Zhao, 39, is the second woman to earn the honor (after Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker”) and the first woman of color to do so. It all but solidifies her frontrunner status leading up to the Oscars on April 25.
"Sound of Metal" director Darius Marder won first-time feature film director. Documentarians Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw won for "The Truffle Hunters."
Usually held in a ballroom ceremony in Beverly Hills, this year's untelevised event was held virtually with nominees accepting awards over Zoom calls from around the world, featuring presentations by Tiffany Haddish, Bill Hader, Ava DuVernay, Spike Jonez, Sam Mendes and more.
The DGA Awards are often a strong bellwether for the Academy Awards. Aside from last year, every DGA winner since 2014 also won the Academy Award: Alfonso Cuaron for "Gravity" (2014), Alejandro G. Iñárritu for "Birdman" (2015) and "The Revenant" (2016), Damien Chazelle for "La La Land" (2017), Guillermo del Toro for "The Shape of Water" (2018) and Cuaron for "Roma" (2019).
Last year, Mendes won the top DGA award for "1917," though the Academy Award for directing went to Bong Joon-ho for “Parasite.”
Since 2000, only seven films have won the DGA but failed to win the best picture Oscar; in that same time period, there have only been four instances when the DGA winner hasn't also won the best director Oscar.
Zhao was up against Emerald Fennell for “Promising Young Woman,” Aaron Sorkin for “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” Lee Isaac Chung for “Minari” and David Fincher for “Mank.” The only difference in the Oscars lineup is that Sorkin is not among the nominees – instead, Thomas Vinterberg is for “Another Round.”
Zhao’s lyrical film about transient workers in the American West starring Frances McDormand started its awards journey winning the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival, the People’s Choice award at Toronto International Film Festival, the Golden Globe for best drama and best director, and the top honor from the Producer’s Guild.
Contributing: Hannah Yasharoff and Julia Thompson, USA TODAY, and The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Oscar nominee Chloe Zhao makes history at 2021 Directors Guild awards