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Number of Female Directors on Top 2021 Films Declines, but Women Up Overall Behind the Scenes

The latest Celluloid Ceiling report shares cause for hope, but also much room for improvement, for women in entertainment.

ETERNALS, from left: Richard Madden, director Chloe Zhao, on set, 2021. ph: Sophie Mutevelian  / © Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / © Marvel Studios / Courtesy Everett Collection

Chloe Zhao on the set of “Eternals”

Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

The year 2020 saw historic highs for the inclusion of women on top-grossing films of the year, but 2021 has seen a slight decline in the number of women directing films, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film’s latest Celluloid Ceiling report.

Only 12 percent of the top 100 highest-grossing films of 2021 featured women directors at the helm, down from 16 percent in 2020. Female directors accounted for 17 percent of the top 250 highest grossers, down from 18 percent in 2020. Over 80 percent of 2021 films were directed by men, the study finds.

However, women were up overall in key behind-the-scenes roles (not just directing, but also writing, executive-producing, editing, and cinematography) in 2021, at 25 percent, up from 23 percent in 2020. This can be attributed to more women with a seat at the table as executive producers and producers, per the study.

“Appearances can be deceiving. While Chloé Zhao won the Oscar last year for directing ‘Nomadland,’ and Jane Campion is a front-runner in this year’s race for ‘The Power of the Dog,’ the percentage of women directing films actually declined in 2021. Basing our perceptions of how women are faring on the well-deserved fortunes of just a few high-profile women can lead us to inaccurate conclusions about the state of women’s employment,” the San Diego Center’s founder and director Martha Lauzen noted. “Once again this year, more than 80 percent of films do not have a woman at the helm.”

The numbers can be confounding, but here’s a concise breakdown: By role, women accounted for 17 percent of writers (even with 17 percent in 2020), 26 percent of executive producers (up from 21 percent in 2020), 32 percent of producers (up from 30 percent in 2020), 22 percent of editors (even with 22 percent in 2020), and 6 percent of cinematographers (even with 6 percent in 2020).

This year’s study also tracked women’s employment on films included on the Digital Entertainment Group’s Watched at Home list from January through December 2021. The majority of the percentages of women working on films on that list were slightly below those on the box office grosses list. But that list — which comprises digital sales and rentals, DVD, and Blu-ray — doesn’t include Premium VOD, or most-streamed films at services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney Plus.

A number of female directors received a high-profile bow from Netflix, which doesn’t release numbers for its limited theatrical windows before films head to streaming. Along with Campion’s “Power of the Dog,” Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter,” Halle Berry’s “Bruised,” and Rebecca Hall’s “Passing” (the latter being directorial debuts) stand to make impressions at home.

Meantime, IndieWire has rounded up all major studio releases coming out from women directors in 2022 and 2023 here.

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