The following people are considered by Pantheon to be the top 10 most legendary American Film Directors of all time. This list of famous American Film Directors is sorted by HPI (Historical Popularity Index), a metric that aggregates information on a biography’s online popularity. Visit the rankings page to view the entire list of American Film Directors.
With an HPI of 83.80, Steven Spielberg is the most famous American Film Director. His biography has been translated into 134 different languages on wikipedia.
Steven Allan Spielberg (; born December 18, 1946) is an American film director, producer and screenwriter. A major figure of the New Hollywood era and pioneer of the modern blockbuster, he is the most commercially successful director in history. He is the recipient of many accolades, including three Academy Awards, two BAFTA Awards, and four Directors Guild of America Awards, as well as the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1995, the Kennedy Center Honor in 2006, the Cecil B. DeMille Award in 2009 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Seven of his films have been inducted into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant".Spielberg was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and grew up in Phoenix, Arizona. He moved to California and studied film in college. After directing several episodes for television, including Night Gallery and Columbo, he directed the television film Duel (1971), which later received an international theatrical release. He made his theatrical film debut with The Sugarland Express (1974) and became a household name with the 1975 summer blockbuster Jaws. He directed more box office successes with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and the original Indiana Jones trilogy (1981–89). He subsequently explored drama in The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987). In 1993, Spielberg directed back-to-back blockbuster hits with the science fiction thriller Jurassic Park, the highest-grossing film ever at the time, and the Holocaust drama Schindler's List, which has often been listed as one of the greatest films ever made. He won the Academy Award for Best Director for the latter and the 1998 World War II epic Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg has since directed the science fiction films A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), Minority Report (2002), and War of the Worlds (2005); the adventure films The Adventures of Tintin (2011) and Ready Player One (2018); the historical dramas Amistad (1997), Munich (2005), War Horse (2011), Lincoln (2012), Bridge of Spies (2015) and The Post (2017); the musical West Side Story (2021); and the semi-autobiographical drama The Fabelmans (2022). Spielberg co-founded Amblin Entertainment and DreamWorks, and he has served as a producer for many successful films and television series, among them Poltergeist (1982), Gremlins (1984), Back to the Future (1985), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and Band of Brothers (1999). He has had a long collaboration with the composer John Williams, with whom he has worked for all but five of his feature films. Several of Spielberg's works are considered among the greatest films in history, and some are among the highest-grossing films ever. In 2013, Time listed him as one of the 100 most influential people, and in 2023, Spielberg was the recipient of the first ever TIME100 Impact Award in the U.S. Reviewing Close Encounters, Pauline Kael called the young Spielberg "a magician in the age of movies."
With an HPI of 81.56, Martin Scorsese is the 2nd most famous American Film Director. His biography has been translated into 86 different languages.
Martin Charles Scorsese ( skor-SESS-ee, Italian: [skorˈseːze, -se]; born November 17, 1942) is an American filmmaker and actor who holds both American and Italian citizenship. He emerged as one of the major figures of the New Hollywood era. Scorsese has received many accolades, including an Academy Award, four BAFTA Awards, three Emmy Awards, a Grammy Award, three Golden Globe Awards, and two Directors Guild of America Awards. He has been honored with the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1997, the Film Society of Lincoln Center tribute in 1998, the Kennedy Center Honor in 2007, the Cecil B. DeMille Award in 2010, and the BAFTA Fellowship in 2012. Five of his films have been inducted into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant". Scorsese received a Master of Arts degree from New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development in 1968. His directorial debut, Who's That Knocking at My Door (1967), was accepted into the Chicago Film Festival. In the 1970s and 1980s decades, Scorsese's films, much influenced by his Italian-American background and upbringing in New York City, center on macho-posturing men and explore crime, machismo, nihilism, and Catholic concepts of guilt and redemption. His trademark styles include extensive use of slow motion and freeze frames, graphic depictions of extreme violence, and liberal use of profanity. His 1973 crime film Mean Streets was a blueprint for his filmmaking styles. Scorsese won the Palme d'Or at Cannes with his 1976 psychological thriller Taxi Driver, which starred Robert De Niro, who became associated with Scorsese through eight more films including New York, New York (1977), Raging Bull (1980) The King of Comedy (1982), Goodfellas (1990), and Casino (1995). In the following decades, he garnered box office success with a series of collaborations with Leonardo DiCaprio. These films include Gangs of New York (2002), The Aviator (2004), The Departed (2006), Shutter Island (2010) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). He reunited with De Niro with The Irishman (2019) and Killers of the Flower Moon (2023), the latter also featuring DiCaprio. His other films include After Hours (1985), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Age of Innocence (1993), Kundun (1997), Hugo (2011), and Silence (2016). In addition to film, Scorsese has directed episodes for some television series including the HBO series Boardwalk Empire (2011–2015), and Vinyl (2016), as well as the HBO documentary Public Speaking (2010), and the Netflix docu-series Pretend It's a City (2021). He is also known for several rock music documentaries including The Last Waltz (1978), No Direction Home (2005), Shine a Light (2008), and George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011). An advocate for film preservation and restoration, he founded three nonprofit organizations: The Film Foundation in 1990, the World Cinema Foundation in 2007, and the African Film Heritage Project in 2017.
