Women Directed Record Number of Films in 2020, Behind-the-Scenes Growth Remains Slow

The latest Celluloid Ceiling report finds women directed 16 percent of this year's top 100 films.
(From L-R): Director/Writer Chloé Zhao, Director of Photography Joshua Richardson and Frances McDormand on the set of NOMADLAND. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
Director/writer Chloé Zhao, director of photography Joshua Richardson, and Frances McDormand on the set of "Nomadland"
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Not all news was bad news for filmmakers during the pandemic year. According to the latest study from the Celluloid Ceiling, the longest-running and most comprehensive study of women’s employment in film, women directors were up overall in 2020. The 23rd edition released Saturday from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.

Once again, women directors achieved historic highs this past year, with women comprising 18 percent of the filmmakers calling the shots behind the top 250 domestic features, an uptick from 13 percent in 2019 and eight percent in 2018. That’s even with a lineup of major women-directed titles pushed to 2021 due to theater closures, including Chloé Zhao’s “Eternals” and Cate Shortland’s “Black Widow” on the big studio side. Still, this year saw films like Cathy Yan’s “Birds of Prey” and Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman 1984” which, even with day-and-date play on HBO Max, managed the highest gross for a U.S. film since theaters reopened.

Overall in the top 100 films stateside, women comprised 16 percent of the filmmakers, up from 12 percent in 2019 and a whopping four percent in 2018. That’s two years of growth, but also leaves at least 80% of the top films with no women directors.

According to the study, behind-the-scenes figures overall remain disappointing. In 2020, the majority of films (67%) employed zero to four women in roles like directors, writers, executive producers, producers, editors, and cinematographers. Twenty-four percent employed five to nine women, and nine percent employed 10 or more women. By contrast, men were significantly higher across these categories, with 71 percent of films employing 10 or more men.

Overall, women accounted for 23 percent of behind-the-scenes roles on the top 250 films, and while that’s up from 21 percent in 2019, women comprised just 17 percent in 1998. That means growth has been slow across multiple decades.

By role, women accounted for 17 percent of writers (down from 19 percent in 2019), 21 percent of executive producers (even with 2019), 30 percent of producers (up from 27 percent in 2019), 22 percent of editors (down from 23 percent in 2019), and six percent of cinematographers (up from five percent in 2019). All of these figures are for the top 250 domestic grossing films.

“This imbalance is stunning. The majority of films employ fewer than 5 women and 10 or more men,” said Dr. Martha Lauzen, executive director, Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.

Read the full Celluloid Ceiling report here. IndieWire also recently took a broad view of women-directed films in 2020, and how they were affected by the pandemic. With releases pushed off the calendar, that means there are plenty more to come in 2021.

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