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

  • 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 KingGetty Images

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.

Oscars 2021 coverage from CNBC

Read more about this year's Academy Awards:

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.

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