I was contacted by a reader who asked whether “female audiences respond more positively to feature films that have at their heart a female creative team? In particular, a female director and writer“.
It’s a fascinating question as it speaks to the significance of the creative voice(s) behind films and how they connect with us as viewers.
One of the (many) reasons why I believe passionately about equality of opportunity is that if we preordain that only one group of people get to control the creation of our shared stories then we rob everyone of interesting perspectives. The people who share that point of view lose the chance to see themselves on screen, and the rest of us lose the chance to see the world through someone else’s eyes.
So I turned to the data to see if we can discern any connection between the film women make, and the film woman chose to watch.
I used data on 1,733 movies released in UK cinemas between 2000 and 2021, for which I have both audience gender data and filmmaker gender data.
Let’s start by looking at the gender of both sets of groups – film creatives and film audiences, and then see how preferences differ.
What is the gender split among cinema audiences?
According to the UK 2021 official census, the UK population is made up of 51.0% women and 49.0% men. This near parity is very similar to that of UK cinema audiences over the past two decades, as shown below. 51.5% of cinema-goers surveyed identified as men.
Women were slightly more lightly to watch musicals and romance films, whereas men were slightly more likely to attend action and sci-fi movies.
It’s worth observing that the gender skews are a lot milder than is often portrayed within the industry and popular culture. There are no “male genres” or “female genres”, albeit individual films can have a more extreme skew than these averages.
What is the gender split of people behind those movies?
The picture among film creatives is less equal.
The people behind the same movies the audiences above were watching, we discover that 20.8% of producers were women, 10.8% of writers and just 6.4% of directors.
Comparing the people who make and watch movies
By combing these two sets of data, we can look at whether there is a link between the films people choose to watch and the gender of the people behind them.
We’ll start with producers as that had the highest representation of women.
The scatter plot below has the percentage of women within producers on the left and the gender of the audience at the bottom. Each dot represents the average for that genre.
The orange trend line shows us that there is a correlation, across all the genres. The films with the highest percentage of women in the audience are also those with the highest percentage of women producers.
The picture is very similar for screenwriters, both the overall trend and which genres we see at either end of the spectrum.
And finally, let’s turn to directors. Here we see the same pattern repeated yet again.
I thought it might be helpful to see those three datasets presented on the same plot. Below is the same data, but without genre labels due to space.
This reveals that the effect is most pronounced among writers.
The effect of women creatives
Finally, let’s look at how the audience changes when we see at least one woman at the helm.
The chart below shows the percentage of women in the audience, split by whether there was a woman directing or not. The genres are sorted, with the biggest difference to the right. In all genres, having a woman director is correlated with a greater number of women in the audience.
It’s the same for writers…
… and producer, albeit with Animation being the one outlier where the audience was 53.9% women when there was at least one women producer and 54.2% when there wasn’t.
So there you have it – the data suggests that there is a correlation between the gender of film creatives and the gender of the audience. Films with a higher percentage of women in creative roles, such as producers, writers, and directors, tend to have a higher percentage of women in the audience. This is especially pronounced among writers.
However, it is essential to remember that correlation does not imply causation. There could be other factors at play, and individual preferences may vary greatly. Also, the data here is based on averages and the film industry is nothing if not a business of outliers.
Today’s research is looking at live-action movies released in UK cinemas between 2000 and 2021, for which there was available exit polling data.
Genre is determined by IMDb’s criteria, which allows a film to have multiple genres. Across the dataset, the average film had just over 2.5 genres.
Gender was determined by pronouns in biographies, online classifications (e.g. some movie databases spit ‘actors’ and ‘actresses’) and my past work on gender. I have split the gender stats into two categories as this reflects the way data has been captured over the period I studied. In the future, there may more nuanced databases which capture gender fluidity and non-binary identities, but until then we’re left with a rather crude binary approach. I used the gender the person currently publicly identifies as. I am always looking for better and more detailed ways to study and report on gender. If you think I can do better, reach out and we can chat.