"Congratulations to those men – I guess?", said Issa Rae, as she announced the nominees for the Best Director category at the 2020 Oscars. The shortlist followed awards such as the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs in omitting female directors from recognition. In a year of particularly strong female-helmed films, the men-only list caused widespread fury.
As the Guardian’s Ellen E. Jones commented, ‘Is it too much to ask that the Oscars acknowledge not just one female story every few years, but a multiplicity, every year?’ The 2021 shortlist marked a long-overdue change, with Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell both in the running – and Zhao making history by taking home the statuette.
So, why, historically, have women filmmakers been overlooked in the Best Director category, and who are both the rising stars and the industry greats whose movies you should be seeing?
Who Was the First Woman To Direct a Movie?
Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979) started out as a scriptwriter and film editor on almost 50 films, then moved into directing from 1926-1943.
Her body of work includes Clara Bow’s first talkie, The Wild Party, on which Arzner also invented the boom microphone.
Plus, her accomplishments included being the first woman to become a member of the Directors Guild of America.
Photo Credit: https://lwlies.com/
The Oscars and Women Directors
Only seven female film directors have ever been nominated for the Best Director Oscar:
- Lina Wertmuller for Seven Beauties in 1976
- Jane Campion for 1993’s The Piano; Sofia Coppola in 2003 for Lost in Translation
- Kathryn Bigelow – the first female director to win an Oscar – for 2009’s The Hurt Locker
- Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird in 2017, and Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman)
- Chloé Zhao (Nomadland) in 2021
The latter made history on two fronts, being only the second woman to win the award, and the first woman of colour.
The Annenberg Foundation, which studies representation and inclusivity in the entertainment industry, found that across 13 years, the Golden Globe Awards, Directors Guild of America, Academy Awards and Critics’ Choice Awards has, out of a total of 273 directing nominations, awarded only 5.1% of them to female directors.
Why Are Women Being Excluded From the Best Director Shortlists?
Time magazine has identified a number of structural reasons why women directors might not be gaining nominations at the Oscars – not least that ‘the Academy doesn’t choose the Best Director nominees. The directors’ branch does.’ And the rules for joining this particular branch are structured in a way that might limit women’s ability to enter. Members must have at least two directorial credits, at least one of which had to premiere in theatres in the last 10 years. Women, however, receive far fewer opportunities to direct a second film than men do.
According to the in-depth look at the industry by the Annenberg Foundation, women directed 5% of the top 1,300 films from 2007 to 2019. Of those female directors, only 17.4% directed another film beyond their debut feature (13% directed a second, 2.2% a third, and 2.2% a fourth). By contrast 45.7% of men who made a top film in the last decade directed more.
This lack of opportunity is most clear with regard to big budget blockbusters. Penny Marshall was the first woman to direct a movie that made more than $100 million with Big in 1988 (it actually grossed over $150 million). But it took director Patty Jenkins the better part of a decade and a half to get Wonder Woman to the big screen after her critical success with her debut Monster – studios just weren’t receptive to a female superhero film. Whereas Gareth Edwards, Marc Webb and Colin Treverrow – all of whom had made one indie film each – were given the reins to massive franchises for their second outings (Godzilla, Spider-Man and Jurassic World, respectively.)
Jenkins did, however, direct sequel Wonder Woman 1984, released in 2020. Other female directors of notable box-office successes haven’t been so fortunate – both Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight) and Sam Taylor-Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey) were replaced by men for the franchises’ second instalments.
Director Mimi Leder (On the Basis of Sex, Deep Impact) accuses the industry of double standards – noting that a female director is more likely to land in ‘movie jail’ if they make any mistakes. After her film Pay it Forward was a critical and commercial flop, two years after Deep Impact had been a huge hit (grossing over $350 million at the box office), she revealed to The Ringer that, ‘the experience of going to Movie Jail was deafening and painful. I didn’t get a movie until seven years later. I was offered lousy movies, but the point is, I know men who have made $250 million failures and they get three more films.’
Her take? ‘Maybe it’s as simple as, “Hey, you look like me! You’re a white guy, you wear a baseball hat, come on in. Come join the club.” I think there’s a safety [to that]. It’s insanity, but it still exists. Look at the numbers, still… It’s certainly not because we [women] are less talented, or don’t have the ability to make big films, small films - all sizes. It’s obviously not true that we don’t work as hard.’
How Can the Industry Improve?
Some of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s strategic suggestions to foster systemic change in favour of both women and people of colour are:
- Setting target inclusion goals
- Inclusion riders
- Shareholder activism
- Transparent interviewing/hiring practises
- Supporting non-profit organisations training new filmmakers
According to Celluloid Ceiling’s study, released in January 2021, women made up 18% of the filmmakers calling the shots behind the top 250 domestic (US) feature films (up from 13% in 2019). If you’re just looking at the top 100 films, then women filmmakers comprised 16%, up from 12% in 2019.
