2020 Was Supposed to Be a Blockbuster Year for Female Filmmakers, Then the Pandemic Hit

Kate Erbland
·7 min read
IndieWire Best of 2020
IndieWire Best of 2020

The numbers told an exciting story: For the first time ever, five major tentpole feature films directed by women were set to be released in a single calendar year: Cate Shortland’s “Black Widow,” Chloé Zhao’s “Eternals,” “Cathy Yan’s “Birds of Prey,” Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman 1984,” and Niki Caro’s “Mulan.” The year 2020 was going to show real progress and provide a sign of different things to come, aided by a push for visibility that had so far alluded even the industry’s most well-known female filmmakers. The five films on the schedule — four of which were tied to the biggest active franchises of the moment — were only part of a bigger picture.

You know what happened next: a pandemic.

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Its impact shut down whole countries and has claimed over a million lives to date. For the movies, the changes were swift and brutal: postponed and canceled projects, delayed release dates, pivots to PVOD and streaming, the closure of movie theaters. Among the five blockbusters directed by women, only “Birds of Prey” landed a wide theatrical release.

Despite conversations about the need for inclusion and diversity both in front of and behind the camera, recent studies painted a worrying picture: While strides were being made, female filmmakers were still getting shut out of the biggest of big gigs. In January of 2020, the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative released the latest edition of its long-running Inclusion in the Director’s Chair report, which examined the prevalence of female directors working across 1,300 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2019. The study found that, among a total of 113 directors who were attached to the 100 top movies of 2019, a full 89.4 percent were male and 10.6 percent were female.

Parity? Barely even a glimmer in any studio head’s eye.

And yet 2020 seemed poised to put some sort of dent in those dismal numbers. It wasn’t just the blockbuster world that was on the verge of unleashing a wide array of female filmmakers. Sundance opened in January with a slew of buzzy titles directed by women, including Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman,” Garrett Bradley’s “Time,” Kirsten Johnson’s “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” Janicza Bravo’s “Zola,” Heidi Ewing’s “I Carry You with Me,” Natalie Erika James’ “Relic,” Miranda July’s “Kajillionaire,” Josephine Decker’s “Shirley,” Radha Blank’s “The 40-Year-Old Version,” Lana Wilson’s “Miss Americana,” Nicole Newnham’s “Crip Camp” (co-directed with Jim LeBrecht), Maïmouna Doucouré’s “Cuties,” Cristina Costantini’s “Mucho Mucho Amor” (co-directed with Kareem Tabsch),and more, many of which appeared at the top of IndieWire’s own Sundance critics’ survey or notched a win at the festival’s annual awards ceremony.

Things looked bright, and then, suddenly, they didn’t.

Yan’s “Birds of Prey” arrived in theaters in early February and ultimately making over $200 million at the global box office. As of now, it’s the number six highest-earning domestic film of the year (take that, top 100!). Both Shortland and Zhao’s MCU entries have been pushed back to 2021, while Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” sequel is set to bow in both theaters and on HBO Max on Christmas Day. That’s proven to be a controversial step for many, as Warner Bros. recently announced it would be using the same scheme for its entire 2021 slate (including major films from female directors, including Lisa Joy’s “Reminiscence” and Lana Wachowski’s “The Matrix 4.”

Caro’s “Mulan” was one of the year’s many big films to make the jump to just streaming, debuting on Disney+ on September 4. While Disney has yet to release any numbers regarding the film’s streaming bow — including new subscribers who signed up to see the film, or how much money the studio pulled in with its “premium” pricing — the film’s rollout at least seems to be informing other moves by the Mouse House, which is putting a variety of original film projects directly on its streaming platform in the coming months.

Other female-directed films also made the leap to streaming with thrilling results, like Clea DuVall’s “Happiest Season,” which rocketed to the top of Hulu’s most-watched original films when it debuted on the platform in November. Over at Netflix, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s superhero epic “The Old Guard” became one of the streamer’s top films of all time, notching 78 million reported streams in its first 28 days. Similarly, Jenny Popplewell’s documentary “American Murder: The Family Next Door” became the streamer’s most-watched documentary feature, racking up 52 million reported streamers in its first 28 days.

Studio-backed features like Natalie Krinsky’s Sony film “The Broken Hearts Gallery” and Autumn de Wilde’s “Emma” adaptation for Focus Features opted for theatrical release, with both of them snagging spots in the highest-grossing indies box office chart.

There was even greater progress on the festival circuit. The Venice Film Festival, one of the world’s starriest annual film events — and one that has previously resisted pressure to program more female filmmakers — nearly reached gender parity with its 2020 competition lineup. (A few months later, Cannes trotted out its own “significant increase” in female filmmakers with its official selection.)

Venice has never hosted an environment particularly welcoming to women: This year’s total competition films directed by women was equal to the total of female-directed films Venice has put in competition for the last five years. However, by that same token, Venice has often spotlighted massive rising stars and established talents that just so happened to be women. Among them are its four female Golden Lion winners, including Sofia Coppola, Mira Nair, Margarethe von Trotta, and Agnès Varda.

This year, a fifth woman joined their ranks, with “Nomadland” filmmaker Zhao — delivering a luminous drama that made up for the fact that her blockbuster debut with “Eternals” was pushed back a year — picking up the vaunted Golden Lion. The Frances McDormand-starring road movie has blazed through this quite strange awards season, picking up additional wins at TIFF and IndieWire’s own annual critics poll.

And what of TIFF, which this year awarded all of its major awards to films directed by women? Zhao, whose film picked up the People’s Choice Award, was joined by a variety of other female filmmakers, including runner-ups like Regina King’s “One Night in Miami” and Tracey Deer’s “Beans.” Elsewhere, the TIFF 2020 People’s Choice Documentary Award winner was “Inconvenient Indian,” directed by Michelle Latimer, and the TIFF 2020 People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award winner went to “Shadow in the Cloud,” directed by Roseanne Liang.

Weeks later, when the Gotham Awards unveiled its own nominees for the year’s best independent films, female filmmakers were again at the fore: All five of the Best Picture nominees were directed by women, including “Nomadland,” “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” “Relic,” Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow,” and Kitty Green’s “The Assistant.” Five blockbuster franchise films sounds good, but you know what sounds even better? Five Best Picture nominees directed by women.

With 2021 on the horizon, the numbers are again telling an exciting story. Next year will — fingers crossed! — see the release of a number of much-anticipated feature films from female directors. It’s not as staggering as the five that were expected earlier this year, but it’s damn close. Shortland’s “Black Widow” is still on deck, and so is Zhao’s “Eternals.” Nia DaCosta is joining the Marvel world, too, and her “Captain Marvel 2” will be coming in 2022, just a few months behind her own 2021 studio debut “Candyman,” another 2020 feature pushed back to accommodate a theatrical release.

In festival land, numbers only continue to tick upwards, and this week’s Sundance slate held another hint to a changing world. For the first time ever, the festival has reached gender parity with its filmmakers. Such ideas no longer feel like gimmicks, but a true reflection of the world in which we live, and the people who are telling stories about it.

As we move further into a tricky awards season and another years at the movies (we hope!), it seems obvious that female-directed films will continue to get made and earn acclaim along the way. They may even go all the way to the Oscars, a voting body that has long had its own issues with affording adulations to movies that happen to be directed by women. So much has changed this year, why not that?

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