Women directed a record number of top-grossing films in 2020, study finds

From 'Birds of Prey' to 'Emma', we take a look at six films directed by women that ranked in 2020's list of the 100 highest-grossing films

Rosie Perez, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Margot Robbie, and Ella Jay Basco in Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020) courtesy: IMDb
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For all the trials the film industry had to endure last year, there was at least one good thing about 2020: it marked a record high for the number of movies directed by women that made it to the top 100 highest-grossing of the year.

A study by the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found that women made up 16 per cent of the filmmakers behind the 100 highest-grossing films of 2020. While it may still seem low, the number is a leap compared to the 12 per cent of 2019 and 4 per cent of 2018.

According to entertainment news outlet Variety, the study found that women comprised 21 per cent of all the directors, writers, cinematographers, producers, executive producers and editors who worked on the 100 highest-grossing films.

"The good news is that we've now seen two consecutive years of growth for women who direct," said Dr Martha Lauzen, who spearheaded the study. She noted that while the rising number was encouraging, there is still a glaring disparity in some areas.

"This breaks a recent historical pattern in which the numbers trend up one year and down the next. The bad news is that fully 80 per cent of top films still do not have a woman at the helm."

It is worth noting that the pandemic delayed the release of several highly anticipated films by female filmmakers, such as Cate Shortland's Black Widow and Chloe Zhao's Eternals. It also saw a number of production companies redirect releases to streaming platforms, such as Niki Caro's Mulan, which was made exclusive on Disney+ in several countries. Regionally, however, the film did roll out in cinemas.

Here’s a look at some of 2020’s most successful films by female filmmakers:

‘Birds of Prey’

Margot Robbie reprised her role as the charming but slightly unstable hit girl Harley Quinn in this follow up to Suicide Squad.

The film, directed by Dead Pigs filmmaker Cathy Yan, fared much better with fans and critics than its predecessor. Despite Suicide Squad's stellar cast, including the likes of Will Smith and Jared Leto, the film was skewered for its sub-par writing, illogical plot and Leto's caricatured portrayal of the Joker. The film came in sixth in the 100 top films of the year, raking in more than $200 million at the box office.

‘Wonder Woman 1984’

The second instalment of the Wonder Woman series may not have been received as well as the first, but it is still one of the top films of 2020.

The sequel follows Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) as she is forced out of her quiet life curating ancient artefacts at the Smithsonian Museum to face villains Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) and Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig). The film made $118 million at the box office and came in as the 20th top-grossing film of last year. However, it also faced backlash on social media for its racist depictions of Egypt.

‘The Turning’

A supernatural horror film, directed by The Runaways filmmaker Floria Sigismondi, The Turning is based on the 1898 ghost story The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.

The film tells the story of a nanny who is assigned to take care of two young orphans in a gothic mansion in Maine. The film was blasted by critics for its muddled adaptation of the James classic. However, the film made more than $18 million at the box office, placing it as the 30th most successful film of 2020.


Based on Jane Austen's 1815 novel of the same name, Emma may not be the most faithful adaptation of the classic but the film benefits from the visual sensibilities of filmmaker Autumn de Wilde, wh was featured in Heaven Adores You.

A series of stunning, pastel-hued tableaux, Emma does well to bring a new wave of appreciation to the Austen classic. While the pandemic dealt a critical blow to several blockbusters of 2020, it also gave room for relatively smaller films to shine and make the top 100. The film, which was made with a budget of $10 million, made a worldwide total of $26 million at the box office, ranking as the 40th top film of 2020.

‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’

While French filmmaker Celine Sciamma’s historical drama premiered in 2019, it wasn’t until early 2020 that it was released around the world, thus putting it in the list of highest-grossing 2020 films.

The film, set in the late 18th century, tells the story of a romance between a French aristocrat and a painter commissioned to paint her portrait. The film made more than $10 million at the box office and ranked as the 63rd top film of 2020.

‘The Rhythm Section’

An action thriller directed by Reed Morano, The Rhythm Section follows a young woman who seeks revenge for the death of her family, who were killed in a plane crash brought on by a terrorist attack.

The film marks the third feature for Morano, who became the first woman in history to win both an Emmy and Directors Guild of America Award in the same year, for directing the pilot episode of The Handmaid's Tale.

The Rhythm Section was met with mixed reviews from critics and made just over $6 million at the box office, putting it as the 55th highest grossing film of 2020.