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With Black Widow delayed and Mulan on digital, female-led films plummeted in 2020 top-grossing list

By Josh Weiss

The number of top-grossing films with a female protagonist "declined precipitously" by more than 10 percent last year, according to a new study conducted by San Diego State University's Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.

Not entirely surprising when the COVID-19 pandemic derailed the theatrical debut plans for both Mulan and Black Widow — a pair of female-led Disney blockbusters that would have almost certainly been two of the biggest box office hits of 2020, had it not been for the global health crisis. In the end, the live-action Mulan remake ended up going directly to streaming on Disney+ (with a "Premier Access" paywall of $29.99), while Black Widow is adopting the hybrid Warner Bros./HBO Max model of a concurrent theatrical/streaming rollout this June. Black Widow is still expected to be a hit, of course, though obviously those numbers won't count toward 2020's box office take.

Speaking with Variety last year, Dr. Martha M. Lauzen (head of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film) cited Mulan, Black WidowBirds of PreyWonder Woman 1984, and Eternals as movies that "promised to generate momentum for the issue of gender inclusion in the mainstream film industry," the trade outlet wrote.

“But it is unclear whether this handful of films signals real movement in Hollywood’s comfort level with women directors or is a short-lived response to external pressures,” Lauzen said. “The long view provided by The Celluloid Ceiling suggests that evolutionary change is more likely than a revolutionary shift.”

Despite the cinematic downturn in female representation onscreen, 2020 was still a massive step forward for women in Hollywood. The 93rd Academy Awards, for example, will make history with two female filmmakers — Nomadland's Chloé Zhao and Promising Young Woman's Emerald Fennell — vying for the Best Director prize for the first time ever.

In addition, the San Diego State University study found a 2 percent uptick in speaking roles for female characters from 34 percent in 2019. That increase might be subtle, but represents "a recent historic high." What's more: women accounted for 38 percent of all major characters — a 1 percent increase from the previous year.