The landscape of Hollywood has long been dominated by male directors, but 2023 saw female directors helm some of the biggest box office winners, like “Barbie,” “Cocaine Bear” and “Saltburn.”
These lucrative successes have sparked renewed conversations about why it’s a good or profitable idea to increase opportunities for female directors in the industry. But a study released Monday by USC Annenberg’s Inclusion Initiative in 2023 suggests that the reality of increasing opportunities for female directors in Hollywood is about as real as Malibu Barbie’s dune buggy, indicating that the broader change in Hollywood’s inclusivity may be more public relations than substance. Hollywood has been historically slow in embracing inclusion. This sluggishness became more pronounced in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, which led to a wave of studios pledging to support social justice organizations and creating Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) departments. These initiatives aimed to promote diverse hiring and bring more stories from underrepresented groups to the forefront.
However, the effectiveness of these efforts has come into question, particularly with the mass departure of DEI leaders from major studios in mid-2023, which raised concerns that Hollywood’s commitment to diversity may have been more of a public relations strategy than a genuine effort to enact change. Annenberg’s study has highlighted the gap between these pledges and actual progress. According to the study, there has been no statistically significant increase in representation for marginalized groups in Hollywood since 2018. Despite the commercial success of movies like “Barbie,” 2023’s highest-grossing film and one directed by a woman, the overall picture remains bleak. Of the top 100 grossing films in 2023, only 14 were by women. This is a marginal improvement from 9 in 2022 and 4 in 2018, but a long way from parity.
The situation is even more dire for women of color. In 2023, only four of the top films were directed by women of color. And in terms of ethnic diversity, just 26 of the 116 directors came from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. This data indicates that the vast majority of directing opportunities in Hollywood are still predominantly available to white men. The study’s findings are a stark reminder that the road to genuine diversity and inclusion in Hollywood is long and fraught with challenges. For many female directors the slow progress in diversifying Hollywood’s directorial landscape is disheartening, especially after the industry’s loud declarations of commitment to change. “We are certainly being ghettoized,” one woman director who wished to remain nameless, told Xinhua. “We might get to direct little Lifetime movies or chick flicks, but the gates are firmly closed to most women for studio and big budget films. They’d rather hire a male director fresh out of film school than an older woman with years more experience.”
Films like “Barbie,” directed by Greta Gerwig, demonstrate that there is a substantial market for movies envisioned by female filmmakers. However, the success of one film, or the acclaim of a single director, is not enough to drive systemic change. “Hollywood and the whole entertainment industry needs to make a better effort to entrust a broader array of stories and projects to female directors, especially those from diverse backgrounds,” Hollywood producer Jeff Most told Xinhua. The USC Annenberg study also sheds light on the complexities of measuring progress in Hollywood. While box office success is a key metric, it doesn’t always capture the full scope of a director’s impact, especially for films released later in the year or those with smaller budgets.
Fortunately, streaming services like Netflix are hiring a higher percentage of female directors compared to major studios, paving the way for a potential shift in the industry landscape. In 2021, 26.9 percent of directors hired by Netflix were women, a figure that significantly outpaced any major film distributor. This disparity between the traditional studio system and newer streaming platforms suggests a changing dynamic in film production and distribution. As streaming services continue to grow and offer more diverse content, they could play a pivotal role in promoting inclusivity in Hollywood.