‘The Woman King’ Leads ‘The Inclusion List,’ USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and Adobe’s Ranking of the Top 100 Films

Dr. Stacy Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, in collaboration with the Adobe Foundation, have launched The Inclusion List, a first-of-its-kind data website that ranks the most inclusive theatrically-released films, distributors and producers from 2019 to 2022.

The Inclusion List is a data-driven ranking system that analyzes theatrically-released films based on their levels of representation, with Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Woman King” and Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” leading the list of the top 100 films.

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Dr. Smith, founder and director of USC Annenberg’s Inclusion Initiative, and Amy White, director of corporate social responsibility at Adobe and the executive director of the Adobe Foundation, spearheaded the project, with the initiative’s Samuel Wheeler, Brooke Kong, Dr. Katherine Pieper and Smith authoring the report.

In the process of compiling the list, the research team sorted through 376 theatrically-released films across a span of 20 inclusion indicators, assessing gender, race/ethnicity, LGBTQ, disability and age representation for cast in leading and all speaking roles. Additionally, gender and race/ethnicity were evaluated across 10 below the line positions: director, writer, producer, cinematographer, editor, composer, costume designer, production designer, casting director and first assistant director. More than 14,000 speaking characters and over 5,500 crew members were evaluated.

Prince-Bythewood’s “The Woman King,” released in 2022 by Sony Pictures, topped the list with a score of 14/20. While the film featured a primarily Black cast (resulting in 3 points toward its score), headlined by producer-star Viola Davis, the majority of its points in this inclusion analysis (11) were earned because of the film’s diversity behind the camera.

Wang’s “Farewell,” a 2019 release from A24, was a bit more evenly split, with 5 points earned for the diversity of the film’s cast and 8.6 for the crew, for a total of 13.6.

Rounding out the top 10 films in the ranking of 100 inclusive titles are “Zola,” “Harriet,” “Laal Singh Chaddha,” “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” “Everybody Knows,” “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.,” “Broker” and “Little.”

The Woman King
Viola Davis with Lashana Lynch (left) and Sheila Atim (right) in “The Woman King.”

Distributors with at least 3 films in the top 100 were also ranked, with four exceptions: films that grossed less than $1 million in domestic revenue, re-releases, documentaries, and animated films were excluded. Films released by streamers were not evaluated for this report, but Smith tells Variety that comprehensive reports on inclusion in TV and streaming movies are on track to be released later this year, with production companies and their principals set to be evaluated next.

“We’re moving — and hopefully all the studies about Hollywood and the companies in Hollywood are moving — toward greater transparency,” Smith says. “[But] we’re going to usher in a new transparency whether the companies like it or not, so shareholders will know exactly what decisions are being made in these hiring positions, on camera and below the line.”

Researchers found that, among the major studios, Universal Pictures released a whopping 24 films that made the Inclusion List, which have grossed $1.5 billion at the worldwide box office worldwide, followed by Sony Pictures Entertainment with 14 films and Warner Bros. Pictures at 11. 20th Century Studios released 6 films that ranked in the top 100, while Walt Disney Studios, Lionsgate and Paramount Pictures each had 5. For independent distributors, A24 lead the pack with 9 films and Neon with 6.

Eight producers were saluted for having at least three films included in the top 100: Will Packer Productions’ Will Packer, Macro film studios president James Lopez, Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige, Plan B’s Dede Garner and Jeremy Kleiner, Monkeypaw’s Jordan Peele and Ian Cooper, and Blumhouse’s Jason Blum.

“This is the first rigorous, quantitative assessment of hiring practices across almost 400 movies and more than 900 producers, over 350 directors, and 16 distributors,” said Dr. Smith. “The results are clear: Universal Pictures, A24, Will Packer, James Lopez, Kevin Feige, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Lulu Wang and the others on the list are ushering in a new era for inclusion through the choices they have made and the stories they have told. We are excited to showcase and recognize those efforts.”

It’s also notable that 7 of the top 10 films were directed by women of color, while the first 47 films on the list were made by directors from historically marginalized communities.

Smith added: “What’s even more powerful about this list — and consistent with our previous work — is that films from women and women of color directors on the list earned the highest average Metacritic score. These women are excluded from the industry when we know that they are some of the top performers, telling some of the strongest and most compelling stories. This is a list that celebrates women of color in an industry that doesn’t.”

According to the report, the impetus for this ranking began in 2022 when the Adobe Foundation approached the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative team with a question: was it possible to chart progress in the entertainment industry for historically marginalized groups and determine who is responsible for creating that change.

