From Steven Spielberg to James Cameron to Peter Jackson, we rank 12 of the richest film directors in 2023. George Lucas is the richest, with $10 billion. Despite giving blockbusters like Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy, Christopher Nolan is right at the bottom of the list.

James Cameron, Peter Jackson, George Lucas, Tyler Perry and Christopher Nolan have all made plenty of money through their successful films and TV shows. But who made the most? Photos: Reuters; AP; EPA; TNS; Warner Bros. Pictures


While we often find ourselves captivated by the glamorous (and handsomely rewarded) actors and actresses bringing beloved films and TV shows to life, let’s not forget that it’s the brilliant minds behind the camera – the directors – who truly deserve our gratitude.

They are the ones responsible for what you see on the screen – making those impeccable casting choices and shaping the overall vision of the production.

Frodo, played by Elijah Wood, preparing to strike with his sword in the epic adventure trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. Photo: AP

We have iconic figures like George Lucas, the genius who created the multiplex-blowing Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, and Peter Jackson, the mastermind behind The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit film adaptations.

Among the auteurs who built their reputation on both writing and directing in their own iconoclastic style are Inception and Interstellar brainiac Christopher Nolan, who’s all set to unleash his much-awaited Oppenheimer this July; and James Cameron, the Terminator-to-Titanic maestro who kept the hype alive for last year’s Avatar 2, well over a decade after its first instalment hit the screens

Director James Cameron and actor Sam Worthington behind the scenes while shooting Avatar 2. Photo: 20th Century Studios

So, one burning question remains: who’s the wealthiest director of them all? We asked the internet whizzes over at Celebrity Net Worth to find out.

Director Christopher Nolan poses during a photo call at the 71st International Film Festival in Cannes, France, in May 2018. Photo: AP

12. Christopher Nolan – US$250 million
This 52-year-old British-American film director is the genius behind some of the past two decades’ biggest – and most mind-boggling – cinematic moments, including Memento (2001), The Dark Knight (2008), Interstellar (2014), Dunkirk (2017) and Tenet (2020).

His latest film, Oppenheimer, has generated plenty of buzz ahead of its release this July, covering the true story of J. Robert Oppenheimer (played by Peaky Blinder Cillian Murphy), the theoretical physicist who developed the world’s first nuclear bomb.

J.J. Abrams attends the 2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, California, in February 2020. Photo: Getty Images

11. J.J. Abrams – US$300 million
J.J. Abrams, 57, is best known as sci-fi whizz – with the dubious honour of helming fresh instalments in the notoriously rivalled Star Trek and Star Wars universes. The American film and TV series director’s most famous works include Felicity (1999), Alias (2001-2005), Mission: Impossible III (2006), Star Trek (2009) and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2009).

Director Ivan Reitman accepts the lifetime achievement award at the Big Screen Achievement Awards at CinemaCon in Las Vegas, US, in March 2014. Photo: AP

10. Ivan Reitman – US$300 million
One of the least immediately recognisable names on this list, the late, great Ivan Reitman made his mark with 1984’s Ghostbusters and its 1989 sequel, and comedies like My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006) and No Strings Attached (2011). The Czechoslovakian-Canadian filmmaker was worth an estimated US$300 million at the time of his death at age 75, in 2022.

Also read -  Superman IV costume as well as Charlie Chaplin's hat and cane sold

Director Ridley Scott on the set of the film, The Martian. Photo: Peter Mountain

9. Ridley Scott – US$400 million
This Englishman made his claim to fame with Alien back in 1979 and has since directed a string of bona fide classics including Blade Runner (1982), Thelma & Louise (1991), G.I. Jane (1997), Gladiator (2000) and Hannibal (2001). More recent works like The Martian (2015) and House of Gucci (2021) have added to his US$400 million fortune, while his forthcoming historical epic Napoleon will star acting legend Joaquin Phoenix.

Scott, 85, has also been tapped to work on multiple Chanel No 5 ads over his decades-long career.

Filmmaker and winemaker Francis Ford Coppola, poses for a picture at Grand Hyatt in Wan Chai in October 2012. Photo: May Tse

8. Francis Ford Coppola – US$400 million
A totemic figure in every sense of the word, in the 70s FFC was responsible for both the genre-defining Godfather saga and the harrowing Vietnam war portrait Apocalypse Now. While his later work never mounted the same critical peaks, he continued to make bank in later years with Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Twixt (2011). The 84-year-old American’s daughter Sofia is the filmmaker behind Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette.

