet there is still much more progress needed to reach parity for women behind the camera."

The high-profile success of several films had already made 2019 a historic one for women. Those include Wang's The Farewell, one of the year's most popular indie releases, Scafaria's acclaimed Hustlers ($105 million US domestically), Matsoukas' Queen & Slim ($40.7 million) and Gerwig's Little Women, which last week opened strongly with $29 million in its first five days of release.

Writer-director Greta Gerwig, left, and actress Meryl Streep on the set of Little Women. (Wilson Webb/The Associated Press)

Frozen II, with $1.2 billion in worldwide ticket sales, is close to setting a new box-office record for a movie directed by a woman. Jennifer Lee, who co-directed the film, set the record with the first Frozen film. In 2018, Lee became the chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Other notable films included Kasi Lemmons' Harriet, Tina Gordon's Little and Jill Culton's Abominable.

USC researchers singled out Universal Pictures, which put forward a slate of films with 26 per cent directed by women. Universal is the only major studio with a female studio chief, Donna Langley. 

Director Lulu Wang, left, on the set of The Farewell. (Casi Moss/A24/The Associated Press)

Netflix also fared well. While the streaming company's films largely bypass theaters — leaving them outside the study's parameters — 20 per cent of Netflix's 2019 movies were directed by women.

Paramount Pictures, however, hasn't released a movie directed by a woman in the last five years. 

Four women of colour directed films in the top 100 movies of 2019, though the overall numbers of underrepresented directors dipped. Underrepresented filmmakers were behind 16.8 per cent of films in 2019, a decline from last year's 21.4 per cent, a record.

"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," said Smith.

Women still 'pushed to the sidelines'

Despite the gains, female filmmakers have been largely overlooked in this awards season. Sunday's Golden Globes, presented by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, includes no women nominated for best director. None of the 10 films nominated for best picture were directed by women, either. 

Rebecca Goldman, Time's Up chief operating officer, said those results were unacceptable.

"This year, there have been twice as many women-led features than ever, with more films by female directors on the way," Goldman said. "Women — and especially women of colour — continue to be pushed to the sidelines by a system that holds women back, onscreen and off."