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Women Directors Make Strides, but Studios Are Still Lagging on Gender Parity

Last week, Angelina Jolie stole headlines with the news that she is the latest A-lister to join the Marvel fold, taking a key role in the franchise hopeful “The Eternals.”

Buried deep in the stories was the previously announced news that Chloé Zhao, a Chinese filmmaker with the acclaimed indie “The Rider” and one other feature under her belt, will direct the buzzy tentpole.

Also at Marvel, Cate Shortland was tapped to helm a stand-alone “Black Widow” film starring Scarlett Johansson. Meanwhile, at Warner Bros., Chinese-American filmmaker Cathy Yan will direct Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in “Birds of Prey,” and Ava DuVernay has been hired for the DC comic-book adaptation “The New Gods.”

Though these hires seem to indicate that Hollywood is making progress in enlisting more female directors — after engaging in vigorous conversations about achieving gender equality at every level of show business — the employment numbers remain appalling.

“The parity issue is still alive and well,” says producer Cathy Schulman, board president emerita of Women in Film and a co-founder of its gender equity council ReFrame. “I’m not noticing women in gatekeeping positions, like writers, directors, producers, editors and cinematographers, and I don’t think that there’s a pattern yet to indicate pay scales are equal to those of men in the same position.”

A 2018 survey of the top 250 feature films released in the U.S. showed that only 8% were directed by a woman, down 3% from the previous year. (Below-the-line jobs such as writers and executive producers were up incrementally, but on no film did women account for more than 25% of hires in numerous key production roles.)

That survey was conducted by Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film at San Diego State University, who predicts that the figure for directors will recover this year.

“I would anticipate that the number will rebound in 2019,” says Lauzen. “Over the last 20 years, the percentage of women who direct has fluctuated between 5% and 11% on the top-grossing films, though most years the number has been between 6% and 9%.”

Schulman also sees some cause for optimism. She says there appears to be more “open-mindedness” on the part of studios to hire female directors for content that is not usually directly aimed at women and girls.

“As a decision-maker, you’re facing an unknown and a potential liability,” says Schulman. “On the more political side, we can make a case that studios specifically have been willing to allow emerging male directors to take bigger jumps than women. But I want to point out: It’s still an unusual decision to take an emerging director to do something big. And the numbers not being equal between men and women in the first place, it becomes an even more difficult and remote chance to take.”

Glimmers of hope are also evident in the indie film market. This year’s Sundance Film Festival sparked the Twitter trend #AsianFemaleExcellence after titles like Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” and Nisha Ganatra’s “Late Night” fetched top-dollar acquisition deals from respective distributors A24 and Amazon Studios.

There is a reason the director’s chair is so coveted in the race for gender equality. Quite simply, when placed at the levers of decision, women hire more women. Another study from Lauzen found that in 2015, 52% of films directed by women had female writers, as compared with 8% of films directed by men.

Volume is also an important factor when considering the numbers for feature film directors. Mid-budget dramas and broad comedies are endangered species at the studios, as many of those projects have migrated to television and streaming platforms, where women fare better. In the 2017-18 television cycle, women accounted for 27% of all creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and cinematographers on broadcast TV, Lauzen found.

“The reality is, the distribution and marketing risks for a streamer are lower because the marketing doesn’t cost so much,” says Schulman. “They can take bigger chances and build healthier slates. They also tend to be run by younger people, and in some cases, we see decision-making tables that are more diverse than we see on the hallowed grounds of the more formal studios.”

While efforts from ReFrame, which last year began issuing an approval stamp to gender-balanced film productions, and calls to action from the Time’s Up movement have yet to move the needle, progress is slowly being made.

At this year’s Sundance, a group of filmmakers and Stacy L. Smith of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative launched the 4 Percent Challenge, a nod to Annenberg’s study, which revealed only 4% of the top-grossing films of the past 11 years were helmed by women. The challenge asks production labels, studios and individual producers to hire a woman (particularly a woman of color) as a director in the next 18 months. Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros. and small shops like MGM have vowed to work with women within the same time frame, as have powerful actor-producers like Kerry Washington and Tessa Thompson.

Studio slates also seem stronger for female directors in 2019, as well as 2020.

“The 4 Percent Challenge was very important in bringing to light a statistic which is really shocking,” says Nithya Raman, executive director of Time’s Up Entertainment.

