As women directors enter the Oscar spotlight, here are 13 filmmakers to watch

Key Points
  • For the first time in Academy Award history, two women have been nominated for best director.
  • Only seven women have ever been nominated in the category and only one has ever won.
  • In 2020, 16% of the top 100 highest-grossing films were directed by women, according to a report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.
  • Female filmmakers aren't just directing independent features, they are overseeing major Hollywood franchises.

In this article

Golden Globe nominees for Best Director: Chloe Zhao (L), Emerald Fennell (C), and Regina King
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For the first time in Academy Awards history, two women have been nominated for best director. In the 93-year run of the awards, only five other women have been recognized in the category, even though more than a dozen films directed by a female filmmaker have been nominated for best picture during that time.

Chloe Zhao ("Nomadland") and Emerald Fennell ("Promising Young Woman") are the latest additions to that list, and there's a strong chance that one of them will take home the prize. After all, Zhao has already won directing awards from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and the Directors Guild of America.

If Zhao takes home a win, she will be the second woman to do so in nearly 100 years. The last was Kathryn Bigelow, who won the Oscar in 2010 for "The Hurt Locker."

Lina Wertmuller ("Seven Beauties"), Jane Campion ("The Piano"), Sofia Coppola ("Lost in Translation") and Greta Gerwig ("Lady Bird") are the only other female directors who have been up for the best directing award.

Many had expected Regina King to garner a nomination in the category for her work on "One Night in Miami," as she was nominated alongside Zhao and Fennell at the Golden Globes, but she was left off the ballot.

Still, the historic nomination of two female directors signals that Hollywood is changing. Not only are women getting more opportunities within the industry, they are opening the door for a new generation of female filmmakers.

"We are finally enjoying a time when female filmmakers are regularly nominated and making their mark at major awards shows," said Fandango correspondent Nikki Novak.

"It's gratifying to see a number of female filmmakers as awards frontrunners and at the helm of the biggest-budget projects moving forward," she said.

In 2020, 16% of the top 100 highest-grossing films were directed by women, according to a report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. That's up from 12% in 2019 and 4% in 2018.

Of course, due to the coronavirus pandemic many blockbuster films were postponed and so 2020's results are not entirely reflective of Hollywood's current climate. Still, it is a sign that female directors can produce content that delivers at the box office.

And these female filmmakers aren't just directing independent features, they are overseeing major Hollywood franchises. Cathy Yan was at the helm of "Birds of Prey," Patty Jenkins led the production of "Wonder Woman 1984" and Niki Caro directed "Mulan."

Coming later this year is Cate Shortland's "Black Widow" and Zhao's "Eternals."

"These filmmakers and many others are continuing to prove that immense talent is not bound by gender, race, or any other classification. When opportunities and creative freedom are encouraged, great cinematic work can come from anyone," said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice.com.

Robbins said there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to increase representation, but these filmmakers show that the industry is embracing new voices.

As the Oscars approach, here's a look at 13 female directors who are making waves in Hollywood:

Chloe Zhao

Chloe Zhao has come a long way since directing her first feature film in 2015. "Songs My Brothers Taught Me" premiered at Sundance and later played at the Cannes Film Festival. It was nominated for best first feature at the Independent Spirit Awards that year.

Her second feature, "The Rider," in 2017 won the Art Cinema Award, the top prize at Directors' Fortnight, a Cannes Film Festival showcase that has been a launching pad for directors around the world. She was nominated for best director and the feature was nominated for best picture at the Independent Spirit Awards in 2018.

"Nomadland," which is only her third feature, has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture and best director. Zhao won the Golden Globe for best director earlier this year as well as the top directing prize from the Directors Guild of America.

Zhao's next feature set for release in November is "Eternals." She was hired by Disney to direct the movie, a comic book title that is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Chloe Zhao speaks onstage IFP's 24th Gotham Independent Film Awards at Cipriani, Wall Street on December 1, 2014 in New York City.
Theo Wargo | Getty Images

Emerald Fennell

Although "Promising Young Woman" is Emerald Fennell's directorial debut, she's no stranger to the film industry. An actress and writer, Fennell has worked in Hollywood for well over a decade.

She is an Emmy Award-nominated writer for her work on the BBC hit "Killing Eve" and a children's author.

"Promising Young Woman" has garnered five Academy Award nominations, including best picture, best director and best original screenplay.

Fennell is currently working with Andrew Lloyd Webber on the musical "Cinderella" and has been tapped by Warner Bros. to write a Zatanna film for the DC Extended Universe.

Emerald Fennell arrives to the 77th Annual Golden Globe Awards held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 5, 2020.
Kevork Djansezian | NBCUniversal | Getty Images

Regina King

Regina King is a well-known face in Hollywood. Her career spans three decades, including award-winning performances in the television series "American Crime" and "Watchmen" as well as for the film "If Beale Street Could Talk."

King's directorial film debut "One Night in Miami" earned her a Golden Globe nomination for best director alongside Zhao and Fennell, but she was left off this year's Oscar ballot.

