The year 2019 was huge for women working behind the camera in Hollywood. Studies showed that women directors were responsible for 12 of the year’s 100 top-grossing films (10.6%), a significant uptick from 2018’s 4.5%. (Still a long way to go, but an improvement nonetheless.) But directors weren’t the only women seeing results in the industry. Last year proved particularly profitable for many actresses on the silver screen as well.
A study conducted by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative revealed that 2019 marked the most ever women in lead or co-lead roles onscreen in 13 years. Forty-three of the 100 top movies featured a female lead or co lead, four more than 2018's number and more than double the amount in 2007.
Numbers don't lie. Last year's box office included impressive performances from women across film genres, with actresses in Hollywood showing up and showing out. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbuster Captain Marvel, Brie Larson kicked ass as the eponymous first Avenger. Olivia Wilde's Booksmart told the story of two high school seniors (Beanie Feldman and Kaitlyn Dever) looking for one last adventure. Hustlers featured an ensemble cast of ambitious strippers looking for a come up.
The study also analyzed the success of women in 2019 by looking at the earnings of the film industry's major players. Assessing the financial gains of Walt Disney Studios, 20th Century Fox, Lionsgate, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Universal Pictures, and Warner Bros. Pictures, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that woman-led projects had raked in billions of dollars in 2019. Disney films led the pack, with films like Captain Marvel, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, and Aladdin bringing in more than $4 billion in receipts for the year.
For the first time in years, reported the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, films were producing the same amount of stories about girl and women as television — and it was paying off.
The television sphere is noticeably more populated by women than film, with women-led series easily accessible across networks. At ABC, Shonda Rhimes dominates the network's lineup and even has her own night with TGIT; shows like Grey's Anatomy, Scandal, and How To Get Away With Murder all center on powerful and complicated women. The CW has even tapped into the male-dominated superhero genre, intentionally highlighting the lore of female fighters Supergirl and Batwoman alongside those of Arrow and the Flash. Television tends to be a more diverse landscape in terms of gender representation, presenting more opportunities for women to take center stage.
Beyond gender representation, however, neither television and film are up to standard. The study shows that, despite the increase in women leading projects, there is still an onscreen representation gap in terms of age and race/ethnicity. Hollywood's rampant ageism continued in 2019, with only 3 women over the age of 45 appearing in the year's top-grossing films (a disappointing decrease from 2018's 11).
Additionally, only 16 of the 43 actresses in the year's top-grossing films starred women of color, and the stunning work of those women was widely under-appreciated in Hollywood come award season. Jodie Turner-Smith delivered a heartbreaking performance across Daniel Kaluuya in the Lena Waithe-Melissa Matsoukas production Queen & Slim, but the film was blatantly ignored by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Even Jennifer Lopez, who many expected to win her very first Oscar for her role in Hustlers, was shut out of the nominations of every award show despite her stellar performance.
As the 2019 film season comes to a close with the upcoming 92nd Academy Awards, dominated by movies directed by and starring white men, studies like this should serve as a reminder that the narratives of women are powerful — and very profitable. Hollywood can only benefit from bringing more seats to the table for women of all backgrounds to occupy.