Movie business still a man's world

Story highlights

  • A "Ghostbusters" reboot has been announced with all-female leads
  • But lack of diversity persists on screen and behind camera in Hollywood, authors say

Stacy Smith is the director of the Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California. Katherine Pieper is a research scientist with the initiative, which you can follow @MDSCInitiative. The views expressed are their own.

(CNN)The Internet was abuzz last week when the cast of the all-female "Ghostbusters" reboot was announced. The crop of funny ladies charged with eliminating the undead are some of the top female comedians working today. The chatter and support has a lot to do with the fans these women have garnered. It also comes from groups and individuals -- male and female -- who long to see more women headlining major Hollywood films.

So, is "Ghostbusters" progress? Yes. Is it a panacea? No. Let's talk about why.
Putting women front and center in film is the exception, not the rule. Using "Ghostbusters" as an example of how far females have come is like celebrating Kathryn Bigelow's best director Academy Award -- and forgetting that she's the only woman ever to take home that honor. You can applaud Katniss, Elsa, and Anna, too. But, they're following the legions of guys who have protected and ruled the planet, palaces and corporate empires near and far. It's fair and important to celebrate these high-profile moments of progress. Doing so, however, may dismiss the lack of diversity that persists onscreen and behind the camera in Hollywood movies.
Our annual statistics on women's participation in the year's 100 top-grossing films reveal stagnation. In 2013, only 29% of 4,506 speaking characters evaluated were female. In another study, we examined popular films from 1990 to 1995. The percentage was 29%. For those of you who think the past was better, other research shows that women clocked in at 25% of characters in a sample of movies from the late 1940s. Interestingly, only 28% of movies in 2013 depicted a female lead or co-lead.
Behind the camera it's even worse. Women rarely get to direct large budget features on the scale of "Ghostbusters" or "The Hunger Games." Across top-grossing films from 2002 to 2013, only 4.2% of all directors were female. In 2013 and 2014, there were only two female directors each year. Even more dismal figures concern black or African-American female directors. Only three black women were directors across 700 popular movies between 2007 and 2014.
What drives the lack of diversity in films? Our studies with industry leaders (funded by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and Sundance Institute/Women in Film Los Angeles) reveal that both in front of and behind the camera, perceptions about market forces and money are to blame for the lack of females. Male leads, stories and properties are seen as more profitable, while female stories and casts are seen as a risk. For female directors, the financing structure, subject matter, and even perceived confidence of filmmakers creates a barrier to career progress.
Much like pesky poltergeists, these myths about profitability will have to be busted before change can occur. To do so, solutions need to be implemented that overcome implicit biases and circumvent stereotyping.
Leveling the playing field when it comes to hiring is one step toward creating a more balanced behind-the-scenes environment. We have previously advocated for a modified version of the NFL's Rooney Rule: a league-wide commitment to interviewing diverse candidates for coaching positions. Applied to Hollywood, the rule would stipulate that women and candidates from underrepresented backgrounds be considered or even interviewed when hiring film directors.
Another solution we're implementing at USC Annenberg is to look holistically at the entertainment industry from decision-making to the content we view. The USC Annenberg Comprehensive Analysis and Report on Diversity will "grade" companies based on the diversity within their ranks and the media they create. Media conglomerates can be held accountable for their decisions across film, television and digital productions. While not every story should or can be female-dominated or focus on underrepresented racial and/or ethnic groups, examining a slate of content will reveal where and when stories about diverse groups and individuals are valued and told.
Right now, lifting the veil on diversity in Hollywood reveals white men standing behind the curtain. In this environment, casting four women to take care of a metropolitan ghost problem does feel rather extraordinary. Sealing up cracks in the development, casting and hiring pipeline for women and underrepresented groups, however, should result in an onscreen reality that is more representative of the world we live in.
Then, the only unreal thing about "Ghostbusters" will be the ghouls and goblins, not the women busting them.