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The 28 Most Successful Commercial Directors of All Time Based on Box-Office Average

By Dustin Rowles | Lists | July 13, 2010 |

By Dustin Rowles | Lists | July 13, 2010 |

Yesterday, I ran a SRL on the Box-Office Sweet Spot, listing those directors who had a $20 - $25 million average box office, and recognizing that it’s those sort of directors — like Wes Anderson or David O. Russell — responsible for a lot of creative, but not terribly popular, films. It wasn’t my intent at all to stir it up, but there was some conversation in the comments about the correlation between “popular” and “good.” In light of that, I thought we could take a look at the 28 directors, all time, who have maintained a box-office average of over $100 million (and have directed at least four films).

As to that question: It’s a mixed bag. There are a lot of very successful commercial directors who have managed to make quality films and maintain a very high box-office average. Spielberg, for one. And Christopher Nolan and even Jon Favreau, who is not a name I really expected to see on this list. I’m actually more impressed with those directors, like Spielberg, who have managed to maintain a high box-office average even while taking on the occasional passion project. Some directors actually do use their box-office clout for good. Others, not so much.

A few observations about this list: It’s a shame that there’s only one female on the entire list, and she’s at number 27 (and she’s not very good); several of these directors, of course, have had the benefit of directing exclusively franchises, so it’s kind of a cheat. In some of those cases (Rob Minkoff, for instance), you’ve probably never even heard of that director. Likewise, there are a lot of Pixar directors on this list, who have had the best of both worlds: They’ve made incredibly good films, and they’ve been hugely successful. But the directors themselves — outside of John Lasseter, really — aren’t particularly well known outside of movie circles. It’d also be interesting to see how they fared outside of the comfy confines of Pixar.

But again, back to the popular vs. good correlation, it’s pretty evenly split. I count 13 1/2 good to really good directors among this list of 28 (George Lucas gets the 1/2, and for some reason, I give M. Night the benefit of the doubt based on his early work). So, no: Popularity doesn’t mean bad. But it doesn’t always mean good, either. It is a truly remarkable director, however, that can make a critically successful movie that also manages to click with mainstream audiences. And whatever your problems with Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Nolan, or even Cameron, you have to at least appreciate that about them. As for Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich, you don’t have to appreciate anything about them.

1. Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3) — $295 million million average

2. Andrew Adamson (The Chronicles of Narnia, Shrek) — $285 million average

3. George Lucas (Star Wars, THX 1138) — $283 million average

4. Andrew Stanton (A Bug’s Life, Wall-E — $281 million average

5. James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar) — $211 million average

6. John Lasseter (Lady and the Tramp, Toy Story) — $211 million average

7. Michael Bay (Transformers, Bad Boys) — $187 million average

8. Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean, Weather Man) — $186 million average

9. Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Elf) — $167 million average

10. Steven Spielberg (Jaws, War of the Worlds) — $156 million average

11. Jay Roach (Meet the Parents, Austin Powers) — $154 million average

11. Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Memento) — $147 million average

12. Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings, The Frighteners) — $146 million average

13. Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012) — $138 million average

14. Rob Minkoff (Stuart Little, The Lion King) — $132 million average

15. Mel Gibson (Braveheart, The Passion of Christ) — $130 million average

16. Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, A Christmas Carol) — $129 million average

17. The Wachowkskis (The Matrix, Speed Racer) — $128 million average

18. Tom Shadyac (Bruce Almighty, Patch Adams) — $127 million average

19. Brett Ratner (X-Men: The Last Stand, Rush Hour) — $122 million average

20. Shawn Levy (Cheaper by the Dozen, Night at the Museum) — $121 million average

21. Chris Columbus (Adventures in Babysitting, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) — $119 million average

22. Chris Weitz (About a Boy, Twilight: New Moon) — $118 million average

23. M. Night Shyamalan (Sixth Sense, The Village) — $117 million average

24. Tim Burton (Batman Returns, Alice in Wonderland) — $116 million average

25. Bryan Singer (X-Men, The Usual Suspects) — $114 million average

26. Jan deBont (Speed, The Haunting) — $113 million average

27. Nancy Meyers (What Women Want, It’s Complicated) — $110 million average

28. Frank Caraci (The Waterboy, Click) — $101 Million million average

Here’s the list of $100+ million directors who have not yet directed four films: Pete Doctor — $274 million (Up, Monsters, Inc.); J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, Mission Impossible III) — $195 million average; David Silverman (The Simpsons Movie, Monsters, Inc.) $163 million; Brad Bird (Iron Giant, The Incredibles) — $163 million; Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) — $125 million average; Michael Patrick King (Sex and the City) — $123 million average; John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The Rookie) — $118 million average; Adam McKay (Step Brothers, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy — $111 million average; Judd Apatow (Funny People, Knocked Up) — $103 million average; Anne Fletcher (Step Up, The Proposal).

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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