In late 2016, in anticipation of the debut of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” Lucasfilm chief Kathleen Kennedy spoke with Variety about the company’s efforts to diversify its director ranks in the same way the franchise had cast women as the leads on screen.
“We want to make sure that when we bring a female director in to do ‘Star Wars,’ they’re set up for success,” Kennedy said. “They’re gigantic films, and you can’t come into them with essentially no experience.”
Kennedy wasn’t exactly wrong: At the time, there was a tiny handful of women — Patty Jenkins, Ava DuVernay, Kathryn Bigelow, Lana and Lilly Wachowski, Mimi Leder — who had been hired to direct massive tentpole movies with blockbuster budgets. But her reasoning made little sense given the litany of male directors who’ve been handed the keys to the Hollywood kingdom after making a few — or just one, or zero — much smaller, usually independent movies. (A small sample: Christopher Nolan with “Batman Begins,” Joss Whedon with “The Avengers,” the Russo brothers with “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” Colin Trevorrow with “Jurassic World,” Gareth Edwards with “Godzilla,” Andy Muschietti with “It,” Tim Miller with “Deadpool,” Jordan Vogt-Roberts with “Kong: Skull Island,” Taika Waititi with “Thor: Ragnarok” — you get the idea.)
If anything, Kennedy gave voice to the punishing catch-22 that has kept women from the helm of Hollywood’s largest, most lucrative properties for, well, the entire history of the art form.
In 2020, that is going to change in an unprecedented way.
Five of the biggest titles set for release next year — including all four major superhero movies — will be directed by women: “Birds of Prey” by Cathy Yan, on Feb. 7; “Mulan” by Niki Caro, on March 27; “Black Widow” by Cate Shortland, on May 1; “Wonder Woman 1984” by Patty Jenkins, on June 5; and “Eternals” by Chloé Zhao, on Nov. 6.
It’s difficult to overstate just how momentous this could be. This year, it was major news in October when Stacy L. Smith of USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative told Variety that up to 14 of the top 100 highest grossing films in 2019 would be directed by women. To date, those films (which currently number 15) account for roughly $1.23 billion in domestic grosses and $2.79 billion in global grosses for the year.
Only two of those 15 — “Captain Marvel” and “Frozen 2,” both co-directed by women — are genuine global blockbusters, however. In 2020, just those five aforementioned tentpoles could easily dwarf 2019’s numbers, especially worldwide. Even if one or two of those films underperform, collectively these five filmmakers stand to explode the calcified conventional wisdom that has hamstrung the careers of countless women in Hollywood for generations.
Starkly put, nothing changes minds in Hollywood better than money, and by this time next year, for the first time ever — ever! — we could be looking at reaching parity among the top 10 grossing films of the year between male and female directors. It’s the kind of change that is impossible to ignore, and could — should! — have ripple effects throughout the industry, from a greater breadth of opportunity for women in both above and below-the-line positions to better recognition of women filmmakers during awards season.
Certainly, credit is due to Disney and Warner Bros. for stepping up and handing these crown jewel franchises to women. It’s also worth noting that all but one of these five films are headlined by women — and “Eternals” features several major women characters played by Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek and Gemma Chan. Sony Pictures, meanwhile, is releasing two films based on male Spider-Man villains in 2020 that are directed by men: “Morbius” by Daniel Espinosa, on July 31, and “Venom 2” by Andy Serkis, on Oct. 2. If 2020 does indeed make box office history for female filmmakers, perhaps we could see Sony’s next batch of Spidey spin-offs — and “Fast and Furious,” “Avengers” and, yes, even “Star Wars” movies — directed by women, too.