Generalizing about film director salaries is tricky because the range is huge. An average film director salary includes directors of big-budget Hollywood films and first-time directors shooting low-budget indies in Ohio. That’s like comparing an apple with a kiwi. So while it’s all well and good to quote average salaries, it’s helpful to know the outer limits of the range, too.
An intense individual in a chair suspended high above the set or anxiously pacing the floor before yelling, “Cut!” is the stereotypical image of a director at work. However, directing actors is only one part of a film director’s role. To explain what a director does, it helps to differentiate the roles of producer vs. director.
The producer of a film hires the director. After studying the script, the director conducts auditions or screen tests and selects the cast, sometimes with the help of the producer. Scheduling rehearsals is part of the director’s responsibility. Rehearsals take place for many weeks, with the director advising actors on where to stand, how to deliver lines, and the mindset or emotions of their characters.
Meanwhile, the director often consults with set designers, cinematographers and costume designers to make sure the set and costumes look as the director envisioned them. After filming starts, the director usually orders multiple takes of each scene, adding direction as needed, until he’s satisfied with it.
Directors may delegate tasks to one or more assistant directors, such as cueing the actors, reminding them when to go on set, and overseeing set changes.
Although the producer is in charge of keeping the production on budget while the director handles the creative aspects of the film, in reality, the director must also be mindful of the budget and the importance of keeping the action moving. It’s a balancing act of soliciting the best possible performances from the actors and staying on schedule and within budget.
When filming has finished, the director works with the film editors to edit scenes and dialogue, add finishing touches such as sound effects and produce the final version of the film.
Most film directors have a bachelor’s degree in film or cinema, but some have degrees in screenwriting, theater or communications. Before they break into directing, it’s important for directors to have several years of experience working in the industry in related roles such as screenwriters, sound and video editors, or actors.
Successful film directors have good leadership and communication skills as well as creativity. The job is more than ordering people to do things a certain way. Good leaders make people want to listen and take direction, to do their part to make the film one that they are all proud of and that the public wants to see.
Whatever their salaries, directors work hard for the money. Days are long and can be stressful as directors work to stay on schedule and within budget. They often work evenings, weekends and holidays. Filming continues even when the set is outdoors in blazing heat or frigid cold.
Years of Experience and Salary
A movie director's salary can increase with their experience. Patty Jenkins was paid at least eight times as much money for her "Wonder Woman" sequel as she received for the original. However, Jenkins didn't get the pay boost because of her years of experience; she got it for the success of the first "Wonder Woman" movie. Even big-name directors with hit after hit movies see a pay cut after a flop.
The median annual film director salary for all industries in May 2017 was $71,620. The median is the midpoint in a list of salaries for an occupation, where half earned more, and half earned less. Salaries ranged from $33,730 to $164,290. The median film director salary for motion pictures and videos was $86,890. Sometimes they also earn a percentage of ticket sales.
Some well-known or highly sought directors earn much more. Actual salaries are somewhat secretive, but some sample reported salaries are:
- Ridley Scott for "Alien: Covenant" – $10 to $12 million
- Justin Lin for "Hot Wheels" – $11 to $12 million
- Patty Jenkins for the first "Wonder Woman" – $1 million; for the sequel – $8 to $9 million
- Jordan Vogt-Roberts for "Kong: Skull Island" – $750,000
Studios have changed the way they pay directors in recent years. Regardless of how well the director's films have done in the past, after they have a flop or two, their next salary is significantly lower. To minimize the risk studios take, they often prefer to pay directors less up front but promise them a percentage of box office proceeds, which is called “back end” pay. When the film is a hit, the director cashes in, but when it doesn’t do well, the studio isn’t out as much money.
The Directors Guild of America sets guaranteed minimum film director salaries. Rates are based on the film's budget and, except where noted otherwise, include a guaranteed minimum number of weeks of work:
- $11 M+ budget – $19,622+ per week for 10 weeks
- $11 M+ budget, shorts, documentaries – $14,014+ per week for one week and one day
- $8.5 M+ budget – $17,660+ per week for 13 weeks
- $3.75 M+ budget – $14,717+ per week for 13 weeks
- $2.6 M+ budget – $75,000 total for 13 weeks of work
- Less than $2.6 M budget – negotiated between employer and director
Job Growth Trend
Employment of directors is expected to grow 12 percent from 2016 to 2026, which is faster than the average for all jobs. Public demand for movies is strong and growing, and other countries have a strong demand for U.S. films.
The increase in internet programming, including feature films, is growing, and these outlets all need directors. TV reality shows are still in demand, too, so directors who are interested in TV will find more work there as well.