So, you’re interested in becoming a movie director. Great news! It’s a fulfilling career path, but, like anything else, it will be filled with challenges, ups and downs, and hard work. For those of you who are new to directing or have some questions, keep reading for an overview of the job, how to get started, and how much directors get paid.
A director manages the creative aspects of a film; he or she is in charge of bringing a story to life. They work to manifest their creative vision from preproduction through postproduction, literally directing the course of action on a set and throughout the filmmaking process, controlling a project’s artistic and dramatic aspects, visualizing the script, and guiding the cast and crew. The director makes decisions on a movie's look, its script, filming locations, costumes, special effects, and more.
The director is involved in every aspect of the movie from beginning to end, starting in preproduction, through production, and in postproduction. What exactly a director does differs in each part of the filmmaking process.
What Does a Director Do in Preproduction?
Preproduction is when the director, along with other creative types, formulates a plan for the film. There are artistic choices to make, as well as practical ones.
During preproduction, the director will be looking at casting, shot selection, styles, and color schemes. He or she may also be responsible for rehearsal and filming schedules, as well as scouting locations, depending on the size and budget of the production.
Preproduction is also when a director will work to obtain funding for a film. Unless the director is independently wealthy, this piece can take some time and could very well bleed over into production and postproduction periods. In fact, funding is one of the most frustrating parts of the filmmaking process according to Vladan Nikolic, filmmaker and media-studies professor at New School University.
“You spend 90 percent of your time hustling for money and explaining to people who have no creativity—but think they do—why the film should be made,” he told Backstage via email. In other words, “Only 10 percent of your time [is spent] making the actual film.”
Another important element of preproduction that shouldn’t be underestimated is casting. Proper casting is critical, Nikolic says.
“I don’t mean that you have to stick to the image you have in mind for a character, sometimes a different actor can completely surprise you and bring something to a part that you have never thought about,” he says. “But it is true that if the performances in a film are weak, it’s usually the director’s fault, not the actors’, as the director is in control.”
What Does a Director Do During Production?
Production is probably the part most envision when they picture being a film director: on set with the cast and crew calling “action” or “cut.”
For good reason, production is an important time for a film director. This is when he or she gives notes on performances and shots and makes sure all the blocking is just right.
Brace yourself: There will be a lot going on, and something will almost always go “wrong,” which is why preproduction is so important. According to Nikolic, “If you did your job well, you will be able to handle unforeseen situations.”
Also, during production, recognize that not every scene needs to be treated equally. At least, according to Nikolic.
“Give yourself time and space to do the most important scenes right,” he suggests. “These are the ones that the audience will remember and that your film will be judged on. Less important introductory or informational scenes can be cut, changed or rushed through, if need be. You never have enough time and money to do a film exactly how you would like to do it, you'll have to compromise. But be smart about what you compromise, and don't waste time shooting a scene over and over again, if it's not an important scene.”
During production, keep in mind that “you are the leader of a collective moving towards a supreme creative goal,” says Paul Warner, professor at the New York Film Academy and award-winning film and stage director. “So the director must keep the producers, key collaborators, crew and actors engaged in the artistic mission.”
What Does a Director Do in Postproduction?
Postproduction is when everything comes together. This is when the director will take on more of a supervisory role. There is editing to be done, color correction, and sound and visual effects to be added. It’s the time when the film gets its final shape.
Nikolic’s best advice for new directors? Find an experienced editor. “You will be too close to the material and not see the forest from the trees,” he says. “It happens all the time. Otherwise, you will edit the film yourself, and only three years later realize that it could've been so much better.
“Editing is a matter of talent of course, but it also hugely depends on experience. The more you do it, the better you will get. The fact that so many people now know how to use editing software doesn't make them editors. Editing is about telling a story and not about pushing buttons.”
Although supervising might sound fun, or at the very least, less stressful than the previous stages of production, the director isn't completely out of the loop.
You need experience “observing,” says Warner, “so you can understand the vocabulary to better communicate with the editor, sound house, colorist, etc.”
He says that the director and editor spend weeks cutting a picture.
“You are supervising, although many directors, especially those starting out in the micro-budget arena, have ended up needing to edit, just out of economic necessity,” Warner says. “So I see many directors now who really have those creative skills in terms of picture cut.
“However, sound and color are really specialized fields that are completely different from the skill set required of a director and your film will be greatly enhanced by hiring those who are most gifted in these arenas and then overseeing or guiding them.”
There’s a bit of a hierarchy in the directing department. The director, naturally, is at the top, but there are typically assistant directors to help with specific tasks.
- The first assistant director (AD) supervises cast and crew, keeps track of time for the director, makes sure filming is on schedule, and is responsible for eliminating and minimizing hazards on set.