King previously directed episodes of "Southland," "Scandal," "Animal Kingdom," "This Is Us," "Shameless," "The Good Doctor" and "Insecure."

In this screengrab, Regina King presents the Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture Award during the 52nd NAACP Image Awards on March 27, 2021.
52nd NAACP Image Awards/BET | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay first made a name for herself in Hollywood with her 2012 film "Middle of Nowhere." The film earned her the directing award in the U.S. dramatic competition at Sundance. She was the first Black woman to win this award.

Two years later, "Selma" helped DuVernay become the first Black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe for best director and the first Black female director to be nominated for best picture. In 2017, she was nominated for the Oscar for best documentary feature for her film "13th."

While her 2018 Disney fantasy film "A Wrinkle in Time" ultimately lost money at the box office and was a flop with critics, it still garnered more than $100 million domestically. DuVernay was the first Black woman to hit that benchmark.

More recently, DuVernay has had a successful run in television. Her Netflix limited series "When They See Us" told the story of the five Harlem teens who were falsely accused of a brutal attack in Central Park. It earned critical acclaim and 16 Emmy nominations. It won the Emmy for outstanding limited series.

Last year, DuVernay was elected to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences board of governors as part of the directors branch.

DuVernay also founded a film collective called Array in 2010. The company is dedicated to amplifying people of color and female directors in the film industry.

Ava DuVernay attends the 2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party hosted by Radhika Jones at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on February 09, 2020 in Beverly Hills, California.
Rich Fury/VF20 | Getty Images for Vanity Fair Getty Images

Greta Gerwig

Greta Gerwig made her solo directorial debut in 2017, after two decades of working as an actress in film and television. The film, "Lady Bird," was nominated for five Academy Awards including best picture, best director and best original screenplay.

Greta Gerwig: Movies about women are 'not a bad investment'
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Her next project, an adaption of "Little Women," garnered six Oscar nominations including best picture and best adapted screenplay. However, Gerwig was ultimately left off the ballot for best director, a snub that was publicly noted by many in Hollywood.

She's now working on a collaboration with her partner Noah Baumbach ("Marriage Story") on a script for Mattel's live-action Barbie film starring Margot Robbie.

US actress and director Greta Gerwig arrives for the 92nd Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on February 9, 2020.
Robyn Beck | AFP | Getty Images

Cathy Yan

Cathy Yan started her career as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal before turning to filmmaking.

After writing and directing several short films, she made her feature debut with "Dead Pigs" in 2018. The film was inspired by an incident in 2013 in which thousands of dead pigs were found floating in the Huangpu River in China. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and won a special jury award for ensemble acting.

Yan's next film was for Warner Bros.' DC Extended Universe. "Birds of Prey," which featured Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, was released in early 2020. The film garnered $200 million at the global box office, but its run was cut short by the Covid pandemic.

Yan is expected to direct and co-write an adaptation of "Sour Hearts," based on Jenny Zhang's short story collection for A24, an independent entertainment company. She has also started developing an adaptation of Rachel Khong's short story "The Freshening."

Cathy Yan attends the "Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn" World Premiere at the BFI IMAX on January 29, 2020 in London, England.
Karwai Tang | WireImage | Getty Images

Patty Jenkins

Patty Jenkins made her directorial debut in 2003 with "Monster," a biographical crime drama about serial killer Aileen Wuornos. It was a critical and commercial success that earned Charlize Theron an Academy Award for best actress.

After development stalled on several film projects, Jenkins spent the next decade working in television.

She returned to the big screen with the DC Extended Universe film "Wonder Woman." The comic book flick became the highest-grossing film directed by a woman and led to Jenkins' involvement in a sequel. "Wonder Woman 1984" was released in late 2020 and Warner Bros. was quick to announce that Jenkins would be at the helm for a third installment of the franchise.

Jenkins was most recently hired by Disney to direct "Rogue Squadron," an upcoming Star Wars film centered around the titular squadron of rebel pilots. The film is set to be released in December 2023. Jenkins will be the first woman to direct a Star Wars film.

Patty Jenkins attends TNT's "I Am The Night" FYC Event on May 9, 2019 in North Hollywood, California.
Emma McIntyre | Getty Images

Lulu Wang

Lulu Wang directed a number of short films and music videos before releasing her first feature film, "Posthumous," in 2014.

In 2017, Wang was chosen to participate in the Sundance Institute's FilmTwo Fellowship, which provides guidance for filmmakers creating their second feature film.

"The Farewell" debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019, where it was picked up for worldwide distribution by A24. The film was selected as one of the American Film Institute's 10 receipients of the 2019 AFI Awards, which are awarded to features that are "culturally and artistically representative" of the year's most significant achievements in cinema.

While "The Farewell" won the Independent Spirit Award for best picture and recognition from the Golden Globes, BAFTAs and Critics' Choice Awards, it did not receive a single nomination for an Academy Award.

Wang is currently tied to a film adaptation of Alexander Weinstein's collection of science fiction short stories called "Children of the New World."

