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Major Studios’ Pledges to Hire More Female Filmmakers and People of Color Were ‘Performative,’ Study Finds

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Despite the box office success of Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” and Elizabeth Banks’ “Cocaine Bear,” female directors are not getting the same opportunities in Hollywood as their male counterparts. At the same time, major studios, which pledged to reexamine their employment practices in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, fail to produce many films from people of color.

That’s the stark findings of a new report by USC Annenberg’s Inclusion Initiative, which calls the entertainment industry’s pledges to support inclusion “performative acts” and “not real steps towards fostering change.” It’s the second report in as many days to find that despite some important box office milestones for female filmmakers — “Barbie” was both the year’s most successful film and the highest-grossing movie ever directed by a woman — studios still give their highest-profile gigs to male directors. The other study was conducted by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.

The USC report found that a total of 116 directors were attached to the 100 top-grossing domestic films in 2023, but just 14 of them, or 12.1%, were women. That was a slight improvement from the 9% of top-grossing films that were directed by women in 2022. But the report argues that the percentage of female filmmakers on top movies has not changed notably since 2018, when 4.5% of directors were women. 

Only four women of color (3.4%) helmed one of the 100 top-grossing films of 2023. Three of those women were Asian — Adele Lim (“Joy Ride”), Celine Song (“Past Lives”) and Fawn Veerasunthorn (“Wish”). The other woman of color to direct a top movie, “The Marvels’” Nia DaCosta, is Black. The percentage of women of color directors in 2023 was essentially unchanged from 2022.

Universal Pictures hired four female directors, a high among distributors. That was followed by Lionsgate and Disney, which hired three female filmmakers and two female filmmakers, respectively. Across the last 17 years, a total of 27 women (9.2%) have been hired by Universal Pictures to direct a major theatrical releases. That was followed by Warner Bros. (6.6%), Sony Pictures Entertainment (6.3%) and Walt Disney Studios (6.1%). Paramount Pictures, with a hiring rate of 1.6%, fared the worst when it came to employing female filmmakers.

The study’s authors also found that 26 directors (22.4%) of the top 100 grossing movies in 2023 were from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. Fourteen are Asian (53.8%), eight are Black (30.8%), two are Hispanic/Latino (7.7%) and two other filmmakers are multiracial/multiethnic (7.7%). That number of underrepresented directors was essentially stagnant from 2022, when the percentage stood at 20.7%.

Among major distributors, Warner Bros. was the next top performer in 2023 with five films from underrepresented directors, followed by Walt Disney Studios with four. Over the past 17 years, Lionsgate had the highest percentage of films with an underrepresented director attached (21.7%), followed by Universal Pictures (18.3%) and Sony Pictures Entertainment (17%).

The study’s authors note that there are drawbacks to measuring hiring in terms of box office receipts. Some films released toward the end of 2023 don’t have enough time to gross enough money to be included in the list, for instance. It also doesn’t capture women or people of color working as directors across lower-earning films in the independent space or who are employed by streaming services like Netflix. The study notes, however, that 26.9% of the directors Netflix hired in 2021 were female, a percentage that far eclipses any major distributor. It did not provide more recent hiring data.

“This report offers a contrast to those who might celebrate the dawning of change in Hollywood after a year in which ‘Barbie’ topped the box office,” the study’s authors write. “One film or one director are simply not enough to create the sea change that is still needed behind the camera. Until studios, executives and producers alter the way they make decisions about who is qualified and available to work as a director on top-grossing films, there is little reason to believe that optimism is warranted.”