“At Adobe, we believe that when more diverse stories are told, the world becomes a more equal and vibrant place,” said Stacy Martinet, VP of marketing at Adobe and Adobe Foundation board member. “Initiatives such as the Adobe Foundation’s collaboration with USC Annenberg gives us the ability to elevate the stories and people that are making inclusivity a priority, while also finding the ways we can still make change in the industry.”

The inaugural report and full methodology for The Inclusion List, are available at inclusionlist.org. Read on as Dr. Smith and Dr. Pieper detail their research in an extensive interview with Variety:

What surprised you most about these findings, once you began to answer that question of determining who is responsible for creating this change and where progress has been made the industry regarding inclusion?

Smith: It’s hard to get surprised. In this nomenclature of inclusion, we can predict how certain things are going to go.

That chart really reflects “the new 100.” We’ve already done all the financial analyses; we know when inclusion sells. The new regime of Hollywood are the people on this list. that We have Donna Langley leading the charge of an organization — Universal Pictures — that has a volume of output every year [with Universal and Focus Features] and ends up ranking number one. It is Will Packer. It is James Lopez, and Kevin Feige in his position at Marvel, it will be Jordan Peele. We are ushering in a new vernacular when we say the top 100 is financially viable. This is really the audience’s value.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - APRIL 26: (L-R) Jordana Brewster, Donna Langley, Chairman, Universal Film Entertainment Group, Samantha Vincent and Michelle Rodriguez attend Universal Pictures and Focus Features' special presentation featuring footage from its upcoming slate at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace during CinemaCon, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners, on April 26, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for CinemaCon)
Donna Langley flanked by “Fast X” stars Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez and producer Samantha Vincent during CinemaCon in Las Vegas, Nevada.

And to see the high proportions of women of color and white women as directors, as writers as well, it tells me it can happen. But all the studios have to fall in line.’

We’re just getting started. We have 376 films that we’ve looked at; we know all the below-the-line hiring decisions, so what we are foreshadowing is, we’re going to usher in a new transparency, whether the companies like it or not. Shareholders will know exactly what decisions are being made in these hiring positions, on camera and behind the camera.

It will be on our website for anyone who want to type in a name like Steven Spielberg. We’ll be able to tell you exactly how he’s doing on hiring across all of the [indicators]. That is the goal and the direction of what we’re doing.

How did you decide what the parameters would be for this study? For example, ranking studios and indie distributors, but not streamers.

Smith: What benefits everyone in the inclusion space is transparency, so we needed to look back far enough into people’s decisions that still reflect how decisions are made today. We couldn’t go much back further than 2019 because the film industry and the theatrical arena are different now.

There are different business models with film, with streaming with traditional [theatrical releases] or legacy television and cable; we couldn’t create just one list. So, we started with our sweet spot — which has always been film. We looked at 16 distributors — not only the top 100 films featured, but all of their slates — and came up with a real picture of their decisions across those films.

Secondly, we wanted to look at producers — and there was some real concern here because we only had four years of content — and yet, look at James Lopez and Kevin Feige all coming up with four films across 100 movies. That’s amazing; that’s the base of their output. We see Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner also putting out quite a few films in the same timeframe. If you’ve paid attention to what they’re up to, they’ve been doing this for a while, so it became important to draw the line at three or more films for the producers. Then our top directors came no surprise to anyone, Gina Prince-Bythewood and Lulu Wang, and “Zola” director Janicza Bravo, in the third spot, is also a woman of color.

Now, when we look at television and streaming, we’re going to add films to that composite so we can make production companies and the principles of those companies across all three platforms that’s what coming.

Pieper: Since 2008, Stacy has built the Initiative by focusing on the top 100 films based on box office. We spent a lot of time with this data really trying to understand the patterns that we were seeing and how to create a score that was fair, that was representative, that makes sense. Now we have the chance to say, “Here’s what the top 100 films could look like, if people are prioritizing inclusion.”

Smith: It’s not only what it could look like, it’s what it should look like. We did the largest, most sophisticated economic analysis that is out there. It shows very clearly all these content creators — particularly the women of color — if they were given the same resources that their white male counterparts are given to tell the story, we found that the deficit in storytelling, what’s not making money is because the executives are not getting the same level of production costs, marketing costs, and putting it in a number of territories and theatres.

White males get the biggest releases, the historically marginalized groups get fewer. And, if you were to level the playing field on those variables, we see that inclusion is actually making money. If all these content creators were given access to the same resources, all these films would become the next top 100 from a box office perspective. This is the way we should think about how the industry needs to make a shift.

