More Top Films Starred Women and People of Color in 2019 Than in Over a Decade

Earlier this year, the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative reported on an uptick in female directors making top films; its latest report sees similar strides for the people in front of the camera.

When it comes to diversity and inclusion both in front of and behind the camera, strides are being made, they’re just taking their time. In its latest study, titled Inequality Across 1,300 Popular Films: Examining Gender and Race/Ethnicity of Leads/Co-Leads from 2007 to 2019, Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative examined the 100 top-grossing films of 2019 and came away with some compelling new information: a big step forward when it comes to films starring both women and people of color. The group’s latest analysis examined 1,300 top movies over the last 13 years (focusing on the highest earning 100 films from 2007 through 2019), finding that more films starred women and people of color in 2019 than they have in over a decade.

Of the top 100 movies of 2019, 43 total films featured a female lead or co-lead, a 13-year high (for recent comparison: in 2018, 39 films had a female lead or co-lead, and just 20 movies did in 2007). Similarly, the study also found that 31 of the top 100 films featured an underrepresented lead or co-lead, also marking a 13-year high (more comparison: in 2018, 27 films had a person of color in a lead or co-lead role; in 2007, that number was just 13). For those interested in the divide in film and television, the study found that this increase in female leads and co-leads puts film (finally) on par with television representation.

The report also found that films starring women and people of color have proven to be profitable for the studios that make them (Walt Disney Studios made $4.1 billion for its female-driven content alone), even if such strides have yet to break through to awards-voting bodies (case in point: this year’s Oscars only includes one acting nomination for a person of color, with only Cynthia Erivo earning a nod for her starring role in “Harriet”).

“It is clear that Hollywood is taking steps to create more inclusive stories and that those films are connecting with audiences,” wrote Smith, founder of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, about the latest findings. “Yet there is also a very obvious disconnect between what sells tickets and what garners awards, (and that) points to a systemic bias at cultural institutions like the BAFTAs or the Academy Awards. After another year in which the major studios increased their output of films with female and underrepresented leads or co-leads, it is critical to recognize that talent is not limited by gender or race/ethnicity.”

Earlier this year, Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative also analyzed the percentage of working female directors for its long-running Inclusion in the Director’s Chair study. That study unearthed similar results, finding that for the first time in over a decade, both the number and percentage of women working as directors on some of Hollywood’s biggest feature films has increased.

Still, only 12 of 2019’s top-grossing movies were directed by women, and Smith encouraged more studios to tap female talent both in front of and behind the camera. “Studios are putting money behind inclusion and the box office is responding in kind,” Smith wrote. “As the number of films starring women continues to increase, it is critical that women get the opportunity to tell these stories — as well as those with male leads.”

You can check out the new research brief for the Inequality Across 1,300 Popular Films: Examining Gender and Race/Ethnicity of Leads/Co Leads from 2007 to 2019 study right here.

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