“We’re very heartened by the amount of support for the challenge, but we are here to be loud about the things we care about, and to hold the industry accountable for making changes going forward.” 

Below is a roundup of female-made content coming in 2019 and beyond:


Amazon

Late Night

Nisha Ganatra directs Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson in the $13 million Sundance acquisition. Release date: June 7


Annapurna

Booksmart

Olivia Wilde’s coming-of-age romp centers on smart girls who live four years of high school shenanigans in one night. Release date: May 30


A24

The Farewell

Lulu Wang’s film stars Awkwafina as a woman who returns to China for a wedding staged for the benefit of her grandmother. Release date: July 12


Disney

Breakthrough

Roxann Dawson helmed this faith and family title for the just-shuttered Fox 2000 label, acquired by Disney in March. Release date: April 17

Frozen 2

The sequel to the animated juggernaut was co-directed by Jennifer Lee. Release date: Nov. 22

Mulan

Niki Caro directs a live-action version of the Disney classic starring Donnie Yen, Jet Li and Yifei Liu. Release date: March 27


MGM

Respect

Liesl Tommy will direct Jennifer Hudson in this sprawling biopic about soul legend Aretha Franklin. Release date: Aug. 14, 2020


Netflix

The Last Thing He Wanted

As with her Netflix effort “Mudbound,” Dee Rees may get a theatrical run for this adaptation of the Joan Didion novel. Release date: Fall 2019


Paramount

The Rhythm Section

Reed Morano directs this spy story starring Blake Lively. It’s the first non-Bond espionage pic from producer Barbara Broccoli. Release date: Nov. 22

Big Gay Jamboree

Alethea Jones directs and Margot Robbie produces this film about a woman who awakens and realizes she’s living in a 1940s musical. Release date: 2020


Sony

Charlie’s Angels

Director Elizabeth Banks offers up a hard-edged take on the TV classic, with stars Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott and Ella Balinska. Release date: Nov. 15

Little Women

Greta Gerwig directs a starry ensemble in this reboot of the classic novel. Release date: Dec. 25

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Marielle Heller steers Tom Hanks as beloved TV host Fred Rogers in this biopic. Release date: Nov. 22


Focus

Harriet

Kasi Lemmons directs this Harriet Tubman biopic starring Cynthia Erivo. Release date: 2020

Promising Young Woman

This starry ensemble revenge drama is led by Carey Mulligan and directed by Emerald Fennell. Release date: 2020

Emma

Director Autumn de Wilde reboots Jane Austen’s classic novel. Release date: 2020 


Universal

Little

Tina Gordon directs Regina Hall and Issa Rae in a comedy about a stressed woman who wakes up in her preteen body. Release date: April 12

A Dog’s Journey

Director Gail Mancuso offers up a sequel of sorts to the feel-good “A Dog’s Purpose.” Release date: May 17

Abominable

Director Jill Culton reps the animated genre in this film about a magical yeti. Release date: Sept. 27

Queen & Slim

Esteemed music video director and frequent Beyoncé collaborator Melina Matsoukas delivers a dramatic thriller about a young black couple. Release date: Nov. 27

The Photograph

Stella Meghie directs a tapestry of love stories set in the present and the past. Release date: 2020 

Also in 2020 from Universal and Focus Features

“The Turning,” directed by Floria Sigismondi; “Candyman,” from Nia DeCosta; and the Elizabeth Banks feature “The Grace Year”


Warner Bros.

The Sun Is Also a Star

Director Ry Russo-Young brings a YA romance. Release date: May 17

The Kitchen

Director Andrea Berloff sends up this anticipated mob wives drama with Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish. Release date: Aug. 9

Blinded by the Light

Gurinder Chadha’s tale set to Bruce Springsteen hits is from Warner’s New Line. Release date: Aug. 14

Birds of Prey

Cathy Yan directs Margot Robbie and her baseball bat. Release date: Feb. 7, 2020

Barbie

Mattel’s doll gets a live-action film, another effort from director Alethea Jones and star Margot Robbie. Release date:  May 8, 2020

Wonder Woman 1984

Patty Jenkins returns with a sequel to the empowering Gal Gadot smash. Release date: June 5, 2020 

Anna Tingley contributed to this report.

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