Women Directors Broke Records In 2019 — But Don’t Get Too Excited

Photo: Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images.
In December, the nominations for the upcoming 2020 Golden Globes were announced, revealing a disappointing lineup; while many of the titles nominated were incredible, they were also overwhelmingly male-driven. And given the number of incredible women-directed films that we were blessed with in 2019 (and the success of said films), the math isn’t really adding up.
2019 was a game-changer for women directors. According to a brand new study conducted by Dr. Stacy Smith of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, 12 of the 100 top-grossing films of 2019 were directed by women (10.6%), the highest number we’ve seen in over a decade. Last year’s figure was a paltry 4.5%.
Blockbuster hits like Little Women (Greta Gerwig), Hustlers (Lorene Scafaria), Booksmart (Olivia Wilde), and Queen and Slim (Melina Matsoukas) dominated at the box office throughout the year, pushing the numbers forward. The success can, in part, be attributed to a shift in hiring practices, with more production companies reaching out to work with these creatives than ever before.
Unfortunately, even with the surge of female directors in the mainstream in 2019, statistics still show that parity for women of color behind the camera has yet to be achieved. Of the 12 top-grossing films of 2019 directed by women, only four of them were directed by women of color. It’s ironic that the representation for underrepresented female directors in Hollywood is so low considering the fact that on average, the films that they direct tend to earn better reviews across the board. 
“Women 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 in a statement.
It follows a long-established pattern in Hollywood. Over the last 13 years (from 2007-2019) in which we’ve seen 57 women directors helm 1,300 top-grossing films, according to the the study, only 11 of them were women of color. That small group includes the likes of Ava DuVernay, Jennifer Yuh Nelson, Kasi Lemmons, and Roxann Dawson. 
Queen & Slim director Matsuokas blames the low success rate of women (especially women of color) directors in the industry on its "archaic system." Hollywood has an obvious problem with narratives that aren't centered on masculinity or whiteness. "They don’t value the stories that represent all of us, and those stories are so often disregarded and discredited, as are their filmmakers," Matsoukas said. Her film, a collaboration with screenwriter Lena Waithe, was a heartbreaking love story about a black couple (played by Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith) — it was completely ignored by Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA).
Gerwig's adaptation of the beloved period drama Little Women was also snubbed by the HFPA. While Saoirse Ronan was nominated in the "Best Dramatic Actress" category for her role as the headstrong Jo March, the films director was left in the cold. Little Women's producers noted that there may have been some level of unconscious bias involved; because the story is about women, it looks like men aren't taking the time to see the film.
Based on the findings of her study, Dr. Smith is inclined to come to the same conclusion. "A bias that fails to acknowledge women’s leadership is pervasive throughout the entire awards ecosystem,” she 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.”
Fortunately, there are some companies striving towards more adequate representation. Netflix is a shining example; 20% of the American fictional films that came out of Netflix Studios in 2019 were directed by women. Additionally, 34.5% of independent films submitted to Sundance Film Festival in 2017 and 2018 were directed by women. Clearly, the talent is there — it's just up to the powers that be to provide the opportunities and the resources.
Also released today, the 2019 Celluloid Ceiling report conducted by Dr. Martha M. Lauzen of Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University revealed some interesting findings about women working in below the line roles in Hollywood. Per the study, women made up 19% of writers, 21% of executive producers, 27% of producers, 23% of editors, and just 5% of cinematographers working on the top 250 films of the year.
Worth noting however, the report found that films with at least one woman director tend to employ substantially higher percentages of women on set: "For example, on films with female directors, women comprised 59% of writers. On films with exclusively male directors, women accounted for 13% of writers. "
On one hand, both studies show that 2019 was a major step in the right direction for women in the industry. More women are getting the opportunity to create amazing art for mass consumption (whether it's recognized by the gatekeepers or not). On the other, the findings serve as a bitter reminder that we have quite a long way to go before Hollywood's metaphorical glass ceiling is completely shattered.

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