With an HPI of 79.07, Stanley Kubrick is the 3rd most famous American Film Director. His biography has been translated into 118 different languages.
Stanley Kubrick (; July 26, 1928 – March 7, 1999) was an American film director, producer, screenwriter and photographer. Widely considered one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, his films—nearly all of which are adaptations of novels or short stories—span a number of genres and are known for their intense attention to detail, innovative cinematography, extensive set design and dark humor. Kubrick was raised in the Bronx, New York City, and attended William Howard Taft High School from 1941 to 1945. He was an average student but displayed a keen interest in literature, photography, and film from a young age, and began to teach himself all aspects of film production and directing after graduating from high school. After working as a photographer for Look magazine in the late 1940s and early 1950s he began making short films on shoestring budgets, and made his first major Hollywood film, The Killing, for United Artists in 1956. This was followed by two collaborations with Kirk Douglas: the anti-war film Paths of Glory (1957) and the historical epic Spartacus (1960). Creative differences arising from his work with Douglas and the film studios, a dislike for the film industry in Hollywood, and a growing concern about crime in America prompted Kubrick to move to the United Kingdom in 1961, which he seldom left for the rest of his life. His home at Childwickbury Manor in Hertfordshire, which he shared with his wife Christiane, became his workplace, where he centralized the writing, research, editing, and management of his productions. This permitted him almost complete artistic control over his films, with the rare advantage of financial support from major Hollywood studios. His first productions in Britain were two films with Peter Sellers: Lolita (1962), an adaptation of the novel by Vladimir Nabokov, and the Cold War black comedy Dr. Strangelove (1964). A perfectionist, Kubrick assumed direct control over most aspects of his filmmaking, cultivating an expertise in writing, editing, color-timing, promotion and exhibition. He was famous for the painstaking care taken in researching his films and staging scenes, performed in close coordination with his actors, crew, and other collaborators. He frequently asked for several dozen retakes of the same shot in a movie, something that often confused and frustrated his performers. Despite the notoriety this provoked among actors, many of Kubrick's films broke new cinematic ground and are now considered landmarks. The scientific realism and innovative special effects in his science fiction epic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) had no precedent in the history of cinema, and the film earned him his only personal Oscar, for Best Visual Effects. Steven Spielberg has referred to the film as his generation's "big bang" and it is regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. While many of Kubrick's films were controversial and initially received mixed reviews upon release—particularly the brutal A Clockwork Orange (1971), which Kubrick pulled from circulation in the UK following a mass media frenzy—most were nominated for Oscars, Golden Globes, or BAFTA Awards, and underwent critical reevaluations. For the 18th-century period film Barry Lyndon (1975), Kubrick obtained lenses developed by Zeiss for NASA to film scenes by candlelight. With the horror film The Shining (1980), he became one of the first directors to make use of a Steadicam for stabilized and fluid tracking shots, a technology vital to his Vietnam War film Full Metal Jacket (1987). His last film, the erotic drama Eyes Wide Shut, was completed shortly before his death in 1999 at the age of 70.
With an HPI of 76.92, Woody Allen is the 4th most famous American Film Director. His biography has been translated into 107 different languages.