“The Woman King’s” crew rated with an inclusion score of 11/10, but its cast score is 3/10. What do those metrics indicate?

Smith: We saw that the crew scores of some of the films were better, for a couple reasons.

You got a point if you had a woman [leading or speaking character], an underrepresented person, an LGBTQ+ lead, a character at least 65 years of age or older, or a person with a disability. We then assessed every film for proportional representation, so you got a point if the film approached proportional representation for female characters which is 50%, for underrepresented folks it’s approaching 40% and for the LGBTQ community, it’s around 10%.

Historically, the entertainment industry has not done a good job thinking about the broader ecosystem of telling stories, so that they might do really well on one or two [inclusion indicators]. You usually have a lead who has an identity in one or two of the categories, but rarely, we never see women 65 and over. Historically, those aren’t the films Hollywood’s greenlighting, so that’s why those scores are lower. And overall, all the scores are low in comparison to what you’d like to see both on-screen and behind the camera.

Next year, we’re going to increase the criteria, because now they know that we’re watching and evaluating all these decisions. The bar will be higher.

The typical feature film has between 35 and 40 characters. Most of those characters are still male; most of those characters do not reflect the world that we actually live in. I have come up with the solution to that: if you were to simply take the top 100 box office films, and add five female speaking characters, from every background imaginable, and don’t take any men away, you set a new norm. You repeat the process for four years, and we are at gender equality, for the first time ever, at the end of the fourth year.

The report spotlights Gina Prince-Bythewood and Lulu Wang as the top two filmmakers. While their most recent films top the 100 ranked titles, their filmographies are inclusive as well. Did you do any data analysis on their track records, similar to the producers?

Smith: By the virtue of the choices that they’ve made, you’re seeing something completely different, that also happens to align with their values. Our goal is not to research anything other than what’s on this list because we have to make a definitive statement based on this data.

We have a lot of data, but we can’t get into [individual filmographies] yet, because we would then have to do it for every single filmmaker on the list.

Pieper: In terms of recognizing the directors, the goal is to celebrate that they’ve done something that is pretty impressive in terms of telling a story that’s inclusive on screen and that’s inclusive behind the camera. It’s recognizing that the stories that they’re telling, and the folks on their team that they’re working with really reflect a commitment to inclusion.

Notably, Kasi Lemmons has two films [“Harriet” and “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody”] in the top 10. That is incredible, because four years isn’t that long in the span of filmmaking, when you think about how long it takes to bring a film to life. Most directors didn’t have more than one opportunity to tell a story. For Gina and Lulu to be at the top of the list, it reflects a real commitment in that timeframe and so we wanted to celebrate that effort.

Harriet Movie BTS
Director Kasi Lemmons with actors Zackary Momoh, Cynthia Erivo and Vanessa Bell Calloway on the set of Focus Features’ “Harriet.”

The report mentions that this timeline allowed you to analyze Hollywood, as it has been impacted by Time’s Up and #MeToo. Why is it important to note those movements in relation to these results?

Pieper: Those were years — from 2018 on — that we really saw activism around the industry, being intentional in hiring women directors. We saw the advocacy really come to a head at that point and we wanted to make sure we were [researching] in that period, following activism to see what impact that might have had. If you go back too far, the industry was very different in 2018 than in 2019, and particularly in 2020 and beyond.

Smith: That’s really the goal of activist-driven social science, to give people the information to create change. Because I’m not doing this for fun. I believe that the world could look different, and every study is an attempt to persuade and to reveal objectively — because I’m not involved with the research, I’m not doing the data analysis — to show the industry, the world as it should be.

In determining who will be responsible for creating these changes in terms of inclusivity and representation, how do you think that studios can change in the next four years?

Smith: It starts with the CEO or the chairperson of the division and what criteria they use to determine when they greenlight a film. If somebody comes to you with a great script and they pitch, is it really a great story? Or are you comfortable? And you believe the buzz around the person?

At the top, there has to be criteria to ensure that, not only are you bringing people on board, not only are you giving them production deals, but you are financing [their movies], giving them marketing [budgets], that their films are playing in the marketplace in the same capacity as their white male peers.

Otherwise, you just see people giving money to the people they feel most comfortable with because they often don’t trust women or people of color. That is one of the biggest problems and where they need to be held accountable, because as our list shows, and our other work has shown, women of color get the strongest reviews in the marketplace. Why aren’t they getting the most work? We all know the answer.

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