Who is giving female filmmakers more prominence? Netflix. The Annenberg Foundation’s Dr Stacy L. Smith revealed that, ‘In contrast to our findings on top-grossing films, 20.7% of Netflix directors of US-based films in 2019 were women. The legacy studios may want to take a note out of the streaming giant’s playbook on how to hire more inclusively behind the camera.’
One of the streamer’s biggest recent hits was The Old Guard, starring Charlize Theron, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood:
The Best Female Directors
There are, however, still reasons to feel positive about the inclusion and recognition of women in film. Goteborg Film Festival succeeded in its 50/50 Vision initiative of featuring an equal number of films directed by women and men at the 2020 festival.
Plus, the 2021 Oscars nominees for Best Director included two women directors: Chloé Zhao, for Nomadland and Emerald Fennell, for Promising Young Woman, righting what many felt was a wrong with the all-male line-up from 2020, when Greta Gerwig was overlooked for Little Women.
Here’s our pick of the female directors who should feature on future awards lists.
1. Chloé Zhao
Chinese-born filmmaker Chloé Zhao become only the second woman to win the Best Director awards at the Academy Awards, the BAFTAs, Directors Guild of America Awards and the Golden Globe Awards (after Kathryn Bigelow) in 2020 with Nomadland.
Zhao’s debut feature film was Songs My Brothers Taught Me in 2015, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to much critical acclaim. She received nominations for the Independent Spirit Award for both Best Film and Best Director for her follow up, The Rider, in 2017.
The Oscar-winner, along with Cathy Yan, has definitely bucked the trend of women not being offered huge blockbusters off the back of indie success. In 2018, Marvel Studios hired her to direct Eternals, which follows the events of Avengers: Endgame and features a new team of superheroes. Released in November 2021, it made just shy of $162 million on its opening weekend, going straight to No. 1 at the box office, and this year, she’s appeared on Time magazine’s Time 100, its annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
It’s reported that Zhao now has her eye on Dracula – and wants to turn the story into a sci-fi western, tapping into the director’s fascination with characters who ‘live on society’s fringes’. Zhao has a singular vision, so it’ll be fascinating to see what she does with such familiar source material.
2. Lulu Wang
Writer-director Lulu Wang took inspiration from her own life in telling the story of Chinese American Billi, whose family decide not to tell her grandmother that she’s dying, in The Farewell. A hastily pulled-together wedding provides a cover story to bring the family together to say farewell to ‘Nai Nai’.
The film is heartfelt and joyful in equal measure, with the Guardian’s Wendy Ide praising Wang for being ‘as gifted a writer as she is at creating playful, visually layered frames, [she] is constantly juggling clashes – of cultures, of tragedy and joy... Ultimately, it’s all about balance, a yin and yang of roots and identities, humour and pathos that comes together into a satisfying, bittersweet wedding banquet of a movie.’
Awkwafina’s performance as Billi made history when she became the first Asian-American woman to win a leading actress award at the Golden Globes.
Remaining with subject matter that ‘centres on questions of family’, Wang’s next project is a film adaptation of Alexander Weinstein’s collection of short stories, Children of the New World.
3. Céline Sciamma
In a recent Guardian profile, Xan Brooks posited that French director Céline Sciamma ‘makes small films about stolen moments, secret selves, and outsiders who have crafted a vital life in the shadows’. Portrait of a Lady on Fire was a hit at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Best Screenplay award, and was shortlisted for the Palme d’Or; Sciamma also took home the Queer Palm award for the festival’s best LGBTQ-related film – the first woman to receive it.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is set in late 18th century France and features an aristocrat and an artist falling in love. The ‘smart and sensuous film’ was hailed by the New York Times as, ‘less a chronicle of forbidden desire than an examination of how desire works. Like a lost work of 18th-century literature, it is at once ardent and rigorous, passionate and philosophical.’
Sciamma focuses mainly on female characters – from arthouse hits Water Lilies and Tomboy to the cult hit Girlhood. And despite the critical acclaim and commercial success of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, her latest film, Petite Maman, is, true to her signature style, ‘a gorgeous miniature, a fairytale of sorts’.
With compatriots Julia Ducournau and Audrey Diwan winning the Palme d’Or and the top prize at Venice respectively, and Sciamma picking up the audience award at the San Sebastian film festival, the director thinks that things are finally changing. She told the Guardian, ‘French female film-makers are becoming more of a presence, because they are becoming more global, with more international funding and recognition.’