Heywood Allen (born Allan Stewart Konigsberg; November 30, 1935) is an American filmmaker, actor, and comedian whose career spans more than six decades. Allen has received many accolades, including the most nominations for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, with 16. He has won four Academy Awards, ten BAFTA Awards, two Golden Globe Awards and a Grammy Award, as well as nominations for a Emmy Award and a Tony Award. Allen was awarded an Honorary Golden Lion in 1995, the BAFTA Fellowship in 1997, an Honorary Palme d'Or in 2002, and the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award in 2014. Two of his films have been inducted into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Allen began his career writing material for television in the 1950s, alongside Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart, and Neil Simon. He also published several books of short stories and wrote humor pieces for The New Yorker. In the early 1960s, he performed as a stand-up comedian in Greenwich Village, where he developed a monologue style (rather than traditional jokes) and the persona of an insecure, intellectual, fretful nebbish. During this time, he released three comedy albums, earning a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album nomination for the self-titled Woody Allen (1964).After writing, directing, and starring in a string of slapstick comedies, such as Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas (1971), Sleeper (1973), and Love and Death (1975), he directed his most successful film, Annie Hall (1977), a romantic comedy featuring Allen and his frequent collaborator Diane Keaton. The film won four Academy Awards, for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actress for Keaton. Allen has directed many films set in New York City, including Manhattan (1979), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). Allen continued to garner acclaim, making a film almost every year, and is often identified as part of the New Hollywood wave of auteur filmmakers whose work has been influenced by European art cinema. His films include Interiors (1978), Stardust Memories (1980), Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Radio Days (1987), Husbands and Wives (1992), Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Deconstructing Harry (1997), Match Point (2005), Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), Midnight in Paris (2011), and Blue Jasmine (2013).In 1979, Allen began a professional and personal relationship with actress Mia Farrow. Over a decade-long period, they collaborated on 13 films. The couple separated after Allen began a relationship in 1991 with Mia's and Andre Previn's adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. In 1992, Farrow publicly accused Allen of sexually abusing their adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow. The allegation gained substantial media attention, but Allen was never charged or prosecuted, and vehemently denied the allegation. Allen married Previn in 1997. They have adopted two children.
With an HPI of 73.70, Francis Ford Coppola is the 5th most famous American Film Director. His biography has been translated into 81 different languages.
Francis Ford Coppola ( KOH-pəl-ə, Italian: [ˈkɔppola]; born April 7, 1939) is an American film director, producer, and screenwriter. He is considered one of the major figures of the New Hollywood filmmaking movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Coppola is the recipient of five Academy Awards, six Golden Globe Awards, two Palmes d'Or and a British Academy Film Award (BAFTA). After directing The Rain People in 1969, Coppola co-wrote Patton (1970), which earned him the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay along with Edmund H. North. Coppola's reputation as a filmmaker was cemented with the release of The Godfather (1972), which revolutionized the gangster genre of filmmaking, receiving strong commercial and critical reception. The Godfather won three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay (shared with Mario Puzo). The Godfather Part II (1974) became the first sequel to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Highly regarded by critics, the film earned Coppola two more Academy Awards, for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director, making him the second director (after Billy Wilder) to win these three awards for the same film. Also in 1974, he released the thriller The Conversation, which received the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. His next film, the war epic Apocalypse Now (1979), which had a notoriously lengthy and strenuous production, was widely acclaimed for vividly depicting the Vietnam War. It also won the Palme d'Or, making Coppola one of only ten filmmakers to have won the award twice. Other notable films Coppola has released since the start of the 1980s include the dramas The Outsiders and Rumble Fish (both 1983), The Cotton Club (1984), Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), The Godfather Part III (1990), Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) and The Rainmaker (1997). Coppola has acted as producer on such diverse films as The Black Stallion (1979), The Escape Artist (1982), Hammett (1982), Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) and The Secret Garden (1993). Many of Coppola's relatives and children have become popular actors and filmmakers in their own right: his sister Talia Shire is an actress, his daughter Sofia is a director, his son Roman is a screenwriter, and his nephews Jason Schwartzman and Nicolas Cage are actors. Coppola resides in Napa, California, and since the 2010s has been a vintner, owning a family-branded winery of his own.
With an HPI of 72.15, David Lynch is the 6th most famous American Film Director. His biography has been translated into 71 different languages.
