Good news, Hollywood: Films with female leads hit a new high in 2018, study finds

A leading academic expert on the lack of diversity in Hollywood says she finally has something positive to report after 1,200 movies and years of research: The highest percentage of female-driven films in a dozen years.

"For the first time in doing this research across 12 years and 1,200 films, I am happy to declare that CHANGE IS HERE," declared Stacy L. Smith, founder and director of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California.

"The results reveal that there is room to both congratulate the companies and studios who have made inclusion a priority and to continue to advocate for greater representation in movies," she added.

Last year was a good year at the U.S. box office, a year of "historical triumphs," Smith says, with "the pronounced success of films with casts from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, such as 'Black Panther' and 'Crazy Rich Asians.' "

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In a research brief Smith released Tuesday, she said her team decided to examine the gender, race and ethnicity of leading and co-leading characters in the 1,200 top films produced by the major studios from 2007 to 2018, to see if they reflected greater diversity in recent years compared to previous years.

The study found a total of 40 films featured a female in the leading or co-leading role in the 100 top films of 2018 – a profitable year at the box office, with a 4 percent increase in ticket sales from 2016.

The study showed this is an uptick of eight percentage points from 2017 and 20 percentage points from 2007, "the highest percentage of female-driven films we have observed over the 12 years evaluated."

Because female actors often have a "sell-by date" as leading ladies, the study also looked at the number of protagonists who were 45 or older at the time of a movie's release.

Eleven of those female leads or co-leads were 45 or older, a number that has more than doubled since 2017, when the total was five, the study showed. Also, 11 of those female leads or co-leads were from an underrepresented race or ethnicity, which is almost three times the number in 2017.

When Smith's team examined race and ethnicity in the casts of the top 100 movies of 2018, they found 28 films featuring a female lead or co-lead from an underrepresented minority, a gain of seven percentage points over 2017 and 15 percentage points over 2007.

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But there is still a ways to go, Smith says.

"Though there is clearly an uptick in the percentage of underrepresented leads and co-leads in 2018, the overall percentage is still below the U.S. Census (39.3 percent) by more than 11 percentage points," the study added. "Only 15.5 percent of all 1,200 movies featured an underrepresented lead or co-lead."

The study also compared the seven major studios for their records on female protagonists and underrepresented groups. In 2018, all but three companies – Sony, Fox and Warner Bros. – were at or near proportional representation to the U.S. population when it comes to movies with female lead or co-lead characters.

In terms of underrepresented leads and co-leads, the top performer was Sony (39 films out of 180), followed by Lionsgate, Universal and Paramount.

"The remaining companies have room for significant improvement in this area," the study said.

"Turning to women of color, companies greenlit one to two movies with underrepresented females in the leading roles. It is important to note that every major studio had at least one woman of color in a leading role, which contributed to the increase in 2018."

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