Thomas Edison and his assistant W. K. L. Dickson filmed 250 “flickers” between 1892 and 1901. While this made Edison a household name, the income produced by these films pales when compared with the salaries earned by modern film directors. Modern directors, however, do work more hours creating feature films compared with early directors bound by time limitations. Thomas Edison felt audiences didn’t have the patience to watch films any longer than 10 minutes. Novice directors may defer compensation in hopes of making a successful film, but experienced directors are paid according to Directors Guild of America guidelines, and the best known directors can make impressively large salaries.
Types of Directors
Directors take the responsibility for organizing the workers involved in making a movie, including set designers, actors and camera operators, and post-production workers, such as editors and special-effects production. The job classification of director encompasses workers using various titles, including associate director and the primary director’s assistants taking formal titles as first, second and third assistant director. Directors earn salaries based on the type of work assigned during the film production. The main director earns the highest salary, while directors taking numbered positions sometimes work for an official title and for the experience.
Film directors working in professional productions under the Directors Guild of America guidelines earn salaries based on the type of production and the number of weeks on the job. Films, classified as low or high budget, shorts or documentaries, earn different pay. High-budget films have budgets more than $11 million. Directors working a week on a high-budget film earned a minimum of $19,143 in 2018, while a week on a short or documentary paid $13,672. When the film takes more than the week, directors on high-budget productions earned $4,786 daily pay. Short and documentary film directors took home $3,418 for a day of work in 2018. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported in May 2016 that directors working in the motion picture and video industries earned an annual mean wage of $111,320.
A-list directors earn millions in salaries, and film directors combining directing talents with producing and writing duties earn even more. George Lucas, for instance, took home more than $170 million in 2008 with the release of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” according to “Forbes.” Tyler Perry took the reins as director, producer, writer and star of several films during 2009 and took home $75 million as his annual income that year. Patty Jenkins, the director of “Wonder Woman,” made $1 million for the 2017 film. In addition to a $20 million lump sum for directing the 2017 movie “Dunkirk,” Christopher Nolan received 20 percent of the movie’s gross ticket sales.
Directors frequently take home a percentage of the box office sales or part of the overall film profits, depending on the contract agreement. These agreements also typically specify royalties, including money given based on sales of first-run screening tickets, DVD sales, cable licensing fees and money earned from traditional television station showings. “The New York Times” in 2008 reported director Steven Spielberg regularly earns 20 percent of a film’s gross. Novice directors also make agreements earmarking a percentage of the film’s profits to organizations promoting the film or groups offering marketing assistance.