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Number of Female Directors Falls Despite Diversity Debate, Says Study

Despite all the editorials and the speeches and the handwringing, things aren’t getting better for women in Hollywood. They’re getting worse.

Women comprised just 7 percent of all directors working on the 250 highest-grossing domestic releases in 2016, a decline of two percentage points from the level achieved in 2015 and in 1998, according to a new report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. The results come after two years of debate about the lack of opportunities for women and minorities to rise up through the studio system. It’s a conversation that has drawn the likes of Jennifer Lawrence, Natalie Portman, Elizabeth Banks, Jessica Chastain, and other stars, all of whom have publicly decried the lack of pay equity for women and the dearth of female filmmakers.

The report also hits as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) continues to investigate gender discrimination in the movie business.

“I would say I’m dumbfounded,” said Martha Lauzen, executive director of the center and the study’s author. “It is remarkable that with all of the attention and talk over the last couple of years in the business and the film industry, the numbers actually declined. Clearly the current remedies aren’t working.”

The picture wasn’t much brighter for women in other behind-the-camera professions. Women accounted for 24 percent of all producers working on the top 250 films of 2016, a 2 percent decline from 2015. They made up 17 percent of all editors, a decrease of five percentage points. Some 4 percent of sound designers were women, a drop of a point. And they comprised 5 percent of all cinematographers, a slide of one percentage point from the previous year. Thirty-four percent of the films had no female producers, 79 percent lacked a female editor, 97 percent of films had no female sound designers, and 96 percent didn’t have a female cinematographer.

Women were most likely to find jobs on the sets of documentaries and dramas, and were least likely to be employed on action films and horror films. They did see gains in the composer and supervising sound editor positions, where they made up 3 percent of composers and 8 percent of senior sound editors.

In other roles, women accounted for 13 percent of writers, an increase of two percentage points from 2015, but even with the figure from 1998.

There were fewer high-profile projects that were overseen by women than in past years. In 2015, women like Banks and Sam Taylor-Johnson directed “Pitch Perfect 2” and “Fifty Shades of Grey,” respectively, two of the year’s bigger hits. Last year, there weren’t the same number of projects with blockbuster potential handed over to women. Jodie Foster (“Money Monster”) and Patricia Riggen (“Miracles From Heaven”) were two of the more commercially successful female directors in 2016, while Andrea Arnold (“American Honey”) and Ava DuVernay (“The 13th”) oversaw critical favorites.

One positive note is that 2017 promises to be more diverse, at least in terms of top-grossing pictures. There are several high-profile releases, such as Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman,” Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled,” and Trish Sie’s “Pitch Perfect 3” that should serve as a reminder of women’s talents. At the same time, companies like Lucasfilm and Marvel have said that they are committed to finding female directors for upcoming releases.

The center’s study shows the importance of giving women opportunities to literally call the shots. Films with women directors employ higher percentages of female writers, editors, cinematographers, and composers than films with men behind the camera. Women made up 64 percent of writers on films from female directors, 43 percent of editors, and 16 percent of cinematographers. On films with exclusively male directors, women accounted for 9 percent of writers, 17 percent of editors, and 6 percent of cinematographers.

Lauzen said she’s no longer certain that public shaming is enough. Government action may be required.

“The industry has shown little real will to change in a substantive way,” she said. “For real change to occur we may need some intervention by an outside source.”

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