Women direct 23% of Netflix films. Now the company is spending $5 million to boost that number

Bela Bajaria, VP of global TV for Netflix, is supporting the company’s $5 million commitment to training and advancing female filmmakers this year.
Jessica Chou for Fortune

The film and television industry has made strides in representing female characters on-screen, but still struggles to support women behind the camera. Over 13 years, ending in 2019, women directed just 4.8% of 1,300 popular movies, with male directors outnumbering female directors 20 to one. In 2019, women directed 10.6% of the year’s top-grossing features.

Netflix, one of the most powerful players in the industry, on Thursday announced that it is committing $5 million this year to fund training and mentorship for female filmmakers in off-screen roles. The initial funding—which is part of a $20 million annual commitment to diversity and inclusion efforts in entertainment for the next five years, totaling $100 million—will support both internal Netflix initiatives and external programs around the world. Some of the first beneficiaries of the funding will be yearlong mentorship opportunities for female creatives in France and Germany; a short-film incubator for Latinx women; and a director training program in Canada.

“If you have women behind the camera, you see more women in front of the camera,” says Bela Bajaria, Netflix’s head of global TV. “If you have more people of color and underrepresented groups being creators, you absolutely see that reflected—and see those stories—in front of the camera.”

Bajaria is the Netflix executive credited with increasing the streaming service’s presence around the world, including through the production of local-language originals. She was the first woman of color to run a TV studio, as president of Universal Television.

While this particular initiative isn’t specifically aimed at bringing female creatives into the fold as Netflix production creators, directors, and writers, Bajaria hopes that supporting women industrywide will benefit several studios and streamers, Netflix included.

“This isn’t uniquely for us,” Bajaria says. “It’s for the industry as a whole to have much more dynamic, interesting, multidimensional representation of women…We hope that maybe they’d be employed on Netflix shows, but also that they just have careers and tell their stories wherever this takes them.”

The financial commitment aims to support women at all levels of their careers, from film students to directors of short films hoping to break into episodic television to established TV writers who are looking to learn showrunning skills. The training and career-advancement opportunities will include director shadowing programs, support to make short films, writing workshops, and training in postproduction skills.

Netflix is uniquely poised to make a difference on this issue. With its gargantuan budget for original content (reportedly $17 billion in 2020) and its ability to get a new film or series in front of millions of subscribers, the $25 billion streamer is a major force in terms of getting work green-lit and distributed—and has the muscle to give a project a good shot at becoming a hit. If the company decides to prioritize female filmmakers on its home screen, it can help new audiences discover their work.

With its local-language originals strategy, too, the streaming service has a strong understanding of what female filmmakers need to advance their careers across the globe.

Already, Netflix has made some progress. The company commissioned a report on its diversity numbers from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which found that it’s reached parity in leading roles for women on-screen. The study reports that Netflix hired female directors for 23% of its films in 2018 and 2019—far from equal representation by gender, but well above the industry average. Those findings helped push Netflix to launch this effort.

One of the projects that has helped Netflix achieve those industry-high numbers is Never Have I Ever, the series created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, which is currently filming its second season. Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, the 19-year-old star of that show, has had a relatively unusual experience entering the industry: Her first major job is with a female-led production.

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan as Devi Vishwakumar in the Netflix series “Never Have I Ever.”
Courtesy of Netflix

“I always think about how lucky I am to have my first job be the job that it is,” Ramakrishnan says. “I get mentors who I can look up to and say, ‘That is an amazing example of what an inclusive leader looks like, rather than just a boss.’…Often, women aren’t given the shot. It takes extra effort to get that shot. We need to make sure people realize that women have things to offer that are equally, if not more, insightful.”

The company’s efforts on increasing representation haven’t come without missteps. The Annenberg study found while Netflix has made strides depicting Black, Asian, and female characters on-screen, Latinx representation is a weak point.

Netflix is announcing this financial commitment to coincide with International Women’s Day, on March 8.

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