Lulu Wang attends the 2020 Film Independent Spirit Awards - Press Room on February 08, 2020 in Santa Monica, California.
David Crotty | Patrick McMullan | Getty Images

Jennifer Lee

In 2011, Jennifer Lee was contacted by a former classmate at Columbia University to help write "Wreck-It Ralph" for Disney Animation. The gig was supposed to last eight weeks. Seven years later, she was tapped to become the chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Lee is probably best known for the 2013 hit "Frozen," which she co-directed with Chris Buck. She also received credit for creative leadership on "Big Hero Six" and "Moana" as well as credit as one of the writers who developed "Zootopia." She also wrote the screenplay for Disney's live-action adaptation of "A Wrinkle in Time," which was directed by Ava DuVernay.

Before being named chief creative officer, Lee worked once again with Buck to co-direct "Frozen II."

Lee is currently tied to a film titled "The Way Between" as a writer and producer. Kyra Sedgwick is set to direct.

Walt Disney Animation Studios CCO Jennifer Lee accept the 'Best Immersive Feature Film - Animated' award for Frozen 2 onstage during The Advanced Imaging Society's 11th Annual Lumiere Awards at Steven J. Ross Theatre on the Warner Bros. Lot on January 22, 2020 in Burbank, California.
Ari Perilstein | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

Niki Caro

Niki Caro's breakout came in 2002 with the release of "Whale Rider," a film about a Maori girl who has to stand up against the men in her tribe to show she can be as much of a leader as the boys. The film garnered an Academy Award nomination for the young New Zealand actress Keisha Castle-Hughes.

Her next film, "North Country," starred Charlize Theron, who was nominated for best actress at the Oscars. She directed two other films, "A Heavenly Vintage" and "McFarland, USA," before helming "The Zookeeper's Wife" with Jessica Chastain in the lead role.

In 2017, Caro was hired by Disney to direct its live-action adapation of "Mulan," which was released in 2020 during the pandemic on Disney+ premiere access. She is the second woman to direct a film with a budget of more than $100 million.

Caro is set to direct that Amazon TV series "Daisy Jones & the Six," which is based on the novel by Taylor Jenkins Reid and produced by Reese Witherspoon.

Director Niki Caro attends the Premiere Of Disney's "Mulan" on March 09, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.
Frazer Harrison | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

Marielle Heller

Fans of Netflix's "The Queen's Gambit" my recognize Marielle Heller as Alma Wheatley, the lonely housewife who adopts Beth Harmon in the TV series about a chess prodigy. She's also an accomplished filmmaker.

Her debut film, "The Diary of a Teenage Girl," earned critical acclaim at Sundance in 2015 and went on to win the prize for best first feature at the Independent Spirit Awards.

Heller next directed "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" a film about Lee Israel, an American author known for committing forgery. Israel was played by Melissa McCarthy. She and her co-star Richard E. Grant were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances and the film also earned a best adapted screenplay nod.

A year later, "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" was released with Tom Hanks playing the role of Fred Rogers, the host of the children's program "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." Hanks received an Oscar nomination.

Director Marielle Heller attending the A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood UK Premiere as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2019 held at the Odeon Luxe Leicester Square, London.
Ian West - PA Images | PA Images | Getty Images

Kasi Lemmons

Kasi Lemmons spent the first few decades of her career in Hollywood as an actress before transitioning into a filmmaker. Fans of "Silence of the Lambs" may remember Lemmons as Ardelia Mapp, the best friend and roommate of Clarice Starling.

In 1997, Lemmons directed "Eve's Bayou" starring Samuel L. Jackson. The film garnered her an Independent Spirit Award for best first feature.

Since then, she's directed a number of high-profile features including "The Caveman's Valentine," "Talk to Me," and an adaptation of the Broadway musical "Black Nativity."

Her 2019 film "Harriet," a biographical film about Harriet Tubman, earned star Cynthia Erivo, an Academy Award nomination.

Film director and actress Kasi Lemmons attends the 28th Philadelphia Film Festival Screening of "Harriet" at Philadelphia Film Center on October 23, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Gilbert Carrasquillo | Getty Images

Sofia Coppola

Sofia Coppola, the youngest child of filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, has made a name for herself in the film industry.

Her first feature film was 1999's "The Virgin Suicides," an adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides book. She followed that up with "Lost in Translation" in 2003, which starred Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.

The film was nominated for four Academy Awards including best picture, best director and best original screenplay. At that time, Coppola became the third woman to be nominated for best director and the second to win best original screenplay.

She also directed "Marie Antoinette," "Somewhere," "The Bling Ring" and "The Beguiled." Her most recent feature was the 2020 film "On the Rocks," starring Rashida Jones and Bill Murray.

Sofia Coppola attends the photocall of the Chanel Metiers d'art 2019-2020 show at Le Grand Palais on December 04, 2019 in Paris, France.
Stephane Cardinale | Corbis Entertainment | Getty Images