David Keith Lynch (born January 20, 1946) is an American filmmaker, visual artist, musician and actor. Lynch has received critical acclaim for his films, which are often distinguished by their surrealist qualities. He has received numerous accolades, including the Golden Lion in 2006 and an Honorary Academy Award in 2019. In 2007, a panel of critics convened by The Guardian announced that "after all the discussion, no one could fault the conclusion that David Lynch is the most important film-maker of the current era."Lynch studied painting before he began making short films in the late 1960s. His first feature-length film was Eraserhead (1977), which saw success as a midnight movie. He received nominations for the Academy Award for Best Director for The Elephant Man (1980), Blue Velvet (1986), and Mulholland Drive (2001). His film Wild at Heart (1990) earned the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or. Other notable films include Dune (1984), Lost Highway (1997), and Inland Empire (2006). Lynch and Mark Frost created the ABC series Twin Peaks (1990–1991), and Lynch co-wrote and directed its film prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) and the limited series Twin Peaks: The Return (2017). He also portrayed Gordon Cole in the Twin Peaks projects. Lynch's other artistic endeavors include his work as a musician, encompassing the studio albums BlueBOB (2001), Crazy Clown Time (2011), and The Big Dream (2013) as well as painting and photography. He has written the books Images (1994), Catching the Big Fish (2006), and Room to Dream (2018). He has also directed several music videos for artists such as Chris Isaak, X Japan, Moby, Interpol, Nine Inch Nails, and Donovan, and commercials for Calvin Klein, Dior, L'Oreal, Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci, and the New York City Department of Sanitation. A practitioner of Transcendental Meditation (TM), in 2005 he founded the David Lynch Foundation, which seeks to fund the teaching of TM in schools and has since widened its scope to other at-risk populations, including the homeless, veterans, and refugees.
With an HPI of 71.63, George Lucas is the 7th most famous American Film Director. His biography has been translated into 105 different languages.
George Walton Lucas Jr. (born May 14, 1944) is an American filmmaker and philanthropist. Lucas is best known for creating the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises and founding Lucasfilm, LucasArts, Industrial Light & Magic, and THX. He served as chairman of Lucasfilm before selling it to The Walt Disney Company in 2012. Lucas is one of history's most financially successful filmmakers and has been nominated for four Academy Awards. Lucas personally directed or conceived 10 of the 100 highest-grossing movies at the North American box office, adjusted for ticket-price inflation. Lucas is considered to be one of the most significant figures of the 20th-century New Hollywood movement, and a pioneer of the modern blockbuster. Despite this, he has remained an independent filmmaker away from Hollywood for most of his career.After graduating from the University of Southern California in 1967, Lucas co-founded American Zoetrope with filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. Lucas wrote and directed THX 1138 (1971), based on his student short Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB, which was a critical success but a financial failure. His next work as a writer-director was American Graffiti (1973), inspired by his youth in the early 1960s Modesto, California, and produced through the newly founded Lucasfilm. The film was critically and commercially successful and received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Director and Best Picture. Lucas's next film, the epic space opera Star Wars (1977), had a troubled production but was a surprise hit, becoming the highest-grossing film at the time, winning six Academy Awards and sparking a cultural phenomenon. Lucas produced and co-wrote the sequels The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983). With director Steven Spielberg, he created, produced, and co-wrote the Indiana Jones films Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), The Temple of Doom (1984), The Last Crusade (1989), and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), and served as an executive producer in name only on The Dial of Destiny (2023). Lucas is also known for his collaboration with composer John Williams, who was recommended to him by Spielberg, and with whom he has worked for all the films in both of these franchises. He also produced and wrote a variety of films and television series through Lucasfilm between the 1970s and the 2010s. In 1997, Lucas re-released the original Star Wars trilogy as part of a Special Edition featuring several modifications; home media versions with further changes were released in 2004 and 2011. He returned to directing with a Star Wars prequel trilogy comprising Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002), and Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005). He last collaborated on the CGI-animated television series Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008–2014, 2020), the war film Red Tails (2012), and the CGI film Strange Magic (2015). In addition to his career as a filmmaker, Lucas has founded and supported multiple philanthropic organizations and campaigns dedicated to education and the arts, including the George Lucas Educational Foundation, which has been noted as a key supporter in the creation of the federal E-Rate program to provide broadband funding to schools and libraries, and the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, a forthcoming art museum in Los Angeles developed with Lucas' wife, Mellody Hobson.
With an HPI of 71.27, Quentin Tarantino is the 8th most famous American Film Director. His biography has been translated into 104 different languages.
