From “A Quiet Place” to “A Star is Born,” studios backed more films with female leads in 2018, according to new research. Out of the top 100-grossing movies, 40 films had women in central roles as either the main character or the co-lead, according to the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. That represented an increase of eight films from the previous year and 20 movies from 2007. It is the highest percentage of female-driven films in 12 years.
Hollywood has been under public pressure in recent years to tell more stories that feature women and people of color. Some of that advocacy appears to be producing results; recent hits such as “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” scored with audiences in part because they were inclusive.
Actresses from underrepresented groups still don’t get the same opportunities as white actors, but data suggests that things are improving. Twenty eight of the top 100 movies of 2018 featured an underrepresented lead or co-lead, according to the report. That’s a net gain of seven films from 2017 and a 15 film gain from 2007. Last year, black or African-American actresses had five lead or co-lead roles, three mixed race actresses had lead or co-lead roles, two Hispanic or Latina actresses had lead or co-lead roles, and one Asian or Asian-American actress had a lead role. There were ethnic groups that were virtually ignored. No Native women and women from the Middle East had leading roles.
Although Hollywood is widening its aperture to include more points of views and is promoting more movies with women and people of color, there’s still room for improvement. The overall percentage of female leads in top-grossing films may have grown, but it pales in percentage to their share of the population and of the moviegoing audience. Women comprise 51% of the population in the U.S. and Canada and 50% of ticket-buyers. The same holds true with underrepresented groups, who account for 39.3% of the U.S. population. Moreover, Latinos and Asians account for a disproportionate amount of ticket sales.
Hollywood has also been accused of being ageist, particularly when it comes to actresses who often get shuffled off into grandmother roles when they are nearing middle age. To that end, researchers at USC looked at the number of protagonists that were 45 years of age or older at the time of theatrical release. Eleven of the 100 top grossing movies, a group that includes “Halloween” and “Ocean’s 8,” featured a female lead or co lead 45 years of age or older. That’s more than double the number from 2017 when only five of the top-grossing films had a female lead who was 45 or older.
Change in Hollywood can only come with buy-in from the major studios that produce and distribute movies. The study found that each of the seven major studios had at least one woman of color in a leading role in 2018. All but three companies — Sony, Fox, and Warner Bros. — were near proportional representation to the U.S. population when it comes to movies with female lead characters. In terms of promoting films with underrepresented leads, the top performer was Sony, followed by Lionsgate, Paramount, and Universal.
“2018 offers hope that industry members have taken action to create content that better reflects the world in which we live, and the box office seems to have rewarded them for it,” said Dr. Stacy L. Smith, founder and director of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, in a statement. “This data shows us that it is possible for change to be achieved– companies must not grow complacent but continue the progress they have made in 2019 and in the years to come.”
USC Annenberg’s Inclusion Initiative examines diversity in media. The group releases several reports on representation of women and people of color in a range of fields, from movie criticism to directing. Smith also helped create the inclusion rider, which is a provision in an actor or filmmaker’s contract that mandates that productions make a good-faith effort to hire underrepresented groups.