- The key second assistant director (2AD) is in charge of tasks like moving the cast through hair, makeup, and wardrobe. Scheduling is this person’s primary role, and he or she is in charge of call sheets and assisting the first AD as needed.
- As movie sets get bigger, a third assistant director (3AD)—also known as a second-second AD—is needed for directing extras and vehicles for background action for large crowd scenes.
College is not required to become a movie director, but there are benefits to structured courses on film history and theory, as well as learning about filmmaking technology and meeting like-minded creators who may go on to become your collaborators. Those who opt to not attend film school need to be self-taught in a number of areas.
There are also some fundamental skills that all directors should have, including:
- An Eye for Detail: Film is a combination of moving images and sound, so the authority on the movie should know what elements of both aspects they want—and what doesn’t belong. Studying the greats is a way to hone your eye: watch the work of directors you admire, and even those you don’t. “I do a lot of looking back and understanding what makes a good story the way Hollywood used to tell good stories, starting with silent movies,” says Steven Spielberg. “My whole love for this medium comes from paying attention to the past and respecting all the movies that have been made over the years.”
- Organization: Since there is so much going on at once on a film set, directors must be adept at handling stress, juggling a dozen things simultaneously, and planning. Most established directors have experience supervising teams of people, and they have a system in place to avoid, or at least minimize, the disorganization that can plague the filmmaking process.
- Technical Knowledge: While directors can lean on their department heads for specifics on lighting or hair and makeup requirements, directors should still have as much working knowledge as possible around what these departments do in order to best work with them. A deep knowledge of lenses for example, will help simplify communication with your DP or cinematographer.
- Decisiveness and leadership skills: A film director is responsible for all logistical and creative decisions. Great directors are usually assertive, if not outright authoritative—and they’re never indecisive.
- Communication Skills: Can you coordinate a large number of people, explaining what’s needed as efficiently as possible? Being able to convey meaning and relay decisions to appropriate team members (and those who sign your production checks) is crucial.
- Editing: Many directors start out on micro- or no-budget productions, which means they often end up editing the film themselves out of necessity. While there is a learning curve to editing, these early experiences only serve to enhance a director’s creative skills and understanding of how film comes together in post.
- Hands-On Experience: While watching the works of directors you admire is important, it’s also passive—you’ll need hands-on experience. Working on film sets of all sizes and in a variety of roles will give you a full understanding of how every department works and collaborates, and what it takes to make something. Director David Leitch (“Atomic Blonde,” “Deadpool 2”) started his career as a stunt performer, experience that was a “great feather in the cap” when it came to convincing studios and producers he could properly direct action films.
Richard Walter, screenwriter and longtime co-chairman of the graduate screenwriting program at UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television, also encourages directors to hone their craft by rehearsing with actors.
Directors need “an ability to work supportively and nurturingly with actors,” Walter says. They should “encourage actors to lend their own vision to how the role should be played, should abandon preconceptions about how lines should be delivered. Instead of eschewing creativity from actors, they should encourage, solicit and celebrate it.
“Actors may mess up a movie, but, far more likely, they’ll make it better than the writer and director imagined it could be.”
Walter points out that in France, the director is called a “king,” but says his advice to directors is to not “be the king or queen. Be a citizen, a collaborator. ‘Co’ means with. Labor means work. Don’t be a tyrant or an authoritarian but a member of the creative family of artists and craftspeople making the movie.”
Shoot something every single day. “Not everything has to be a finished film, not everything has to be good, but that’s the way how you train your eye and advance your craft,” notes Nikolic.
Post your work to social media. Put it on Vimeo or YouTube. You might not get discovered that way, but it can’t hurt to showcase work you’re proud of.
Then, if you can, get a job on a film set to see how others work.
Another good idea is to watch films critically. Walter says a director should watch a movie just like everyone else. But Warner thinks there are good reasons to study films when watching them to develop “a strong viewing sense of cinematic history.” This would include “studying the directorial spine or intent and how that is illuminated by shot design, the visual arc including color palette, editorial and sound design choices, and of course the precision of how that director has directed the acting beats.”
Reading scripts is another tip. It’s a good way to practice bringing someone else’s story to life. When you read other people’s scripts, try to think about the details of how you would shoot each scene.
Finally, you can rest assured knowing that “every experienced famous, wealthy, adored director once had little experience, so [you] are in great company and should feel encouraged,” says Walter.
