On Tuesday, “The Power of the Dog” director Jane Campion made Oscar history as the first woman to receive two best director nominations.
Campion is nominated in the 2022 directing category opposite Steven Spielberg for “West Side Story,” Kenneth Branagh for “Belfast,” Paul Thomas Anderson for “Licorice Pizza” and Ryusuke Hamaguchi for “Drive My Car.” Her first Oscar nod for directing came in 1994 when she was nominated for “The Piano” at the 66th Academy Awards. She won the Oscar for original screenplay that year.
“It’s both sad but it’s also great that women are punching that glass ceiling out of the way. I really feel things are changing,” Campion told Variety of her directing nomination.
Exactly how much things are changing behind the camera with regard to gender and racial equity has been analyzed by Dr. Stacy Smith and the team at the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative as they release their annual study. The report, titled “Inclusion in the Director’s Chair” takes a look at gender and race/ethnicity of the top-grossing directors.
The study (which can be accessed at uscannenberg.org) assesses the 1,500 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2021, providing a breakdown of the major and mini-major studio slates by their gender and racial/ethnic makeup; analyzes the hiring patterns of popular streaming platforms (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, HBO Max); and looks at the pipeline for directors (from the Sundance U.S. Dramatic Competition directors to episodic TV and top-grossing films). The awards race is another major data point analyzed in the report.
Only seven women have been Oscar-nominated for best director: the late Lina Wertmüller for “Seven Beauties,” Campion for “The Piano” and “The Power of the Dog,” Sofia Coppola for “Lost in Translation,” Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker,” Greta Gerwig for “Lady Bird,” Chloé Zhao for “Nomadland” and Emerald Fennell for “Promising Young Woman.” Zhao and Fennell’s nominations in 2021 marked the first time in Oscars history that two female filmmakers competed against each other for best director. Bigelow and Zhao are the only two winners.
“It’s critically important to see the recognition for Jane Campion at the highest level and that having more women — and underrepresented directors — honored in this capacity is important for countering the view of a director as white and male, which it has been for so long,” Smith tells Variety. “It’s critically important that we see more than Jane — and more than Chloé Zhao — recognized for their achievements if we’re going to see more women considered and hired across top films.”
The report evaluated the gender and race/ethnicity of directors nominated over 15 years (for the 2008-2022 awards seasons) across 4 award shows: Golden Globe Awards, Academy Awards, the Directors Guild of America (DGA) Awards and Critics’ Choice Awards, finding that of the 325 nominations presented, 296 were given to male directors (91.1%) and 29 were given to female directors (8.9%). Only three women directors from underrepresented racial/ethnic backgrounds (Ava DuVernay, Chloé Zhao and Regina King) received awards recognition.
The awards analysis paints a similar picture to Hollywood’s hiring practices when it comes to women directors and particularly women of color.
Across 1,542 directors and 15 years of top-grossing movies, 5.4% were women. The percentage of women directors reached 15% in 2020, an all-time high. 2021 was another strong year for women directors, with the percentage of women directors at 12.7%.
“This is the first sustained increase we have seen in the percentage of women directors since 2007,” said Smith. “Even when we examined several different samples of top-grossing films to account for the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the results held. This tells us that we are seeing a true increase in the percentage of women directors of top-grossing films, though there is still room for growth to match the 51% of women who comprise the U.S. population.”
But, over those 15 years sampled, only of 66 women were hired to direct; and of that 66, just 15 of those women came from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. Of the 55 top-grossing directors of 2021, only 3 were women of color: Zhao (“Eternals”), Liesl Tommy (“Respect”) and Nia Costa (“Candyman”). [There were 7 women represented in total — Cate Shortland (“Black Widow”), Lana Wachowski (“The Matrix Resurrections”), Sarah Smith (“Ron’s Gone Wrong”) and Elaine Bogan (“Spirit Untamed”) — representing a 6.8 to 1 gender ratio.]
Out of the 1,388 top-grossing films, 18 were directed by a woman of color (with DuVernay, Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Stella Meghie making the list twice in this time period). This figure represents less than 2% of all directing jobs (1.2%), though women of color are roughly 20% of the U.S. population. The ratio of white male directors hired to women of color is 69.3 to 1, despite the fact that, on average, women of color direct movies that have higher Metacritic scores (62.2) than films by white men (54.2), underrepresented men (54.5) or white women (55).
“It’s clear from the data that the perception of a woman director in Hollywood is a white woman, while underrepresented means an underrepresented man,” Smith stated. “It’s not the quality of work by women of color but ongoing biases and prejudices that impede progress.”
