One of the pioneering directors of motion pictures was Frenchwoman Alice Guy. She directed early films for the trailblazing French film maker Gaumont before she and her husband came to the U.S. and started their own movie company. Changes in the industry eventually put her company and other independents out of business. She returned to France but was unable to find film work. Guy’s accomplishments wouldn’t be recognized until much later in the 20th century.
Hers is the story of female movie directors in microcosm — visionary women frustrated by a male-dominated industry, whose accomplishments were overlooked or credited to men.
Change has been glacial in the movie industry, but in recent years, more women have been getting the chance to prove themselves behind the camera — and being recognized for their talent. The fruits of their work are manifesting themselves increasingly in profitable motion pictures.
To determine the highest-grossing films directed by women, 24/7 Tempo reviewed films with female directors made between 1990 and 2019. Films are ranked by world box office gross with data from The Numbers, an online movie database owned by Nash Information Services. Information on casts came from IMDb, an online movie database owned by Amazon. Tomatometer scores are from Rotten Tomatoes, an online movie and TV review aggregator, and are current as of November 2021. We excluded films directed by women in collaboration with a male director.
Rom-coms such as “What Women Want” and “Sleepless in Seattle” — directed by Nancy Meyers and Nora Ephron, respectively — are on the list. (Between them, the two have 11 films ranked here.) Nail-biters such as “Zero Dark Thirty” and the horror remake “Carrie,” both directed by women, found favor among audiences — as did historically based movies such as “Unbroken” and “The Iron Lady.”
Patty Jenkins became the first female director of a superhero film by helming the mega-hit “Wonder Woman,” which is among the 100 top-grossing movies of all time. Comedians who went behind the camera to make box-office magic include Penny Marshall and Betty Thomas, each with two entries on the list. (Click here for the complete list of the 100 top-grossing movies of all time.)
Sofia Coppola, Jodie Foster, and Angelina Jolie are actors whose directorial efforts produced profitable and critically acclaimed movies. Coppola was the first American woman to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar, and one of only seven nominated for the award in Oscar history. The first woman to win the award was Kathryn Bigelow, who took home the golden statue for “The Hurt Locker” in 2010. Chloe Zhao won in 2020 for “Nomadland” to become the first woman of color to win the Best Director Oscar. (See who won the Oscar for Best Director every year since the Oscars began.)