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Top 9 Female Directors from the Golden State

Top 9 Female Directors from the Golden State

While credit hasn’t always been given where it's due, movies directed by women have and continue to make waves and influence the masses.


5 min read

January 26, 2024

Female directors in California have been making films since the conception of cinema. While credit hasn’t always been given where it's due, movies directed by women have and continue to make waves, as well as influence the masses immensely. Supporting female directors isn’t a trend and shouldn’t be one. On the contrary, it’s a step towards demonopolizing an industry that has been far too cornered by one demographic to flourish. 

From the days of silent films to the Golden Age of Hollywood and to this day, the industry hasn’t fully recognized the skill and talent of these filmmakers who just so happen to be women—but not for long. Accolades and awards can only mean so much in the face of genuine support from fans who buy tickets, attend, and love film for what it is; without the ifs or buts. Without further ado, here are the trailblazers of the movie industry who continue to inspire the world.

The Best Female Directors in California History

1. Kathryn Bigelow

San Carlos-native Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director for The Hurt Locker. Bigelow has also received the BAFTA Award for Best Direction, the Critics' Choice Movie Award for Best Director, and the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing—all for the same movie.

Bigelow has solidified her status as one of the best female directors in the business (and ever) over and over again. If you’re not familiar with her work yet, it’s time you go to the nearest drive-in theater to get acquainted.

2. Dorothy Arzner

Dorothy Arzner is a name in film everyone should know. As one of the most famous women in the state’s history, Arzner garnered a lot of firsts under her belt. Not only was she the first woman to direct a sound film, but she was also the first female director in the Directors Guild of America. Additionally, Arzner was one of the very few women directors able to establish a successful and long career in Hollywood. Among her many accomplishments is being the only female filmmaker to be directing features until the 1940s. Arzner is credited to have launched the careers of many iconic actresses such as Katherine Hepburn and Lucille Ball.

3. Lois Weber

Before Dorothy Arzner made film history in the 20th century, there was Lois Weber taking unprecedented leaps a few decades prior. Along with D.W. Griffith, Weber is considered to be one of the first true auteurs of America. Yet, even though her work rivals Griffith’s in both quality and quantity, she doesn’t get as much credit.

Weber was one of the first directors to experiment with sound. She was also the first female to direct a full feature-length film and the pioneer of the split-screen technique. Sadly, only 20 films have been preserved from her works. However, Weber’s legacy as one of the best female directors lives on.

Lois Weber is identified in some historical references as "the most important female director the American film industry has known."

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4. Greta Gerwig

Greta Gerwig first arrived on the scene as an actor. She’s an inspiring female director with three Oscar-nominated features, including the cultural phoenomenom Barbie from 2023. Gerwig has not only nailed the seventh (yes, seventh) adaptation of the iconic Little Women, but she’s also the mastermind behind the delightfully personal coming-of-age dramedy Lady Bird, which is inspired by her own life in Sacramento. Gerwig has knocked it out the park with each film so far, setting her up to be one of Hollywood's biggest star directors.

Gerwig has had two solo directorial ventures, Lady Bird and Little Women, both of which earned nominations for the Academy Award for Best Picture.

5. Ava DuVernay

A film publicist turned record-breaking director, Ava DuVernay is a household name and rightfully so. The female director broke out with Oscar-nominated Selma and has since gone on to direct more films, TV, and documentaries, paving the way for more women filmmakers and directors of color. At this point, DuVernay is more than just a filmmaker (albeit an amazing one); she is a cultural influencer breaking barriers and making strides for marginalized communities everywhere—and she does that not just as a POC female director, but also with the stories she chooses to tell. 

In 2017, director Ava DuVernay was included on the annual Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world.

6. Marielle Heller

Heller’s debut feature The Diary of a Teenage Girl premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was welcomed with awards, fans, and rave reviews. This female director’s love for movies shines in the deeply revealing performances she draws out of her cast by painting their characters on screen in a uniquely humanizing manner. To name a few, think Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Tom Hanks in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.

If you think Heller looks familiar but not exactly sure where you’ve seen her, you’ve probably binge-watched the fan-favorite the Queen’s Gambit—she plays Alma Wheatley, Beth Harmon’s adoptive mom. 

Marielle Heller is best known for directing the films The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.

7. Lulu Wang

Lulu Wang has written, produced, and directed several short films, documentaries, and music videos—you've likely seen many of them. But two feature films in particular stand out in her rich portfolio: Posthumous and The Farewell. The latter caught the attention of critics, audiences, and award voters alike, which took the amazing female director to the Academy Awards Stage. Wang is currently working on the English language adaptation of the acclaimed Japanese drama Like Father, Like Son by Hirokazu Kore-eda.

For The Farewell, Lulu Wang received the Independent Spirit Award for Best Film, and the film was named one of the top ten films of 2019.

8. Patty Jenkins

After writing and directing Monster—starring Charlize Theron who won an Oscar for the film—Jenkins could’ve used the buzz and her celebrity status to turn her film career into anything. Instead, she made us wait for more than a decade before putting out another feature-length film. But for all those concerned, the wait was definitely worthwhile. Jenkins came back in a big way with Wonder Woman and smashed the glass ceiling. The movie broke records at the time for the biggest film opening of all time for a woman director, as well as the biggest single-day gross earnings from a female director.

In December 2020, a third installment of the Wonder Woman franchise was announced to be in the works. Jenkins will be writing and directing again.

9. Gia Coppola

While Sofia Coppola carries out her dad’s legacy directing amazing films on the East Coast, her niece—Francis Ford Coppola’s granddaughter—Gia is just as impressive on the West Coast. The female director lived in both Los Angeles and Napa on the Coppola family vineyard and spent a lot of time on set with her aunt Sofia growing up.

Coppola's film career began when she directed a short film for her friend's fashion label. It didn't take her long to get hired to make short films.

Besides acclaimed feature films like Palo Alto and Mainstream, Gia Coppola has also directed fashion films and music videos. She has also done TV work, all of which, in true Coppola fashion, is pretty darn amazing.

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