Film director salaries have certainly evolved a great deal in Hollywood since the beginning of commercial filmmaking. While some directors were paid next to nothing in the early years, many film director salaries eventually came to a standard fixed fee in the Golden Age of Hollywood (the 1940s) until the late 1980s. At that point, many film directors gave up their flat fee in exchange for a percentage of the film’s total gross revenue. Depending upon how well the film performed at the box-office, film director salaries could easily top $20 million – on average. A select few film directors have earned in excess of $100 million for their work on global blockbusters, thereby redefining what is considered possible for film director salaries. Here are a few notable directors whose salaries reflect the evolution of the business of filmmaking and film distribution.
One of Hollywood’s most celebrated directors, Stanley Kubrick earned his largest paycheck of $10 million for his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, which released in 1999. Starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (who were married at the time the film was shot), the film is noted for bringing to a close the visionary style that Kubrick introduced in film such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove, The Shining and Lolita. Despite his stature in Hollywood and a reputation that many would have given an arm and a leg for, Kubrick did not in fact earn very much money until the end of his career. In fact, one of the most famous anecdotes about him is that he held a terrible grudge against Jack Nicholson for earning more than he did for making The Shining. It is safe to say that what he may have lacked in financial stature during his lifetime he more than made up for as a creative force in modern filmmaking.
Polanski, who has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in the last year, earned an average of $5 million per picture throughout his career. Though his films are often noted for their cinematic brilliance, they are not especially big earners (perhaps lending to their frequently dour subject matter) which limits what studios are willing to pay Polanski as a director’s fee. Polanski’s many famed credits include Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, The Pianist, and Oliver Twist. Like many filmmakers, he began his career working for next to nothing on short films just to get his foot in the door. He has since, of course, established his reputation as a fine filmmaker, but has also in the process endured much public scrutiny for his personal life, including the 1969 murder of his wife actress Sharon Tate by followers of Charles Manson and the 1977 sexual assault case that resulted in his 2009 arrest in Zurich.
Wes Anderson is an unusual director who makes unusual films like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited. As such, his salary depends on the producing studio’s estimate as to what the final take of the film will be. Last year’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, featuring the super vocal talents of George Clooney and Meryl Streep, was budgeted at $40 million, with about one-fifth of that going to Anderson as director (he is reported to have made about $7 million for the picture). He often takes steep pay cuts to make the kinds of films he wants (such as The Royal Tennenbaums).
Michael Bay may be the biggest winner of them all when it comes to film director salaries as he is reported to have made nearly $80 million for directing the first Transformers movie. How did he manage to pocket so much? He opted for a percentage of the film’s gross receipts instead of a flat director’s fee (which would have still been pretty substantial). Because the film was able to gross $708 million worldwide, Bay was able to cash his way all the way to the bank – and then double his take with the second film!
Cameron’s last two films are the two highest grossing films ever made: Avatar and Titanic. Expectedly, he has made hundreds of millions of dollars from both pictures. According to imdb, he was paid a flat $10 million for directing Titanic, but ended up making $115 total from his shared revenues after the film’s release. As Avatar has now surpassed Titanic as the all-time highest grossing film, current estimates state that he has made at least $200 million from the film. Expect this figure to increase with each rerelease and as the sequels inch closer to release!