A film director makes $29 an hour on average, which comes to about $60,000 a year, according to ZipRecruiter. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks salaries for both film directors and producers; in 2021, it estimated a median pay of $79,000 per year. Recent research from CareerExplorer shows that median earnings in film directing come out to about $38 an hour. Further salary averages are based on level of experience:
- Entry-level: $38,210
- Junior-level: $50,860
- Mid-level: $79,000
- Senior-level: $129,440
- Top-level: $206,860
As with any production job, a director’s earnings are directly correlated to their experience, the number of projects they work on, and the size and budget of those productions. While there are a handful of high-profile directors who make millions of dollars a year—James Cameron took home $350 million in 2010 thanks to the release of “Avatar,” and Vanity Fair reported in 2011 that the highest-paid directors (Tyler Perry, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg) in Hollywood earned between $13 million and $257 million per year—this is not the norm.
Directors are represented by the Directors Guild of America (DGA), which means members are entitled to minimum wage requirements on any union production. For a high budget production, the DGA guarantees directors a weekly salary of $21,765 for at least 13 weeks of work (two weeks of prep, 10 weeks shooting, one week in post-production) and an additional $4,353 per day over that. For a network television series, directors are guaranteed $27,894 per episode for half-hour shows and $47,371 per episode for one-hour shows. (For more information, see the DGA's current rate cards.)
How Do I Get Paid to Direct?
The simple answer is experience, which will lead to exposure from festivals or screenwriting competitions. Once you gain experience, assemble a reel and get an agent.
Walter says landing an agent is necessary. “Create the kind of engaging material that would convince an agent that here is an artist worth representing,” he says.
“If you make a short film and someone sees it in one of the major festivals, such as Sundance, that agent is most likely going to want to see a full-length screenplay that you would want to make next and the tone/style of the short demonstrates your ability to work with actors and communicate something that is similar in style,” Warner says.
“An agent is most likely going to feel more inclined to collaborate with someone who has already made a lot of inroads and demonstrates ambition and drive as well as an understanding that films need some kind of attachments, be it money or stars, to make it of interest to the agent.”
But getting an agent isn’t something you should expect to happen “until you have a successful film,” Nikolic says.
“No agent will take you before that anyway,” he says, noting that you don’t have to make a feature. “Maybe you have a short that wins or gets noticed at Sundance, for example.”
“The reason is that an agent can sell you only once the industry starts paying attention to you, so the idea is that the agent will get you more and better opportunities for more money than you could on your own—at least, that's the theory. It all depends on the agent though, and what your expectations are.
“If you're repped by one of the big agencies in L.A., you have a greater chance to be packaged in bigger movies or TV series. On the other hand, agents focus on the flavor of the moment, so if there's not much demand for your name/brand/type of work from the industry, you will have to find opportunities yourself.”
Everyone starts somewhere, and it’s not typically as the director of a successful film.
Tim Burton is one rare case. He graduated from CalArts, which Walt Disney himself helped found. This created a pathway for Burton to become an apprentice animator upon graduation and directed a blockbuster—“Pee-wee's Big Adventure”—a few short years later.
For the rest of us, it can take time to get your bearings, create an impressive reel, and make the right connections.
Take “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins. He moved to San Francisco in 2007 “for love.” A Banana Republic employee at the time, Jenkins told people he was a filmmaker despite having made any films yet.
His relationship didn’t work out, but he did connect with a college classmate who invested $15,000 in his first film, “Medicine for Melancholy,” which Deadline described as a film “loved by critics and seen by almost no one else.”
Or “Wonder Woman” director Patty Jenkins, whose first official job on a film set was as Second Assistant Camera in 1995’s “A Modern Affair.” After finalizing the deal to direct the blockbuster’s sequel, she is now the highest-paid female director of all time.
Ava DuVernay, director of “A Wrinkle in Time” (a film that had a budget of over $100 million), went to college for and started her career in journalism. She then moved into public relations before making her feature directorial debut in 2008 with a documentary, a project that required a much smaller budget than a feature film and let her learn the craft.
They’re not alone in the unique paths they took through their directorial careers:
- Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni both got their start writing screenplays.
- Federico Fellini used a job writing for a humor magazine to make film-industry contacts.
- Quentin Tarantino's big break came when “Reservoir Dogs”—which he wrote, directed, and acted in—was accepted at Sundance.
- Wes Anderson grew up making silent films on his father’s Super 8 camera.
- Steven Spielberg was an unpaid intern at Universal Studios in the editing department.
- Elia Kazan was a successful stage actor for years before picking up a camera.
- Alfred Hitchcock’s first job in film was as a title card designer.
- Spike Lee made his first feature film, “She’s Gotta Have It,” with a budget of $175,000 and shot it in two weeks.
- Akira Kurosawa worked for years as an AD and writer.
- Mel Brooks didn’t direct his first film until he was 42.
- Kathryn Bigelow earned a master's degree in film.
Basically, there is no one way or right way to become a movie director. The path is different for everyone.