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The Oscars Aren't Diverse. Is Hollywood Itself Getting Better?

A single Oscar statuette is a gold figure with an angular face and crossed arms.
The Academy Award nominations showed a historical bias against women and people of color. But a new USC study says industry gains are happening.
( Lewis Joly-Pool
/
Getty Images)
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In the nearly 100-year history of the Academy Awards, just one female filmmaker has been nominated more than once for directing. “The Power of the Dog’s” Jane Campion hit that lowly benchmark this week.

No woman has won the Oscar for cinematography, and just two have ever been nominated.

And among the 20 people nominated on Tuesday for the visual effects Academy Award, the number of women was a whopping…zero.

Nevertheless, some see signs of progress.

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A day after the woeful Oscar nominations (where there also were no people of color in the best actress and supporting actor categories), Stacy Smith’s USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative released its latest report, which examines the hiring of directors.

The Latest Findings

"Inclusion in the Director's Chair,” conducted every year since 2007, found that the percentage of women who've directed the highest-grossing feature films has remained in the double digits since 2019. The all-time high came in 2020, when 15% of the top movies were made by women. Last year, nearly 13% of those films were directed by women, and a record 27% were directed by people of color (including both men and women).

A bar graph from the study shows that 27.3% of directors of the top-grossing films in 2021 were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. In 2020, the percentage was 17.5. In 2007, it was 12.5%.
The percentage of directors from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups jumped to an all-time high in 2021.
(Stacy Smith / USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative )

“We have some bright spots,” Smith said, “that suggest companies are finally starting to move in the direction of access and opportunity for talent based on talent, not based on identity.”

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Smith said streaming platforms are doing better than legacy studios, led by Amazon Studios. “They are head and shoulders above everyone else,” Smith said. “And they are doing most notably better with women of color.”

Failure To Improve

Some of the traditional studios aren’t just failing to improve; they’re actually going backward.

USC’s researchers found that of the 158 Paramount titles among the 1,500 highest-grossing releases from 2007 to 2021, a scant 3 were directed by women. For Lionsgate, the numbers were barely better: just 4 of its 127 films were directed by women, and none by a woman who wasn’t white.

Smith said distributors that won’t hire women risk becoming irrelevant. “The ramifications will be there,” Smith said. “Bottom line, audience demographics have shifted.”

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It’s not as if there aren’t binders full of women who can direct as well (if not better) than most men. Yet a female director who has a hit film at the Sundance Film Festival will struggle much more than a male festival counterpart to land a subsequent studio job, the USC report concluded.

“They have a crisis on their hands. It's a complete disconnect."
—Stacy Smith, on the Academy Awards

That’s where the movie business is not unlike the legal profession. Women make up well more than half of law school graduates. But when it comes to equity partners — the firm leaders with the greatest power and compensation — the percentage of women drops below a quarter of all such partners.

Separately, female filmmakers are rarely allowed to helm big-budget blockbusters. Consequently, the average gross of a movie directed by a woman is artificially suppressed, thus cementing the industry falsehood that female directors can’t make hit films.

A graph shows the number of underrepresented women directors of top-grossing films per distributor from 2007 to 2021.
In 15 years, only 18 of the 1,388 top-grossing movies have been directed by women from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups.
(Stacy Smith / USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative)
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“There's a lot more work to do, particularly for women of color," Smith said. "You have this entire group of talented storytellers, and filmmakers whose craft and point of view isn't getting the same resources and support as many of their peers.”

As for the Oscars, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences doesn’t have any say in which films get made, and who gets to make them. But even as the academy’s leaders have pushed to diversify its membership, older white men are still the largest voting bloc.

“That organization needs to do what it can to be relevant, because it's not relevant,” Smith said. “They have a crisis on their hands. It's a complete disconnect.”

What questions do you have about film, TV, music, or arts and entertainment?
John Horn covers the business of entertainment, examining what's next for Hollywood post pandemic.