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Women Made a Lot of Money, Not Movies, for Hollywood in 2016

Though movies with female protagonists like Rogue One and Finding Dory rocked the box office last year, the percentage of women behind the camera on top-grossing films fell.
Female-directed movies like Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe were an exception to the rule in 2016.

Female-directed movies like Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe were an exception to the rule in 2016.

Let the 2016 box office put a definitive end to the pernicious (and unsupported) notion that movies centered on women don’t make money: Not only did top-grossing films with female protagonists see a slight uptick last year, up 1 percent from 2015, two of those films—Finding Dory and Rogue One—were the highest-grossing movies at the box office. Suck it, Aaron Sorkin.

And yet, for all the revenue earned by women doing rad things on the silver screen (Evading stormtroopers! Escaping a marine institute!) in 2016, movie studios still gave few female creatives in the industry the chance to showcase their talents behind the camera. According to the latest “Celluloid Ceiling” report from San Diego State’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film—the longest-running study of women’s employment in the film and TV industries—2016’s top 250 films employed fewer women than in 2015.

The study’s results shed light on the continued need to hold the industry accountable for its intransigence on hiring a more diverse array of creatives: Women accounted for just 7 percent of directors working on the top 250 grossing films, representing a decline of two percentage points from 2015. The percentage of female executive producers, producers, and editors also declined in 2016, down 3, 2, 5, and 1 percent, respectively.

One bright spot: According to the report, 2016 saw an increase in female screenwriters, with women accounting for 13 percent of screenwriters on top movies, up two points from last year. Overall, though, women are still best represented as producers (24 percent) and editors (17 percent)—last year’s Hello My Name Is Doris and Maggie’s Plan remain exceptions in the overall male-written movie world.

The report comes at a moment when initiatives like Vimeo’s fellowship for female filmmakers and Meryl Streep’s workshop for female screenwriters over 40 gain starry-eyed headlines from entertainment journalists who are hopeful that, facing increased pressure from the media and its female stars, the industry is turning its employment practices around.

Overall, the report notes, the percentage of above-the-line women working in the industry (directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers) on top films has declined two percentage points since the Center began tracking women in film in 1998. Breaking down each into profession-specific categories, only cinematographers have seen more women working on lucrative productions in the last 18 years.

The initiatives provided by well-funded organizations to train and educate women in specific fields matter, of course, but studios’ forthright decisions to hire more women entails benefits for all the above-the-line professions studied as well. When films employed at least one female director, the report noted, greater numbers of female writers, editors, cinematographers, and composers joined those specific productions. In this regard, TV is showing film up in allowing to women help other women land showbiz gigs: Last year, both Queen Sugar showrunner Ava DuVernay and Jessica Jones showrunner Melissa Rosenberg announced they were employing only female directors on seasons one and two of their shows, respectively.