4. Cathy Yan
It’s fair to say that Chinese-American director Cathy Yan’s first film, Dead Pigs, is… kind of a hard sell. Taking five years to make, and inspired by an odd story about thousands of dead pigs floating down China’s Huangpu River, it’s a Chinese-language drama inspired by Magnolia, about the interconnected lives of a waiter, a beauty salon owner, an American architect, a pig farmer and a bored rich girl. Plus, it’s got a replica of the Eiffel Tower in the Chinese countryside, and musical numbers. It’s a wild ride.
Having studied business and film at NYU, Yan then turned to video journalism, making films in her free time before applying to film school aged 27. While Dead Pigs was a hit on the festival circuit, it’s the huge studio hit Birds of Prey that you’ll probably be more familiar with, as a showcase for Yan’s directorial skills. Starring Suicide Squad’s Harley Quinn, Yan told the NME about her approach: ‘I did not just want to make a superhero movie, I was interested in making a movie about female rage in a way to hit back at the patriarchy, ironically, within a patriarchal system.’
And when it comes to that system, Yan is forthright on the need for further progress. ‘The change has to be much more institutionalised. It can’t just be a bunch of dudes patting themselves on the back because they hired a woman. There has to be women at all levers of power who can enact real change.’
What’s next? Well, Yan has directed an episode of the all-consuming TV hit Succession (season 3’s ‘The Disruption’) and is writing and directing an adaptation of a bestselling story collection, Sour Heart, for indie studio A24.
5. Regina King
Regina King has been working in the industry for over 35 years. As an actor, she’s appeared in everything from Boyz n the Hood to If Beale Street Could Talk, and from sitcoms to animations, cult films and long-running series such as 24 and Southland. Plus, most fans agreed that she was the best thing in the superlative TV adaptation of Watchmen, and she was a kick-ass heroine in the recent Black Western The Harder They Fall. In the past five years, King’s won an Oscar (Best Supporting Actress for If Beale Street Could Talk) and four Emmys, the most recent for Watchmen.
Having cut her teeth directing TV including episodes of Insecure, This is Us, Southland and Scandal, plus a documentary and a TV movie, King made her movie directing debut with One Night in Miami. The first film directed by an African American woman to screen at the Venice Film Festival was inspired by a real-life encounter between four African American legends: Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown in 1964.
The film’s rich, lush colour palette was inspired by Wong Kar-Wei’s In the Mood for Love and the paintings of Jacob Lawrence. Ellen E. Jones’s five-star review in Empire, lauded both the film and its director. ‘This feels like history-in-the-making, as both a fresh insight into the interior lives of historical figures and a snapshot of a future filmmaking great just getting started.’
As for the differences King is making in the industry, she vowed that 50% of her team would be women on future projects when she accepted her Golden Globe for Beale Street in 2019.
Watch Regina King discussing her career, for a fascinating deep dive into her work and her process:
6. Greta Gerwig
Greta Gerwig was originally an indie darling, writing and acting in films such as Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends. She then co-wrote and starred in Frances Ha (2013) and Mistress America (2015). Her big breakthrough, though, was 2017’s Lady Bird, which earned a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, and five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Director – she was the fifth woman in Oscar history to have been nominated for Best Director.
Loved and lauded by both critics and audiences, Gerwig’s most recent film, a gorgeous adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, Little Women, expertly explored themes of gender, ambition and class – whilst still making you sob your heart out.
Shortlisted for both Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture at the 2020 Oscars, (with additional nominations for Costume Design, Original Score and Best Actress/Supporting Actress for Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh), Gerwig’s omission from the best director shortlist was all the more extraordinary. As the Guardian remarked, ‘after decades of being mischaracterised as a cosy tale about sweet-natured sisters and their domestic trifles, Alcott’s sardonically-titled Little Women finally has a faithful adaptation. Under Greta Gerwig’s passionate direction, it rages righteously about the patriarchy’s narrow definition of artistic merit… and how it works to crush female creativity. How apt.’
iNews put it more bluntly: ‘Perhaps the worst part [of Gerwig’s omission] is that the film is literally about the refusal to take stories about and told by women seriously.’
It was reported in July this year that Gerwig’s next co-writing and directing project is a live-action Barbie film for Warner Bros, starring Margot Robbie, due for release in 2023. She’s also starring in the upcoming White Noise, alongside her Frances Ha co-star Adam Driver.
Lorene Scafaria is an absolute tour-de-force - covering not only directing and screenwriting, she’s also a playwright, actress, singer, musician and songwriter. By the age of 17, she’d written and staged her first play, and after moving to LA was commissioned by Focus Features to adapt Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist into a film – taking inspiration from Before Sunrise for its structure.
