The 7 Most Commercially Successful Movie Directors, Ranked

Which movie directors have earned the most money over their careers? It takes skill to make movies that bring viewers to theaters!
The 7 Most Commercially Successful Movie Directors, Ranked
Image credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

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Nothing in cinema makes money quite like a blockbuster does. Raking in billions of dollars with a single film was long unheard of—until Titanic became the first movie to break that record in 1998.

It takes a special kind of movie director to forge a film that not only catches the attention of so many viewers, but entices them enough to spend their hard-earned cash at a movie theater.

And if that director is really good, they can get us hooked and ready for the next film in the series. (As it turns out, most of the highest-grossing movies of all time are part of a franchise, whether as sequels or remakes.)

All in all, it's a clever marketing device that apparently works insanely well amongst the general public. When a keen-eyed director joins a cinematic franchise, they can seriously dominate the box office.

Here are some of the most financially successful movie directors of all time and their most profitable creations.

7. Christopher Nolan

Trailer for Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Christopher Nolan is the blockbuster machine behind some of the most intelligent cinematic juggernauts of the last 25 years.

He's the mind behind pop culture hits like The Dark Knight (2008), Inception (2010), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Interstellar (2014), and Dunkirk (2017), all of which made over $500 million.

The last two entries of his Dark Knight Trilogy netted him over a billion, with Dark Knight Rises being his highest-grossing film to date.

With all of these great films, Christopher Nolan has amassed a box office record of nearly $5 billion gained. That's pretty good considering his first film was made for only $6,000!

6. David Yates

Trailer for David Yates's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows (2010)

Few may know David Yates by names, but you definitely know his films. I'll put it this way: David Yates is a wizard when it comes to making money at the global box office.

Yep, that's right. David Yates is the magical name who's behind the last four movies in the main Harry Potter movie franchise. He also contributed to the Fantastic Beasts prequel franchise, which has also garnered fantastic box office returns.

While he doesn't have many other films under his belt, David Yates has earned over $6 billion across his career. Not a bad mark at all.

5. Michael Bay

Trailer for Michael Bay's Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

Critics may hate him, but Michael Bay can put a spell on any audience you put in front of him—as long as they're primarily pre-pubescent boys.

With the Transformers franchise, Michael Bay embraced what many 21st century films would end up chasing: spectacle. His films involve lots of show, thrills, and laughs, while also relying a lot on both new and previously underutilized technologies.

CGI became Michael Bay's best tool to turn cars into robots from out of space, and the world paid him top dollar to watch it again and again. With this franchise alone, he garnered over $4.3 billion. Imagine how many explosions he could fund with all of that money.

However, it's fair to note that he has produced lots of other spectacular films—including John Krasinski's A Quiet Place franchise—so he definitely deserves credit for that.

4. Peter Jackson

Trailer for Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

Peter Jackson had the right idea when he decided to adapt the much-beloved Tolkien books into a trilogy of feature-length films. Whether or not he knew how big the projects would become? That's anyone's guess.

His passionate dedication to bringing Tolkien's vision to life is commendable in and of itself. The fact that it netted him almost $3 billion in revenue is just the icing on the cake.

The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003) was on everyone's minds when it first came out, and the box office numbers reflect that: it brought in over $1.1 billion. It also went on to win 11 Oscars!

Jackson experienced further success with The Hobbit trilogy, but some of us aren't quite ready to forgive him for that one yet.

3. The Russo Brothers

Trailer for The Russo Brothers' Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Anthony and Joe Russo are the richest directing duo in cinematic history. They started their directorial careers way back in the 1990s, then eventually became the highest-grossing directors of the 2010s with their four contributions to the Marvel Studios canon.

With Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014) they made over $700 million—and few thought they would ever top that. And then they went on to direct Captain America: Civil War (2016), which earned another $1.1 billion. No one thought they would beat that immense result.

But with Avengers: Infinity War (2018), they raked in over $2 billion, which is itself a feat that few in history can lay claim to. And then came Avengers: Endgame (2019), which cemented the Russo brothers amongst the highest grossers of all time.

With a cumulative box office gross of nearly $3.8 billion, they made it clear that they could turn any project into cinematic gold.

2. James Cameron

Trailer for James Cameron's Avatar (2009)

James Cameron didn't just make the top grossing movie of all time—he did it twice! First with Titanic (1997), then with Avatar (2009).

Cameron defied all odds when Titanic obliterated the box office, becoming the first-ever film to gross more than $1 billion (without inflation being taken into account). For a while, it was the highest-grossing film ever.

A little over a decade later, Cameron busted the box office again with Avatar—and it's still up there in the number one spot. It earned nearly $3 billion in total.

James Cameron now owns three of the top five spots on the list of highest-grossing movies of all time, summing more than $7.4 billion between them. Now that's pretty impressive!

1. Steven Spielberg

Trailer for Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park (1993)

No one in the history of the film industry has made more money than Steven Spielberg—that's quite the claim to fame!

From his roots as a pioneering figure in the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s to becoming one of the founding figures of the modern blockbuster, Spielberg has made his stamp like no one else.

With Jurassic Park (1993), he lured audiences in with one of the best trailers ever made, then made over $1 billion in the process.

He has worked with Academy Award-winning actors like Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Anthony Hopkins, Matthew McConaughey, Christopher Walken, Richard Dreyfuss, and Sean Connery.

He's also worked with plenty other actors as well, including box office titans like Tom Cruise, Matt Damon, and Seth Rogen.

With the help of all these wonderful actors, Steven Spielberg's films have amassed a cumulative total of $10.6 billion.

Spielberg has not only been given license to print money with his movies, but he's also been given free rein over awards ceremonies. He's won three Oscars and he's been nominated for a further thirteen, for his work in both directing and producing.

The fact that Spielberg has managed to gain such critical and commercial acclaim is perhaps the most impressive thing of all, rightfully landing himself at the top of our list.