First-Time Directors Still Have Limited Opportunities in Hollywood, New UCLA Study Reports (EXCLUSIVE)

A new study by UCLA Center for Scholars & Storytellers shows systemic discrimination and limited access to opportunities exist against first-time directors, with only 23.4% working on major feature films in the last 12 years.

Commissioned by Lionsgate and its commitment to the inclusive content space, the study examines some of the persistent biases hindering the industry’s progress toward achieving its stated diversity and inclusion goals.

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Compiled from a list of the top 100 films per year from 2010-2021 (based on domestic box office for each year; 1200 films total), the study also shows that while more women and people of color have been hired as directors recently, the rate of overall hiring in the experienced director pool continues.

“The mission of the Lionsgate Inclusive Content team is to help the Motion Picture Group release a more diverse and inclusive film slate, because the data shows that more inclusive content is more commercial content,” said Kamala Avila-Salmon, head of inclusive content at Lionsgate Motion Picture Group.

In its analyses of both the first-time director pool and the experienced director pool, the study found that, strikingly, the racial and gender composition was not significantly different between the two pools.

Only 4.8% of experienced directors are female compared to 95.2% of experienced directors being male. And 16.3% of experienced directors are BIPOC, the rest being white.

Key findings also demonstrate how the biggest barrier to first-time directors being offered their first major feature is the assumption that they are a riskier business than experienced directors. However, the study finds that first-time directors are no riskier than experienced directors.

Elsewhere the study shows two key systemic factors effectively barricading underrepresented first-time directors from making real strides: the silos of industry networks and social capital that reward and prioritize insiders, as well as the industry’s rigid criteria for assessing potential projects largely based on a white, male perspective. Women directors also have to contend with significant additional barriers and biases — namely, doubt in their ability to direct.

“The results of this study are eye-opening. For underrepresented groups, there remain obstacles, structures and processes that stand in the way of getting that critical first shot. I’m encouraged that first-time directors get equal results, but they just need to be given equal opportunities,” said Dr. Yalda T. Uhls, founder of the Center for Scholars & Storytellers at UCLA.

The study laid out recommendations for studios to achieve parity, such as setting specific hiring goals for underrepresented first-time directors; evaluating pitches, projects and hires with an AIR lens and AIR tools; and investing in pipeline programs and initiatives that guarantee a job opportunity for underrepresented directors, instead of ones that simply mentor them.

Avila-Salmon and VP of inclusive marketing & business strategy Mana Yamaguchi said in a joint statement, “What we need is action, and this report illuminates exactly what we need to do: hire more first-time directors from underrepresented backgrounds.”

With Mary Nighy’s “Alice, Darling” and the upcoming “Joy Ride” by Adele Lim, Yamaguchi and Avila-Salmon added, “There is much more work to do and we are committed to being a part of the change by sparking conversations that shift mindsets and behavior.”

View the study here.

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