Scafaria also wrote the script for Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012), which became her directorial debut, followed by The Meddler in 2015. However, it was Hustlers in 2019 that really put her on the map as a director.
With a tour-de-force performance by Jennifer Lopez as exotic dancer/con artist Ramona, and based on an article in New York magazine, Hustlers is a brilliantly entertaining look at friendship, revenge and female power, pitched by Empire magazine as ‘a con movie with all the slickness of a Steven Soderbergh thriller.’ And as to what makes this female-centred Robin Hood tale a standout, Empire’s view was that, ‘in giving her heist movie a heart without sacrificing the high-tension tropes of the genre, Scafaria chooses to celebrate what makes women different over dwelling on what holds them back.’
Most recently, Scafaria, a devoted TV fan, has helmed the infamous ‘Kendall’s 40th Birthday Party’ seventh episode of HBO’s Succession season three.
8. Mati Diop
French/Senegalese actress and filmmaker Mati Diop studied at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, where, as a part of the institute’s Film Study Centre Fellowship Programme, she wrote the script for her first feature film, Fire, Next Time – the title of which she later changed to Atlantics, her directorial debut.
Spearheading the charge for black female filmmakers, Diop became the first black female director to be in contention for the Palme D’Or, and Atlantics won the Grand Prix.
The film focuses on the Senegalese women left behind when their men leave the country for Spain in search of work. Diop worked with non-professional actors who grew up in Dakar and helped to translate their own lines.
Atlantics’ Netflix release connected with a global audience, with audiences thrilled to see themselves represented – Diop noted that, ‘I got a lot of enthusiastic messages on the social networks, especially from the Senegalese diaspora who were so happy to see a film in Wolof [the predominant native language of Senegal] which resembled them, on the platform. It created a sort of event.’
9. Marielle Heller
Another multi-hyphenate, you might have seen Marielle Heller acting in The Queen’s Gambit, as Beth’s adoptive, alcoholic, mother, Alma (she studied theatre at UCLA and then at RADA) – plus, she’s also a screenwriter as well as a director.
Heller both wrote and directed her debut film, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, based on a graphic novel, which received critical acclaim at Sundance and was named best first feature at the Independent Spirit Awards.
Her follow-up, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, about literary forger and writer Lee Israel, cast Melissa McCarthy against type and Richard E. Grant as her fellow grifter and friend. Both were nominated for Oscars – for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor respectively.
Marielle and Richard E. Grant discuss misfits, platonic love stories and what it was like working on a female set in this Hollywood Reporter interview:
Heller’s most recent film was the emotional A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, starring Tom Hanks as iconic children’s TV presenter Fred Rogers – another in Heller’s series of, as the Independent said, ‘smart, empathetic portraits of humanity.’
10. Jane Campion
The first female filmmaker to win the Palme d’Or, Jane Campion was also the second woman ever nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director, for The Piano in 1993. Hailing from New Zealand, she grew up in the world of the theatre, when her parents founded the New Zealand Players. She studied at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, where she made several short films; her first short, Peel, won the Short Film Palme d’Or in 1986.
Her feature debut, Sweetie, won awards internationally, and her breakthrough came with a biopic of New Zealand writer Janet Frame, An Angel at My Table (1990). Since the global success of The Piano in 1993, Campion’s eclectic career has covered everything from a Henry James adaptation (The Portrait of a Lady) to an erotic thriller (In the Cut), a biographical drama about poet John Keats (Bright Star) to TV mini-series, Top of the Lake, starring Elizabeth Moss. The latter saw Campion nominated for a Primetime Emmy award for Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries.
Premiering at the 78th Venice International Film Festival, where Campion was awarded the Silver Lion for Best Direction, her first film in twelve years is an adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel, The Power of the Dog. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee, the sexually-charged Western set in 1920s Montana is already leading the charge at the Golden Globes, with seven nominations (including one for Jonny Greenwood’s score); Campion is in the frame for Best Director. It’s a pretty radical departure for a director whose previous films, as the Guardian noted, ‘have [almost] exclusively explored female experience, desire and self-expression’. Not that the Guardian mind – lead film critic Peter Bradshaw just named The Power of the Dog the best film of 2021.
In an interview with Sean O’Hagan, Campion revealed that, ‘the #MeToo movement probably had some bearing on my decision. ‘It was such a powerful force that I think it opened up a whole different space to explore this kind of subject matter. It was like those women, young women mostly, had peeled away so many layers of the onion as regards masculinity, that it created a space for old warriors like myself to explore a very male story like this one.’
Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves
As we’ve shown, there are a host of women who are bringing their singular vision to the big screen.
Want more inspiration? Check out our kick-ass women playlist for a selection of brilliant tracks by female artists.
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