Women directors made 10% of 2019’s top films – and it’s not enough

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According to new research, 10.6% of 2019’s top-grossing films were made by women – more than double the year prior. While progress is being made, the number of women getting behind the camera still remains disappointingly low.

Sound the klaxon, alert the sisterhood: 2019 marked the highest percentage of female directors behind top-earning films in over a decade.

According to new research, just 10.6% of last year’s top-grossing films were made by female directors, up 6.1% on the year prior and reaching a 13-year peak.

But we shouldn’t throw a massive party, because this so-called ‘watershed moment’ merely exposes how far we have to go when it comes to recognising the brilliant work of female filmmakers, and just how much is left to do to redress the industry’s glaring gender gap.

The study, by Dr Stacy L Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, examined the presence of female directors across the 1,300 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2019. Of the 100 top films in 2019, 12 were directed by female directors.

So yes, this is progress, but it’s progress at a glacial pace.

In 2018, only four out of the 100 highest growing movies were made by female filmmakers – a depressing statistic that spawned Time Up’s 4% Challenge, which demanded that Hollywood hire more female directors and garnered the support of big names, such as Reese Witherspoon, Brie Larson and Kerry Washington.

Hollywood’s women problem is nothing new. In 2019, not a single female director was nominated for Best Director at the Golden Globes, Oscars, BAFTAs or Critics Choice Awards.

However, thankfully, with movements such as Time’s Up gaining momentum, the industry’s deep-seated sexism is no longer going unchallenged.

Take the Golden Globes, for instance. Since it began 77 years ago, the Golden Globes has acknowledged just five female directors for their work, with just one going on to win the award: Barbara Streisand for the rom com musical Yentl, in 1984.

The picture hasn’t changed much, but the reaction has. When the Golden Globes failed to include any female directors in its shortlist for 2020 nominations, the snub was called out as unacceptable, with some even questioning whether one of Hollywood’s most feted institutions was really fit for purpose.

This was in a year when female directors were behind some of the most acclaimed and loved films, including The Farewell (directed by Lulu Wang), Hustlers (directed by Lorene Scafaria) and Little Women (directed by Greta Gerwig).

Women directors: Patty Jenkins directed Wonder Women

Why do we need women directors? Well, for starters, they frame a perspective we wouldn’t otherwise have access to and tell stories that have been buried for decades. The flow-on effect of this is not to be overlooked either: these films are inspiring young women and opening their eyes, and providing inspiration from a young age

This is probably why Netflix has introduced a new category just for female directors making it abundantly clear: movies and shows directed by women are something special. 

Sadly, the percentage of your favourite male actors who have still never worked with a female director remain disappointingly low. This isn’t helping because, whether we like it or not, in the world of film it is still men who have outsize influence. So, if they choose not to use their powers for good then, by omission, they become part of the problem.

While female directors remain woefully underrepresented – just 16% of America’s directors are women – those who do break through are proving why they deserve to be there, even if they do remain disproportionately decorated. 

The Farewell review: an overwhelmingly honest look at family, love and grief

The Farewell was directed by Lulu Wang and stars Awkwafina.

We only need to look at Greta Gerwig’s raved-about adaptation of Louisa May Alcott classic Little Women, which sold an estimated $US16.5 million in tickets in its first weekend, or the success of record-breaking Wonder Women, directed by Patty Jenkins, which became the highest-grossing superhero origin film of all time.

Hollywood can do better. You know it. We know it. We just need Hollywood to know it.

Images: Sony, Getty, A24

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Jessica Rapana

Jessica Rapana is a journalist based in London, and enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content. She is especially fond of news, health, entertainment and travel content, and drinks coffee like a Gilmore Girl.