Success: Money Or Acclaim Part 3 – Directors

Continuing our examination into Hollywood’s most successful, today we look at those people who are sometimes brilliant, sometimes awful but always enigmatic; directors. Do their monetary victories and critical ratings align?

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Generally, the success of a film will come down to the director. It doesn’t matter if you have the greatest actors in the world working on something, if the director doesn’t visualise the script in a skilful way the film will fall flat. It’s their job to inspire the actors, inform the cinema photographer, interpret the script, and pre-empt the reaction of audiences. By the same token, a low budget independent film can be a masterpiece in the hands of the right director(s). For instance, Michael Bay has worked with some terrific actors to make horrible movies (see ‘Pain and Gain’). A cheap as chips film, ‘Half Nelson’, was an absolute gem that saw a young Ryan Gosling nominated for an Oscar. A common denominator between these two films is Anthony Mackie, a fine actor who wasn’t done any favours by Michael Bay was allowed to shine by directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden.

Just like actors, directors can enter Hollywood with a bang, like M. Night Shyamalan, and then fall into a phase of either doing the same thing over and over again, or else getting weirder and weirder to boost their profile.

M Night Shyamalan is famous for 'The Sixth Sense' and infamous for 'The Last Airbender'
M Night Shyamalan is famous for ‘The Sixth Sense’ and infamous for ‘The Last Airbender’

Some manage to keep banking cheques though, producing box office hit after box office hit. How they rate critically may be another matter. Here are the top ten directors at the box office according to Box Office Mojo.

10. Chris Columbus – A director who is very popular with the younger generations having directed ‘Home Alone’ along with the first three Harry Potter films and ‘Night at the Museum’. His box office gross comes in at $1.73 billion.

9. George Lucas – It’s fair to say he’ll never be out of work. Here is the director of Star Wars epidodes I, II, III, IV, and VII. He has grossed a domestic total of $1.74 billion at an astounding average of $290 million per film.

8. Tim Burton – Known for the quirky and the queer along with his incessant casting of his wife Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp, he’s also been behind productions of Batman and The Planet of the Apes. He comes in at $1.75 billion.

7. Christopher Nolan – Notwithstanding his incredible dark early films ‘Memento’, and ‘Insomnia’, everything he has touched since ‘Batman Begins’ has turned to gold, including the unforgettable ‘The Dark Knight’. All this has culminated in a $1.82 billion collect.

6. Ron Howard – He’s had a long career as both an actor and director his films have earned $1.83 billion. With another upcoming collaboration with Chris Hemsworth this is sure to rise quickly.

5. James Cameron– No surprise here considering he was at the helm of the worldwide record breaking ‘Avatar’ which has been commissioned for not one but three sequels! His box office total rests at $1.97 billion.

4. Robert Zemeckis – The visionary behind classic ‘Forest Gump’ and the ‘Back to the Future’ films. He’s teamed up with Tom Hanks on multiple occasions to gross $2.03 billion.

3. Peter Jackson – The first of the big guns has a handy six Middle Earth films to his name, a truly loooong ‘King Kong’ and the haunting ‘The Lovely Bones’. It seems surprising he’s only at number 3 with $2.13 billion.

Peter Jackson is the master who brough 'The Lord of the Rings' to life. Credit:
Peter Jackson is the master who brough ‘The Lord of the Rings’ to life. Credit:


2. Michael Bay – A man who seemingly couldn’t live without an abundance of explosions and special effects and isn’t the first name that comes to mind when discussing directors who get the best from their cast. Megan Fox once called him a Nazi and was duly fired by ‘Transformers’ executive producer Steven Spielberg. Facts are facts though, all those effects have earned $2.14 billion at the box office.



1. Steven Spielberg – This man reigns supreme with 27 titles as director earning $4.25 billion, the highest being ‘E.T’ with $435 million. Easily one of the most influential filmmakers the world has ever seen.

Steven Spielberg is a legendary writer, producer and director. Credit:
Steven Spielberg is a legendary writer, producer and director. Credit:


Unlike the other lists, this one isn’t even close, with Spielberg clear in first place by a margin of $2 billion. Women have so far failed to make a mark on the directing field with no woman director in the top twenty. Women are a rare breed when it comes to directing, although that is starting to turn with 17 of the top 250 highest grossing films of 2014 being directed by women. Even so, that’s not a great percentage and there are many questions about gender equality that could be raised here; another time.

With this list of men, it’s interesting and not a shock to note that according to the critical ratings Michael Bay does not deserve his lofty earnings. He holds an average score of 40 on Metacritic. That has him by far the worst director on the list, 9 points behind the next lowest in Chris Columbus. Peter Jackson and Christopher Nolan tie in first-place with a score of 69 thanks to their quality over quantity approach to filmmaking. However even they would struggle to scrape into a critically rated top ten of modern day directors. A quick peruse reveals many who equal or surpass them including: David Fincher (69), Derek Cianfrance (69), David Yates (71), Denis Villeneuve (71), Richard Linklater (73), Wes Anderson (74) and Paul Thomas Anderson (80).

So more so than the actresses and actors there is a disparity between the money-making virtue of these directors and the opinion of film critics. This makes sense as most of them tend to make blockbuster popcorn flicks that appeal to the majority of society while the others listed make more complex, off-beat and interesting films that require a slightly niche market. Thus their skill in directing is going unrewarded at the box office. However this shouldn’t hinder them at the awards, where they’ll receive due recognition if they deserve it most of the time.

What do you think of the list? Who is your favourite director?