Stacy L. Smith is the founder of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.
Year after year, I’ve compiled statistics documenting the lack of opportunities for female directors in Hollywood. But apparently, just showing people how dismal the numbers are wasn’t enough to convince executives that something had to change. So in January, I partnered with Tessa Thompson and Time’s Up to see if another kind of number could shake up the status quo. We launched the 4 Percent Challenge, asking individuals and companies to commit to a film with a female director with the goal of increasing the number of the top 100 domestic grossing movies beyond the 4 percent figure that has not budged in years.
The response was enthusiastic and overwhelming. And Lorene Scafaria’s movie “Hustlers,” released by STX Entertainment and starring Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez, all signatories to the pledge, shows us clearly just how much having women call the shots can upend the storytelling landscape.
Research from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which I founded, shows that when women work as a director, they change the nature of what we see on screen. First, a female director means simply more girls and women appear in the story itself — no small feat, given that the percentage of female speaking characters has not changed in more than a decade. We have also found that movies have more characters from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups when a woman is behind the lens. Lastly, we see more leading female characters when a woman is directing. All of these findings show up in “Hustlers,” which also defies the noninclusive norm by casting trans actress Trace Lysette.
Female directors don’t merely improve the range of who we see on screen: They change our sense of what female characters get to do. The main characters in “Hustlers” might work as exotic dancers, but “Hustlers” foregrounds female friendship. The leading women bond over the economic realities they and other women face, the behavior of men and the desire for a better life for their children. Most ingeniously, the film inverts the classic Hollywood trope of woman-as-accessory and makes men the nameless — in fact, almost faceless — characters who exist merely to facilitate the exploits of women. At its most exuberant moments, the film celebrates how these women formed a community, a family, and forged an identity grounded in the support they provide each other and the power they have over their own lives.
These achievements aren’t only on screen. “Hustlers” has a female editor, production designer, line producer, location manager, second assistant director and camera operator. Having more women on set undoubtedly affects the production climate, a sentiment I heard when I visited the set last spring. A female crew member indicated that Scafaria brought a feminist spirit to the set, an air of collaboration, teamwork and value for the crew’s contributions. What organization wouldn’t want such engaged, valued and safe employees?
And “Hustlers” is just the start. Based on our own projections for the top 100 films of 2019, at a minimum 12 will have a female director. This is more than twice as many as 2018 and higher than any year we’ve measured since 1980. The immediate impact these directors have is obvious: Their movies depict female characters of many ages, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and members of the LGBTQ community.
And more films from female directors are coming in 2020 and beyond. These women — Meredith Dawson, Olivia Wilde, Eva Longoria, Amy Koppelman, Rebecca Hall, Chloé Zhao, Niki Caro, Cathy Yan, Stella Meghie, Nia DaCosta, Patty Jenkins, Cate Shortland — are poised to change the behind-the-scenes and on-screen numbers that have been stagnant for too long.
These changes are long awaited and much needed. But there’s still more to be done. We need to see women like Scafaria offered and working on films with budgets over $100 million, just like their white male peers. We need more women — and especially women of color — throughout the executive ranks in entertainment and working above and below the line in film. Perhaps most urgent, we need women from all backgrounds working as critics, not just as freelancers but on staff at major publications and trade outlets. This is crucial to ensuring that audiences from diverse communities can connect to Hollywood movies with women and other underrepresented groups at the center of the story.
As “Hustlers” arrives in theaters this weekend, it gives audiences the chance to show the women involved in the movie the same kind of support the characters show one another — and to prove, yet again, that there is an audience ready to spend money on the kinds of stories only women can tell. Hollywood executives might not be moved by tallies that show just how badly they’re doing on hiring female directors. But box office figures, at least, are one number that has always gotten their attention.