In the beginning of their careers, Directors often make nothing. Zero. Zip. Zilch. They’re doing it for the art and the craft... and to hopefully be in a position where they can eventually begin to make money.
Once a film Director starts making money, the salaries can vary wildly, depending on the size and scope of each project. Your salary isn’t really what’s going to make you want to get up in the morning (i.e., not where the real money is), but we’ll get to that in a sec.
If directing union films – which is where the moolah is – you need to be a member of the directors’ union, which is called the Director’s Guild of America (DGA). You definitely need to be “in da club.” Once in the union, you’ll be guaranteed a minimum weekly salary of around $16,000, which includes pre- and post-production, and 10 weeks of guaranteed employment. So your fixed salary on a given project will start at around $160,000, and can obviously be much higher if directing a huge blockbuster. Go over the guarantee and you can start raking in more than 3k a day until the film is wrapped. You’d make less working on shorts or low budget, independent films, of course, which is why you may want to consider putting aside your “passion project” in favor of the hot new superhero script that’s been getting passed around town. “Lightningman” may never be a critical darling, but after reading the tough reviews, you can cry all the way to the bank.
In addition to the weekly salary, a director will usually get a signing bonus up front. Their contract will also determine if they have “final cut” on the movie (which means that the Director has final say on what the edited product is as opposed to the studio). Final cut rights are much rarer than they used to be. The studios have some major control issues.
Control room much?
A fixed amount of money will also be set up in case the Director is fired, which happens more than you would think. Many movies start off with one Director and then, when the studio starts reviewing the “dailies” (the footage shot each day), they may feel that the film isn’t turning out the way they envisioned it, and they decide they want to bring on someone new. Yes, there’s a certain irony to telling a Director you want to “go in a new direction…”
The real money for Directors comes with the “extras.” When a Director signs on to a movie, his agent will try to negotiate “net points” and “gross points.” The net points (not how much Deron Williams & Co. score on a given night) are practically worthless. Net points would, in theory, grant the recipient a share of a film’s profit after the studio has recouped all costs, only the studio never recoups all costs. It’s sorta like someone telling you that you can have their car for free as soon as it hits 400,000 miles. Gee, thanks.
Gross points are a bit better. As you might guess, gross points refer to the total amount of coinage a movie brings in before figuring in costs. Don’t pay attention to those box office numbers though – they take into account all of the money that ends up getting paid out of ticket sales to individual theaters. When negotiating for gross points, there are a variety of deals that can be made and they can get a little tricky… suffice it to say that these are the points you’re after. If your movie makes $80 million (of which theaters get about $40 million), and you have 20% gross, you’ve just banked yourself an extra $8 million. Now do you see why that piddly weekly salary of yours isn’t anything to write home about?