International Women’s Day: record-breaking women in film, from first female Best Director to highest paid star

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Record breaking women in film from first Black female Oscar winner to the highest paid movie star

Women have been intrinsically involved in films and filmmaking since the art form’s earliest days in the late 19th Century. Helen Gardner became the first film actor to form her own production company in 1912, and in the more than 100 years since women have continued to be pioneers in the industry.

Even in recent, more glass ceilings have been broken, we’ve seen the first back to back female Best Director winners, the first major superhero film helmed by a woman, and this year’s Oscars ceremony could see Michelle Yeoh become the first Asian woman to win the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role.

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Evidently, there is more work to be done, as women continue to earn less than their male co-stars on average, and women of colour are often overlooked at major awards shows - every single one of the 49 Bafta 2023 winners were white. But each year new records are broken and more ‘firsts’ occur - these are some of the greatest records and achievements from women in film:

Kathryn Bigelow, Julia Roberts, Halle BerryKathryn Bigelow, Julia Roberts, Halle Berry
Kathryn Bigelow, Julia Roberts, Halle Berry | Getty

First woman to win the Best Director Oscar

Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director for the Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker starring Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie. Accepting her Oscar award, Bigelow said ‘there’s no other way to describe it, this is the moment of a lifetime.

Prior to Bigelow’s win, only one other woman had been nominated for the Best Director Oscar in the Academy’s 82-year history - Lina Wertmüller was nominated in 1977 her Italian-language comedy drama Seven Beauties but lost out to Rocky director John G. Avildsen. Two women have won the award since, Chloé Zhao in 2021 for drama film Nomadland, and Jane Campion the following year for Western drama The Power of the Dog. No women are nominated for the award this year.

First Black woman to win an Oscar

Hattie McDaniel became the first Black Oscar nominee and winner in 1940 - she won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. McDaniel had been unable to attend the Atlanta premiere of the film due to racist segregation laws in place in Georgia at the time.

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Dorothy Dandridge became the first Black woman to be nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role Oscar for her role in Carmen Jones. Halle Berry is to date the only Black actress to win the award, having done so for her role in Monster’s Ball.

Black Oscar winners Hattie and HalleBlack Oscar winners Hattie and Halle
Black Oscar winners Hattie and Halle | YouTube, Getty

First woman to be paid $20 million for a film role

Julia Roberts made history when she became the first woman to be paid $20 million to star in a film - she got the big payday for playing the lawyer Erin Brockovich in the 2000 biopic of the same name. She also won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance. Roberts, whose other film roles include Pretty Woman, Notting Hill, and Wonder, is worth around $250 million today, making her the joint fourth wealthiest actress of all time.

Yet, more than two decades after Erin Brockovich, the highest paid film stars of the year are earning less - Margot Robbie was the biggest female earner in Hollywood last year, making $12.5 million for Barbie, but Tom Cruise came in way ahead making an estimated $100 million for Top Gun: Maverick.

Highest-paid female film star

Sandra Bullock holds the record for the biggest payday for a female film star. She made $20 million up front for her role as astronaut Ryan Stone in the 2013 sci-fi survival drama Gravity. As her contract included a 15% cut of the film’s box office, meant that her total earnings for the movie were around $75 million. Bullock’s co-star in the film, George Clooney, was also paid $20 million for his role, despite being in the film for around 20 minutes.

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Other highly-paid women film stars include Cameron Diaz who was paid just $1 million for comedy Bad Teacher, but received a cut of the box office, pushing her pay check over $40 million. Scarlett Johansson received $15 million for her role in Black Widow, and after suing Disney over its decision to release the film in cinemas and online simultaneously, is believed to have received a further $40 million from the company.

Sandra Bullock made around $75 million for her role in GravitySandra Bullock made around $75 million for her role in Gravity
Sandra Bullock made around $75 million for her role in Gravity | AFP via Getty Images

First superhero blockbuster directed by a woman

Patty Jenkins who helmed the Gal Gadot DC film Wonder Woman which had a massive $150 million budget and saw box office returns of more than $822 million. She also directed the sequel Wonder Woman 1984 which had an even bigger budget of $200 million. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic the film was released online and was the most watched direct to streaming film of 2020.

Wonder Woman was not the first live action superhero comic book film to be directed by a woman, but it was the first with a serious budget. The 2008 film Punisher: War Zone, directed by Lexi Alexander, had a budget of $35 million. It came just before the superhero wave really took off in cinema and failed to claw back even one third of its budget.

First film directed by a woman to make $1 billion

Animated Disney fantasy film Frozen was co-directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck - the pair also directed the sequel and Lee has worked as a producer on the films Ralph Breaks the Internet and Encanto, and the series Zootopia+.

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Frozen made $1.28 billion off a budget of $150 million whilst its sequel was even more successful, making $1.45 billion off the same budget. The only other billion dollar movie with a woman director is MCU film Captain Marvel, directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, which made $1.13 billion.

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