The study also examined film slates from six major and two mini-major studios (20th Century, Paramount, Sony, Universal, Walt Disney Studios, Warner Bros., Lionsgate and STX), breaking down the number of women directors by distributor and further analyzing the gender and racial/ethnic makeup of the 837 films released during this period. Of the 913 directors who helmed those films, 11.1% were women and 17.8% were underrepresented. Only 3% of directors were women of color.
One striking statistic, though, is that there is still not one year in which every studio has hired at least one woman director, and 34 of 56 film slates did not feature even one director who is a woman of color.
Of the previously highlighted 18 films with a woman of color attached to direct, five were distributed by Universal Pictures, four by 20th Century, three by Warner Bros., two each from Paramount and Walt Disney Studios, one from Sony and one by an independent distributor. Lionsgate and STX Entertainment are both companies that have not worked with a woman of color director across the sample time frame.
“Not only can companies make inclusive hiring decisions, but our data shows that some of them do. We see this with the choices that Donna Langley is making at Universal and what Jennifer Salke is doing at Amazon Studios,” said Smith. “The streaming results forcefully demonstrate that the future of inclusion is on streaming platforms that recognize the diverse audiences they serve and provide content by directors from a variety of different backgrounds.”
The data shows that streaming platforms offered more opportunities to women directors in 2020 and 2021 than did top-grossing films. More than one-third of directors (37.5%) at Amazon were women, as were 29% on Disney Plus, 19.5% at HBO Max and 18.1% at Netflix, compared to 13.7% in popular movies. HBO Max (31.7%), Amazon Prime (32.5%), and Disney+ (29%) had significantly more underrepresented directors across these two years than studio releases (23.2% of all top-grossing directors; which was lower but not “significantly different” than Netflix’s 26.3% representation). Amazon Prime (15%) had a significantly higher percentage of directors who were women of color on its platform than Disney Plus (9.7%), HBO Max (4.9%) and Netflix (5.3%), which was on par with the breakdown of top-grossing films (5.3%).
The study also analyzed the frequency with which the directors worked. The top performers (Anne Fletcher, Lana Wachowski) each directed four movies, and 11 women helmed two films: DuVernay, Catherine Hardwicke, Greta Gerwig, Jennifer Lee, Jennifer Yuh Nelson, Julie Anne Robinson, Nancy Meyers, Patty Jenkins, Phyllida Lloyd, Smith and Meghie. Comparatively, the top performing male directors were Tyler Perry (18 movies), Clint Eastwood (11 movies), Steven Spielberg (10 movies) and Ridley Scott (9 movies). Following them, 11 men each directed seven movies, indicating that the men in the sample got far more opportunities than the women. The study noted that studio deals might play a factor in this point, as 8 of the 15 men who work most often had a confirmed film deal at a major studio. None of the women did, though three had TV deals.
As a result of this study, the Annenberg Initiative is launching the AI2 Accelerator as part of the solution to the lack of women of color hired to direct top-grossing films. Supported by a set of notable industry advisors, the Accelerator is a $25,000 scholarship designed to support a woman of color in film school as she completes a thesis film and prepares to enter the industry, launching “a next generation filmmaker by providing a suite of resources: financial, relational and informational.”
By targeting women of color specifically with the program, Smith stated that this program takes aim specifically at one of the “biases that continue to thwart inclusive hiring” and the area that has seen the least progress over the time studied.
The winning director will also meet with industry-leading advisors throughout her senior year. The lineup of Accelerator advisors include: Donna Langley, chairman, Universal Filmed Entertainment Group; Kevin Feige, president, Marvel Studios; Salke, head of Amazon Studios; Jody Gerson, chairman and CEO, Universal Music Publishing Group; Halle Berry, Academy Award-winning actor, director and producer; Melina Matsoukas, Grammy Award-winning director; Bigelow, Academy Award-winning director & Producer; J.J. Abrams and Katie McGrath, co-CEOs, Bad Robot; Lindsay Galin, co-president of talent, Rogers & Cowan PMK; Phillip Sun, co-founder, president and managing director, M88; Maha Dakhil, co-head, Motion Picture Group, co-head, International Film Group, board member, CAA; Brenda Robinson, co-founder, Gamechanger Films, board chair, Film Independent; Jay Shetty, #1 New York Times Best Selling Author, purpose coach.
Explaining how the team of advisors came together, Smith said, “We have surrounded the scholarship recipient with executives, producers, award-winning directors, managers, agents, actors and philanthropists who can help navigate the path from graduation to career sustainability. The goal is for this incredible team of advisors to help build a bridge from the classroom to career for the filmmaker and provide a network that she might not otherwise be able to access.”