Numlock Sunday: Dr. Stacy Smith and Katherine Pieper on women in the directing chair

By Walt Hickey

Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition. Each week, I'll sit down with an author or a writer, behind one of the stories covered in a previous weekday edition for a casual conversation about what they wrote.

This week, I spoke to Dr. Stacy L. Smith and Dr. Katherine Pieper of the Annenberg Inclusion Initative at USC Annenberg. Just this past Thursday, they released an exciting report about progress in Hollywood when it comes to access of opportunity for women who direct films. Here's what I wrote about it:

A new study analyzed 1,300 films produced between 2007 and 2019 to find that for the first time in years, there may be genuine movement within Hollywood to put more women behind the camera. Last year, women made up 10.6 percent of the directors of the top 100 grossing films, the highest level since at least 2007 when women made up just 2.7 percent of people behind the camera of the top grossing films. Over the whole 13-year period, just 4.8 percent of the 1,448 directors were women, so this is a pretty significant leap. The study further found that films directed by women performed functionally the same as those made by men according to critics. Most interesting of all? Universal Pictures had the highest number of female directors — 15 women — attached to the films they made, and also the highest number of directors from underrepresented demographics. Worth noting? A woman, Donna Langley, has been Universal’s VP of production since 2001.

I loved this story because I’ve covered the AII’s work for years now and this is the first unambiguously positive report I’ve seen from them. They produce a thorough annual compendium counting up every single speaking character in the top 100-grossing films of the year, and the work they do is very cool.

We spoke about their latest release, what is fueling the changes and what progress is yet to come.

The AII can be found at their website and on Twitter @Inclusionists.

All images from the report, this interview has been condensed and edited.

Walt Hickey: What’s the background on this report? What motivated you to look behind the camera?

Stacy Smith: For a number of years now, probably about a decade, we've been looking at who's working behind the camera — whether it's above the line in roles like director, writer, the producorial team or even below the line like the camera crew, production designer, location managers — to really understand who is given access and opportunity to some of these really compelling jobs, particularly in film and to a lesser degree in TV and streaming.

A lot of the results that you've been finding haven't been super encouraging. There's been a lot of stagnancy, there's been a lot of locked-in dismal numbers for women. This year seems like something different.

Smith: For the “Inclusion in the Director's Chair” report, we decided to take a step back and look a little more meticulously at how female directors are doing in the film industry. We did this for two reasons. One, back in October we took a look at how women directors were faring in film in 2019 and 2020 and saw that both years, we would see record high numbers in terms of who was being attached to these real potent films that drive at least roughly 20 million or north at the box office per year. Because of that, we decided to take a deeper dive, particularly looking at the intersection of gender and race and ethnicity to really understand what kind of access and opportunity women from a variety of backgrounds were receiving when it comes to, not only working in the top 100, but the entire slate of the eight largest companies in the film industry.

And the results this year are very encouraging. For the first time ever, 12 women were attached, making up about 11 percent of all directors across the top 100 films. This is double from last year. It's tripled since 2007 when we started clocking the top 100. There were a few things in the report that were actually quite notable. When we look at who's doing well: Universal Pictures. Whether it's the top 100 films or their entire film slate, Universal is really setting a norm above and beyond all the other companies. And that really shouldn't be surprising to anyone because in the company, or at least the film division, the leadership is under Donna Langley. And so for us, it was really important to take a look not only at who's getting access and opportunity, but with what companies and where in the ecosystem. There were a few other really compelling findings in the report as well.

Movies don't just kind of pop out of the ether, they're developed by large corporations. This report was really interesting because you did actually kind of go in on which of these large studios are actually enabling this kind of content. What was the motivation to start looking in that direction.

Katherine Pieper: We've been looking at companies and their performance over the past several years in a variety of different ways. Some of our previous reports have looked at who's working in the executive ranks. And we did a big study — a report card if you will — on the studios and their film and television fare back in 2016, so we have been very interested in the business angle. We really wanted to focus on not just how many directors there are overall, but how these emerged from companies. And as Stacey mentioned, Universal really emerged as the leader, both in the films that made into the top 100 and their whole 2019 slate of films.

In this report we actually look at all the films that a company released over the last five years to account for hiring decisions that ended up not getting into the top 100. And one of the things we did in the report and that we found really interesting — and that speaks to the bias in hiring — is to take a look at critic's evaluations of these movies. For every film that was in the top 100, we looked up its Metacritic score, which is an aggregated ranking of how critics view the quality of the movie. We compared the average and median Metacritic scores for films that had white male directors, white female directors, underrepresented male directors and underrepresented female directors. What emerged was really interesting, which is that when you have an underrepresented female-directed film, the Metacritic score at the average and median of the distribution is higher than those of films with directors from any other racial or ethnic group, or white women as well.

What we see is that for this group of women who are making films, they tend to score very well, but they still are not getting access and opportunity to tell more stories at this level. That, really, we think speaks to the bias around how decisions get made, whether they're about subjectively evaluating who the best person for the job is or using objective criteria to make those decisions.

There's no discernible difference for instance, between the Metacritic score that you wrote about of the 56 films by white women versus the 1051 films by white men. They have functionally identical scores.

Smith: Indeed. That was one of the reasons why we not only pitted male and female directed content against one another and then underrepresented versus white directors and then looking at all four identity groups.

It's really important to once again present the findings out of the U.S. Dramatic Competition for Sundance, where 34.5 percent of all directors were women, and 31 percent according to the guild report of directors are female in episodic television. 20 percent of Netflix's entire roster of 2019 had a female director attached. What this really suggests is that film is so far behind. Thinking about what it means to lead a motion picture, it was imperative to paint the picture that the bias is really in one particular area of the industry. When those stories are of similar strength, but access and opportunity shows exclusionary hiring practices, this really becomes inexcusable over time.

Women directed 12 percent of the top 100 films and also were behind some of the largest films of the year —
Frozen 2, Captain Marvel and Hustlers, they all broke $100 million. What does 2020 look like? Because that's also potentially poised to be a really great year.

Smith: Back in October, we actually wrote about this and talked with Variety about this for a piece that they were doing for the power of women celebration. One of the reasons why we're so optimistic is that 2020 is going to be as strong, if not financially much stronger than 2019. If anything we need to really continue putting pressure on the industry and celebrating and moving forward to ensure that the needle continues to move.

As an example of what's to come next year, potentially five of the top 10 movies at the box office will be directed by women. Right around the corner: Mulan, Black Widow, Eternals, Wonder Woman and Birds of Prey are all queued up for 2020. And those are action packed, four-quadrant tentpole type films. In addition to that, there are quite a few dramas and comedies that are also on tap to do very well. So the cautious optimism of 2019 was based on a longer view. When we look down the pipeline, I mean next year, the situation only presents a rosier picture.

I got to tell you, I've been covering your guys really great work for a couple of years now and this is the first report that I've seen as genuinely a justified cause for optimism, not just the standard cautious "who knows!"

Smith: I think that the place where we really need to see accelerated change and where the industry is really behind is ensuring that women of color have the same access and opportunity as their white female peers. Only 13 of 1300 movies were directed by a woman of color. Given the strength of the stories that they're telling, this is really inexcusable, and so I think the activism there has to be a real focus of ensuring that when we're talking about female directors, it's not just simply replicating what's in the mind of executives in the industry. It's really making sure that those directors with talent are given access and opportunity from a variety of different backgrounds because that will affect the richness at the multiplex in the stories that we're actually seeing.

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