An illustration of female directors.

7 Groundbreaking Female Directors To Look Out For

Although award shows still have a long way to go in recognizing women within the film industry, here are seven whose careers are currently opening the door for the next generation.
May 2, 2021
12 mins read

The Academy Awards do not have a great track record of recognizing female directors. Before 2021, only one female director — Kathryn Bigelow — had won the award for best director, for her film “The Hurt Locker” in 2009. The other 72 awards for best director had all gone to men. Otherwise, only five other female directors had ever been nominated for best director — Lina Wertmüller for her film “Seven Beauties,Jane Campion for “The Piano,” Sofia Coppola for “Lost in Translation” and Greta Gerwig for “Lady Bird.” This is not for lack of talent or skill, but — as many argue — institutional biases that lead to female directors having a harder time getting funds and encouragement for their projects.

Dr. Martha Lauzen, an executive director for the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, releases a report on female representation in TV and film each year titled The Celluloid Ceiling. The report for 2020 found that, though the percentage of female directors had risen from years prior, women still made up only 18% of directors working on the top 250 grossing features, while only 9% of films employed 10 or more women in behind-the-scenes roles. 71% employed 10 or more men.

2021 has brought a much-appreciated change to the Academy’s usual trend of ignoring the work of female directors and filmmakers. This year’s Academy Awards marks the first time that two female filmmakers have been nominated for best director  — Chloé Zhao for her film “Nomadland” and Emerald Fennell for “Promising Young Woman.” 

Hopefully, this trend will continue, encouraging new female voices in the film industry and ushering in a new wave of female directors. For 2021, here are seven female directors to look out for who are opening the door a little wider for that next generation.

1. Chloé Zhao

Chloé Zhao has made history as the first Asian American female director to win the Academy Award for best director, and the Golden Globe for best director with her film “Nomadland.” “Nomadland” stars Francis McDormand and details a woman’s life as a modern-day nomad in the American West after losing everything in the Great Recession. Along with earning Zhao two best director awards, it earned her five other Academy Award nominations and a host of awards at the Independent Spirit Awards.

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Zhao began her filmmaking career in 2015 with her feature debut, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” which premiered at Sundance and earned a nomination for best first feature at the Independent Spirit Awards.

She has improved with each of her subsequent films. Her second feature, “The Rider,” won the Art Cinema Award in 2017, the top prize at Director’s Fortnight at Cannes Film Festival. It also earned Zhao a nomination for best picture at the Independent Spirit Awards and, in 2018, Barack Obama listed it as one of his top 10 favorite films of the year. Obama also listed “Nomadland” among his top 10 favorite films of 2021.

Zhao has been commissioned to direct the Disney film “Eternals,” set to be released Nov. 5.

2. Emerald Fennell

Emerald Fennell is the first British woman to be nominated for best director at the Academy Awards for her directorial debut, “Promising Young Woman.” The film also won the award for best original screenplay. It earned five nominations at the Academy Awards, four nominations at the Golden Globes and won best original screenplay at the British Academy Film Awards, the Critics’ Choice Awards and the Writers Guild of America Awards. Impressively, Fennell was seven months pregnant during the shoot for “Promising Young Woman,” which she credits as benefiting the project overall.

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“When you’re carting around a massive baby and you’re about to give birth, you don’t have the time to be anxious,” she told People. “I was like a literal ticking time bomb, which I think gave me this weird power for myself.”

Fennell began her career as an actor in films such as “Albert Nobbs,” “Anna Karenina,” “The Danish Girl” and “Vita and Virginia,” as well as the shows “Call the Midwife and “The Crown.” She began her writing career with the film “Chukka” in 2008, and published her first novel in 2013 — the children’s fantasy book, “Shiverton Hall.” The sequel, “The Creeper,” published in 2014, was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize in 2014. She published her third novel, “Monsters, in 2015 — an adult horror book.

In 2019 she won a Primetime Emmy Award for outstanding writer for a drama series for the episode “Nice and Neat” of “Killing Eve,” a show for which she was head writer.

Fennell is now working with Andrew Lloyd Webber on the musical “Cinderella,” set to open in London in May 2021, and has been commissioned by Warner Bros. to write the DC Extended Universe film “Zatanna.”

3. Regina King

Before becoming a screenwriter, Regina King had already established herself in the film world as a talented actor. For her role in the TV series “American Crime,” she won two Primetime Emmy Awards. She won a third award for her role in the Netflix series “Seven Seconds,” and her work in the 2019 superhero TV series “The Watchmen won her a fourth — tying King with Alfre Woodard for the most Emmy awards won by any Black performer.

Her role in the 2018 film “If Beale Street Could Talk” won her an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for best supporting actress. She has directed episodes for TV shows such as “Scandal,” “This Is Us” and “Shameless.

