Steven Spielberg, as the internet has been happy to report, just became the first director to cross $10 billion at the worldwide box office. That’s neat. What does it mean, exactly?
Not much. It simply re-confirms what we already knew: the industry’s most commercially successful director is still, um, the industry’s most commercially successful director. Back in 1975, he helped create the mere idea of the summer blockbuster, and now here he is in 2018 adapting to the new world of China-dependent blockbusters and riding Ready Player One to his biggest box office totals since before either Obama or Trump occupied the White House. Good for him. With a West Side Story remake, another Indiana Jones, and now an adaptation of the obscure DC comics WWII property Blackhawk on the docket, he’ll probably make it to $11 billion in a couple of years.
And all of this is limited to just the movies Spielberg directed. Add in his output as a producer, which includes everything from the Amblin classics of the 80s to the not-so-classic Transformers movies of the past decade, and his combined box office is well over $20 billion.
Still, the $10 billion total is the one getting the headlines, and understandably so: it’s a milestone, one that won’t soon be equaled. Of course, measuring a director’s worth based on box office history is just gross, but in this particular horse race, Spielberg is well head. As EW reported, “Peter Jackson is about $3 billion behind. The helmer of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films has a lifetime total of approximately $6,502.7 billion, followed by Transformers‘ Michael Bay ($6.451 billion), Avatar‘s James Cameron ($6.139 billion), and Harry Potter’s David Yates ($5.347 billion).”
With all due respect to all of those men, that’s not exactly a listing of the consensus picks for greatest directors of all time – it’s a listing of the people who either scored massively successful franchises or are named James Cameron. Yates’ inclusion is particularly illustrative because it shows us that in the future milestones like this one will be less of a testament to longevity and an enduring Midas touch and more of a passing curiosity in the “who lucked into directing a long-running franchise” sweepstakes.
For example, Joe and Anthony Russo are currently sitting at $1.9 billion off of Marvel’s Winter Soldier and Civil War (and You, Me and Dupree). Given the likely huge business ahead for Infinity War and Avengers 4 they will soon crack the top 10 list of the highest-grossing directors of all time. When that happens it simply won’t mean nearly as much as today’s “Hey, Spielberg cracked ten billion!”
That’s not to discredit the work of primarily franchise filmmakers. It’s not like directing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, three Lord of the Rings and three Hobbit movies, or back-to-back Avengers movies is so easy. But Spielberg navigated through decades of film history and proved preternaturally adept at anticipating audience appetites and the need to be adaptable to technological advancements to keep up with mass-appeal storytelling; someone like Yates just directed four Harry Potter movies (and now both of the Fantastic Beasts movie).
Granted, they were all pretty good Harry Potter movies (I’m a bit iffy on Half-Blood Prince), and it’s not like Spielberg has stayed away from franchises (looking at you, Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park). Still, history won’t exactly be quick to lump Yates in with Spielberg. History won’t even remember who made those Harry Potter movies. It will, however, always remember Spielberg. Him reaching a box office milestone like this one is yet another footnote in the ongoing story of his wonderful career. In the future, it will just be a reflection of who made the most Marvel movies.
The Highest-Grossing Directors at the Worldwide Box Office, Not Adjusted for Inflation
- Total: $10.4 billion
- Biggest hit: Jurassic Park
2. Peter Jackson
- Total: $6.5 billion
- Biggest hit: Return of the King
3. Michael Bay
- Total: $6.45 billion
- Biggest hit: Transformers: Dark of the Moon
4. James Cameron
- Total: $6.13 billion
- Biggest hit: Avatar
5. David Yates
- Total: $5.34 billion
- Biggest hit: The Deathly Hallows Part 2
6. Christopher Nolan
- Total: $4.75 billion
- Biggest hit: The Dark Knight Rises
7. Robert Zemeckis
- Total: $4.23 billion
- Biggest hit: Forrest Gump
8. Chris Columbus
- Total: $4.06 billion
- Biggest hit: The Sorcerer’s Stone
9. Tim Burton
- Total: $3.97 billion
- Biggest hit: Alice in Wonderland
10. Ridley Scott
- Total: $3.94 billion
- Biggest hit: The Martian
Sources: EW, BoxOfficeMojo