American actor Mel Gibson arrives on the red carpet for the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards (AACTA) in Sydney, Australia, in December 2016. Photo: EPA

7. Mel Gibson – US$425 million
A tricky one here, as Mel Gibson no doubt made the bulk of his cash through acting. However, he is a director of note, too, and the 67-year-old New Yorker has proven his talents helming films including Braveheart (1995), of which he also stars in, The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Hacksaw Ridge (2016).

Hollywood director Michael Bay, who was in Hong Kong for the filming of Transformers: Age of Extinction, in October 2013. Photo: Nora Tam

6. Michael Bay – US$450 million
Known for making big-budget, fast-paced films, Michael Bay ranks No 6 on this list – the bulk of which can likely be chalked up to his role steering five movies in the Transformers franchise. However the divisive 58-year-old also counts earlier epic smashes Bad Boys (1995), The Rock (1996), Armageddon (1998) and Pearl Harbour (2001) on his CV.

Tyler Perry attends his studio’s grand opening gala at Tyler Perry Studios in October 2019, in Atlanta. Photo: Getty Images

5. Tyler Perry – US$800 million
With nearly a billion bucks in the bank, Tyler Perry comes in strong at No 5 on this list. While it’s not all made from directing work, the 53-year-old multi-hyphenate showbiz guru – who’s good pals with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and Oprah Winfrey – has brought us plenty of comedic relief with the Madea franchise, Meet the Browns (2009-2010), Ruthless (2020-2023) and more.

Canadian filmmaker James Cameron poses during a photocall for Avatar: The Way of Water in London, UK, in December 2022. Photo: AFP

4. James Cameron – US$800 million
After making plenty off The Terminator film franchise, Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009), Cameron bought himself the luxury of time, waiting some 13 years for the technology to catch up with his vision to realise last year’s Avatar: The Way of Water. Making up for lost time? The 68-year-old Canadian filmmaker has two more instalments planned.

Also read -  From the rice terraces of the Philippines to a fort in Italy - Here are four Instagram worthy locations that were shown in Marvel movies

Director Peter Jackson arrives at the Los Angeles premiere of The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies in Los Angeles, California, in December 2014. Photo: AP

3. Peter Jackson – US$1.5 billion
The first billionaire on our list is none other than Peter Jackson, the New Zealander who took into his hands the challenging yet (deeply) rewarding task of taking The Lord of the Rings saga to the big screen.

Actor Elijah Wood portrays Frodo in a scene from The Lord of The Rings: The Return of The King. Photo: Handout

This 61-year-old film maestro can thank his LOTR and Hobbit trilogies income for his place in the 10-figure club – those films have grossed US$6 billion worldwide, per Forbes. He sold a chunk of his Weta digital film effects shop to Unity Software for US$1.6 billion in cash and stock in 2021.

US director Steven Spielberg speaks onstage during the 92nd Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California, in February 2020. Photo: AFP

2. Steven Spielberg – US$8 billion
Another household name who’s made billions over the years is Steven Spielberg. While accounts differ, Celebrity Net Worth estimates he has US$8 billion in his account.

Known as the “King of Entertainment”, the 76-year-old’s technical genius is beyond dispute, bringing to life unforgettable cinematic gems like Jaws (1975), E.T. (1982), Jurassic Park (1993), Schindler’s List (1993), Catch Me if you Can (2002) and of course the first four iconic Indiana Jones films (James Mangold took over for this summer’s fifth outing).

Star Wars creator George Lucas poses with stormtroopers, characters in the Star Wars movies, at the Star Wars: Where Science Meets the Imagination exhibition in Boston, US, in 2005. Photo: Reuters

1. George Lucas – US$10 billion
George Lucas, 79, has accumulated an – ahem – galactic fortune of US$10 billion, according to Celebrity Net Worth, anyway. And he’s only directed six films in his life.

His third movie however, was none other than Star Wars (1977), and he held onto creative control – and the lucrative merchandise rights! – of the franchise forevermore. (He only stepped back into the chair, some 22 years later, to direct the series’ “first” three episodes – his fourth, fifth, sixth and final directional credits, 1999-2005).

There’s also the small matter of conceiving and producing the blockbuster Indiana Jones series – and then getting frenemy Spielberg to direct it …

In 2012, Lucas added a hefty lump sum to his net worth by selling his Lucasfilm production company to Disney for US$4.1 billion in stock and cash, per Forbes. The force is very strong with this one.

Note: This story was originally published on SCMP and has been republished on this website.

Tags from the story
,
Written By
First published in 1903, the South China Morning Post is Hong Kong’s premier English language newspaper, providing news 24/7, in-depth and quick scan reads, informative infographics, critical analysis, community discussions plus access to the most comprehensive news archive in Hong Kong. Over the decades it has built an enviable reputation for authoritative, influential and independent reporting on Hong Kong, China and the rest of Asia.