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Her directorial debut, “One Night in Miami” in 2020, earned her a Golden Globe nomination for best director, making her the second Black woman to receive this nomination, after Ava DuVernay. The film also had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in 2020, making it the first film directed by an African American woman to have been selected.

4. Greta Gerwig

Greta Gerwig worked in the TV and film industry for two decades before beginning her solo directing career. She first became known for her work on and acting in several mumblecore films such as “Hannah Take the Stairs” and “Nights and Weekends.” She collaborated with her partner Noah Baumbach, known for his 2019 film “Marriage Story,” on the films “Greenberg,” “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America.” For her work in “Frances Ha,” she earned a Golden Globe nomination.

Her directorial debut, “Lady Bird” in 2017, earned Gerwig five Academy Award nominations and won best motion picture at the Golden Globes, as well as best actress for Saoirse Ronan. It was chosen by the American Film Institute, the National Board of Review and Time as one of the 10 best films of the year.

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Her second feature film in 2019, “Little Women,” was a critical and commercial success, earning six Academy Award nominations, five British Academy Film nominations and two Golden Globe nominations.

Currently, she is working on a live-action Barbie film with Baumbach starring Margot Robbie.

5. Patty Jenkins

Patty Jenkins worked as a cameraperson at a commercial production company for almost a decade before deciding to attend the American Film Institute to learn directing. Soon after graduating, her directorial debut, “Monster,” in 2003, became a critical and commercial success. Starring Charlize Theron, “Monster” is a biographical crime drama based on the life of serial killer Aileen Wuornos. It earned Jenkins the Independent Spirit Award for best first feature and was named one of the 10 best films of the year by the American Film Institute.

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After “Monster,” Jenkins worked in television for another decade before directing the 2017 DC Extended Universe film “Wonder Woman.” “Wonder Woman” became one of the highest-grossing films ever directed by a woman. It won a Hugo Award for best dramatic presentation and was named one of the top 10 films of the year by the American Film Institute. Jenkins went on to direct the sequel, “Wonder Woman 1984,” released in 2020, and is currently set to direct the third film in the franchise.

Jenkins has also been commissioned by Disney to direct the “Star Wars” film “Rogue Squadron,” set to be released in 2023. It will be the first time a woman has directed a “Star Wars” film.

6. Michaela Coel

Michaela Coel began her creative career performing poetry at open mics in Ealing, London. She was successful in performance poetry, performing at places such as Wembley Arena, Bush Theatre and De Doelen. She was encouraged to apply to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama by playwright Che Walker and was accepted. Her senior graduation play, “Chewing Gum Dreams,” was the basis for her 2015 sitcom, “Chewing Gum,” which she wrote and directed, and which won her a BAFTA breakthrough talent award and a British Academy Television Award for best female comedy performance. In 2020, Coel created, wrote, produced, co-directed and starred in the comedy-drama series “I May Destroy You.” The show, inspired by Coel’s own experience of sexual assault, earned widespread critical acclaim. It was named as one of the 10 best shows of the year by Metacritic, being featured as No. 1 on more than 30 other year-end lists. Coel was ranked No. 4 for the impact of “I May Destroy You” in the annual Powerlist of the most influential people of African or African Caribbean heritage in the United Kingdom.

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Coel rejected an offer from Netflix for $1 million after they refused to allow her full rights ownership over the show, siding with BBC instead.

7. Lulu Wang

Lulu Wang was inspired to become a filmmaker in college after watching Steven Shainberg’s film “Secretary” during her senior year at Boston College. After producing a few short films and documentaries, Wang moved to Los Angeles to pursue filmmaking. She met fellow collaborator Bernadette Bürgi while interning for a producer, and the two decided to create their own production company called Flying Box Productions.

After directing multiple music videos and web shorts, Wang directed her first feature film, “Posthumous, released in 2014, and was awarded the Chaz and Roger Ebert directing fellowship that same year. Her second feature film, “The Farewell,” was based on Wang’s experience with her grandmother’s illness, which her family kept a secret from her grandmother, choosing to throw a wedding as a pretense to bring them all together instead.

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When Wang was pitching the film to American Financers, it was suggested multiple times that she include a prominent white character in her primarily Asian cast. Wang declined, refusing to whitewash her personal film. It went on to become one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year, surpassing “Avengers: Endgame for its box office average and becoming one of the 10 recipients of the American Film Institute’s award for films “deemed culturally and artistically representative of this year’s most significant achievements in the art of the moving image.”

Wang is currently working on a film adaptation of Alexander Weinstein’s collection of science fiction short stories, “Children of the New World.

Isabelle Juan, Truman State University

Writer Profile

Isabelle Juan

Truman State University

My name is Isabelle Juan. I’m a sophomore at Truman State University majoring in English. I am most interested in writing about topics concerning the environment, music, literature, movies and nutrition.

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