Quentin Jerome Tarantino (; born March 27, 1963) is an American film director, screenwriter, and actor. His films are characterized by stylized violence, extended dialogue including a pervasive use of profanity, and references to popular culture. Tarantino began his career as an independent filmmaker with the release of the crime film Reservoir Dogs in 1992. His second film, Pulp Fiction (1994), a dark comedy crime thriller, was a major success with critics and audiences winning numerous awards, including the Palme d'Or and the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. In 1996, he appeared in From Dusk till Dawn, also writing the screenplay. Tarantino's third film, Jackie Brown (1997), paid homage to blaxploitation films. In 2003, Tarantino directed Kill Bill: Volume 1, inspired by the traditions of martial arts films; it was followed by Volume 2 in 2004, with both volumes considered as a single film. He then made the exploitation-slasher Death Proof (2007), part of a double feature with Robert Rodriguez released under the collective title Grindhouse. His next film, Inglourious Basterds (2009), follows an alternate account of World War II. He followed this with Django Unchained (2012), a slave revenge Spaghetti Western, which won him his second Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. His eighth film, The Hateful Eight (2015), is a revisionist Western thriller and opened to audiences with a roadshow release. His most recent film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), is a comedy drama set in the late 1960s about the transition of Old Hollywood to New Hollywood. A novelization of the film was also published in 2021, becoming his debut novel. Tarantino's work has been subject to criticism, such as the depictions of violence and frequent inclusion of racial slurs. During Tarantino's career, his films have garnered a cult following, as well as critical and commercial success, he has been considered "the single most influential director of his generation". Apart from receiving the Palme d'Or and two Academy Awards, his other major awards include two BAFTAs and four Golden Globes.
With an HPI of 70.46, John Ford is the 9th most famous American Film Director. His biography has been translated into 69 different languages.
John Martin Feeney (February 1, 1894 – August 31, 1973), known professionally as John Ford, was an American film director. He was one of the most important and influential filmmakers of his generation. Ford made frequent use of location shooting and wide shots, in which his characters were framed against a vast, harsh, and rugged natural terrain. He received six Academy Awards including a record four wins for Best Director for The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), and The Quiet Man (1952). He is renowned for Westerns such as Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), The Searchers (1956), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). In a career of more than 50 years, Ford directed more than 140 films (although most of his silent films are now lost). Ford's work was held in high regard by his contemporaries, with Akira Kurosawa, Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman naming him one of the greatest directors of all time.
With an HPI of 68.61, Tim Burton is the 10th most famous American Film Director. His biography has been translated into 77 different languages.
Timothy Walter Burton (born August 25, 1958) is an American filmmaker, animator, and artist. Known for pioneering goth culture in the American film industry, Burton is revered for his gothic horror and fantasy films. These include Beetlejuice (1988), Edward Scissorhands (1990), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), Ed Wood (1994), Sleepy Hollow (1999), Corpse Bride (2005), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), and Dark Shadows (2012), as well as the television series Wednesday (2022). Burton also directed the superhero films Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), the sci-fi film Planet of the Apes (2001), the fantasy-drama Big Fish (2003), the musical adventure film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), and the fantasy films Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2016). Burton has often worked with actors Winona Ryder, Michael Keaton, Johnny Depp, Lisa Marie (his former girlfriend), Helena Bonham Carter (his former domestic partner) and composer Danny Elfman, who scored all but three of Burton's films. Burton also wrote and illustrated the poetry book The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories, published in 1997 by British publishing house Faber and Faber, and a compilation of his drawings, sketches, and other artwork, entitled The Art of Tim Burton, was released in 2009. A follow-up to that book, entitled The Napkin Art of Tim Burton: Things You Think About in a Bar, containing sketches made by Burton on napkins at bars and restaurants he visited, was released in 2015. His accolades include nominations for two Academy Awards and three BAFTA Awards, and wins for an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe Award.
Pantheon has 558 people classified as film directors born between 1854 and 2000. Of these 558, 356 (63.80%) of them are still alive today. The most famous living film directors include Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Woody Allen. The most famous deceased film directors include Stanley Kubrick, John Ford, and Sydney Pollack. As of April 2022, 50 new film directors have been added to Pantheon including Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Natacha Rambova, and Robert Kramer.
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Which Film Directors were alive at the same time? This visualization shows the lifespans of the 25 most globally memorable Film Directors since 1700.