I love this photo.  Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas, DePalma, Coppola.  This group from the 70s changed movie making forever.  But which directors are ready to carry on the baton?


I suggest reading the full article courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter, but I also suggest just imagining.  I like to specifically imagine what these movie titans talk about.  I assume they are having movie-making conversations on a dimension I can’t even fathom: film preservation, state of technology, nuances of brilliant acting performances, etc.  Maybe some reminiscing that would make us pass out in awe.

Between them, Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese and Coppola created masterpieces that have spanned over 30 years.  And after all this time, at least Spielberg and Scorsese are still considered the top of the A-list.  Look at these movies: Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, the Star Wars trilogy, Godfather 1 & 2, Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and The Departed.  It’s mind blowing.

But seeing these guys at one table makes me wonder who the current or future directors are that will carry the baton and change movie making in the future.  Sure you have some great directors out there making great movies, but is anyone really at this level?

To get this conversation going, I looked at 2 things: 1) box office gross and 2) best picture nominations.  Of course you can argue these are not the best barometers (some critics also feel Spielberg and Lucas blockbuster movies have hurt the art of film), but again, this starts the conversation.

  1. Between 1980 and 1989, Lucas and Spielberg have the highest grossing film per year for 6 years (or 7 if you count Spielberg producing Back to the Future).  This includes ET, the Star Wars trilogy and the Indiana Jones trilogy.  Beyond 1990 this trend continues to a lesser degree with movies like Jurassic Park and the new Star Wars trilogy.
  2. Over the last 40 years (1970 – present), Lucas (2), Scorsese (6), Spielberg (6), and Coppola (4) have amassed a total of 18 Best Director Nominations.

Now let’s look at Directors who came to prominence from the 80s and onwards.  In the list below, I am focusing on Directors who have been nominated or won Best Directing Awards:

  • Oldest Guys: Oliver Stone, Clint Eastwood, Ridley Scott, & Peter Weir.
  • Older Guys: Ron Howard, Barry Levinson, Robert Zemeckis, Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, James Cameron, Michael Mann, Stephen Soderbergh & Peter Jackson.
  • Young Guys: Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher and Darren Aronofsky.

All of these directors have proven their brilliance.  But who do we think has the chops to carry the baton from Spielberg or Scorsese?

From a film making perspective, I would be willing to say: Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, James Cameron, David Fincher and Christopher Nolan.  This is based on which director brings a unique style to film making while still being young enough to carry the baton for the next 20 years.

But before we argue the merits of these different directors, let me add on box office gross.    I’ve done this by selecting directors whose movies are in the top 50 grossing films of all time:

  • James Cameron is the clear leader with Avatar and Titanic.
  • The Harry Potter Franchise has had various directors (please don’t make me put Chris Columbus on this list).
  • Michael Bay is the popcorn master with Transformers and Armageddon.
  • Of course Peter Jackson is the driving force behind the LOTR Series.
  • John Lasseter: All Pixar Films (TS 3, Nemo, Up).
  • Gore Verbinski is on this list because of Pirates of the Caribbean.
  • Christopher Nolan has directed Dark Knight (#10) and Inception (#29) both on the top 50.

Because this is our blog post, I will just go ahead and eliminate Michael Bay and Gore Verbinski, leaving us with: James Cameron, Peter Jackson, John Lasseter and Christopher Nolan.

Okay, finally let’s look at the combined list below and make an assessment.  This summary list shows which director can create not just a brilliant movie, but a brilliant movie that captures the imagination of the country.

Tier 1: Consistently demonstrated genius

James Cameron – leader of this group (writes, edits, directs, pushes boundaries)

Quentin Tarantino – brilliant film maker

The Coen Brothers – brilliant writer

John Lasseter – digital animation leadership changed the industry

Tier 2: All incredible movie makers, but more time is needed

Christopher Nolan – Memento, Dark Knight and Inception show his writing & directing ability.

David Fincher – Social Network was the peak of his directing powers.

Peter Jackson – What will we do if The Hobbit is terrible?

To be clear, I would never, ever suggest that Avatar is a superior film to The Social Network, Pulp Fiction or Fargo.  Many of Spielberg’s movies lost Oscar awards to other incredible films of the time.

But I do believe that these film makers have the power to capture the hearts and minds of America on a consistent basis while pushing the art of film making to its best in different ways.  And hopefully do so for many years to come.

What is still missing for me though is the feeling that these directors make up a cohesive new group of film makers who are taking the industry by storm – the way the old guys did in the 70s.

Regardless, seeing the new directors mentioned above sitting down at a table during a birthday party would make one hell of a photo.

But let’s hear what you think!  Who is missing?  Who is Spielberg’s successor?  Is John going to give a shout out to Tony Scott?

10 Responses to Who are the next generation of brilliant directors?

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  2. Kenzo says:

    It may be time to put J.J. on your list.

    • John says:

      I am interested in Lutz’s point of view. I think JJ is climbing fast. I am a fan; Star Trek reboot is awesome. This is going back a bit, but I also really enjoyed the TV show “Alias” which he wrote.

  3. Lutz says:

    Is it necessary to reference JJ’s TV shows in a conversation that includes Scorsese? Why not just mention JJ did Felicity? Until JJ really does something with meat to it, I don’t think he is close.

    • John says:

      No, I was being polite. JJ is really far from the guys at the table and still has work to do to get on this list. Did he write Felicity?

    • John says:

      Given the talk about directors and re-looked at this post. Nolan gets “More time needed” status and Quentin is “Tier 1.”. I don’t see a ton of separation between those two? Yes, qt has been at it longer, but Nolan’s resume is on par with Tarantino now, both as a screenwriter and as a director. I think Nolan needs to be upp’ed. He is the one young guy who I could see sitting at that table one day.

  4. Chris says:

    I think this a good discussion, I’m a fan of Darren Aronofsky. Although mentioned early, his credits were not really explored very much. His films have a cult following amongst those that study film, at least it did amongst the group of people I studied with. And he consistently pushes the limits as to what the viewer “feels” if you’ve ever seen PI you can see how experimental the guy really is.

    While overall I think there is more to be seen from him, I think he’s worth paying attention to.

    • John says:

      Chris – agree. I will let Lutz weigh in more here, I think Aronofsky falls down the list because he hasn’t had a break out at the box office. Though Black Swan did bring him an Oscar Nomination and surpassed the $100MM mark at the box. I agree that he needs to be followed. I would certainly rather talk about him than a box office hero like Michael Bay or Gore Verbinski. Pi was definitely a unique picture. Mark Margolis was awesome as the Math mentor – he really showed his range, he went from a contract killer who can’t speak English in Scarface to a math professor.

      Thanks for the comment!

  5. Nick says:

    First, this is one of my favorite pictures ever. It just *exudes* that Hollywood aura that I’ve always been so mesmerized by. Second, I disagree with the premise that a director has to have (or the potential to have) commercial success (past of present) to be considered one of the “brilliant directors”. John argues that Aronofsky falls down the list because of his lack of B.O. hits (plural), but I think we need to go back to one of Lutz’s original points about who brings a truly unique style to film making and carry the proverbial torch.

    • John says:

      Aranofsky has skill, and a unique perspective. He definitely merits mention – but he has even more work to do than a Finscher or Nolan. B.O. isnt all of it, only a piece- agree completely there.

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