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 director, writer, and producer. A major figure of the New Hollywood era and pioneer of the modern blockbuster, he is the most commercially successful director of all time. Spielberg is the recipient of various accolades, including three Academy Awards, a Kennedy Center honor, a Cecil B. DeMille Award, and an AFI Life Achievement Award. In 2013, Time listed him as one of the 100 most influential people. 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 gained acclaim from critics and audiences. He made his directorial film debut with The Sugarland Express (1974), and became a household name with the 1975 summer blockbuster Jaws. He then directed box office successes Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and the Indiana Jones series. Spielberg explored drama in The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987). After a brief hiatus, Spielberg directed the science fiction thriller Jurassic Park, the highest-grossing film ever at the time, and the Holocaust drama Schindler's List (both 1993), described as one of the greatest films ever made. He won the Academy Award for Best Director for the latter and for the 1998 World War II epic Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg continued in the 2000s with science fiction films A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), Minority Report (2002), and War of the Worlds (2005). He also directed 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 has served as a producer for many television series and films. He is also known for his 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 among the highest-grossing films of all time. Seven have been inducted into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
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, -eːse]; born November 17, 1942) is an American film director, producer, screenwriter and actor. Scorsese emerged as one of the major figures of the New Hollywood era. He is the recipient of many major accolades, including an Academy Award, a Grammy Award, three Emmy Awards, four British Academy Film Awards, two Directors Guild of America Awards, an AFI Life Achievement Award and the Kennedy Center Honor in 2007. 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 an MA 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 insecure 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, dealing with machismo and violence, and exploring Catholic concepts of guilt and redemption, 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 2000s and 2010s decades, Scorsese garnered critical acclaim and 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). Returning to his familiar territory of crime films, Scorsese collaborated with De Niro again on The Irishman (2019). Scorsese's other film work includes the black comedy After Hours (1985), the romantic drama The Age of Innocence (1993), the children's adventure drama Hugo (2011), and the religious epics The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Kundun (1997) 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, almost all of which are adaptations of novels or short stories, cover a wide range of genres and are noted for their innovative cinematography, dark humor, realistic attention to detail and extensive set designs. Kubrick was raised in the Bronx, New York City, and attended William Howard Taft High School from 1941 to 1945. He received average grades but displayed a keen interest in literature, photography, and film from a young age, and taught 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 war picture Paths of Glory (1957) and the historical epic Spartacus (1960). Creative differences arising from his work with Douglas and the film studios, a dislike of the Hollywood industry, and a growing concern about crime in America prompted Kubrick to move to the United Kingdom in 1961, where he spent most of his remaining life and career. His home at Childwickbury Manor in Hertfordshire, which he shared with his wife Christiane, became his workplace, where he did his writing, research, editing, and management of production details. This allowed him to have almost complete artistic control over his films, but with the rare advantage of having financial support from major Hollywood studios. His first productions in Britain were two films with Peter Sellers: Lolita (1962), an adaptation of the Vladimir Nabokov novel, and the Cold War black comedy Dr. Strangelove (1964). A demanding perfectionist, Kubrick assumed control over most aspects of the filmmaking process, from direction and writing to editing, and took painstaking care with researching his films and staging scenes, working in close coordination with his actors, crew, and other collaborators. He often asked for several dozen retakes of the same shot in a movie, which resulted in many conflicts with his casts. Despite the resulting notoriety among actors, many of Kubrick's films broke new ground in cinematography. The scientific realism and innovative special effects of the science fiction epic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) were without 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"; 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 under natural 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, 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 "Woody" Allen (born Allan Stewart Konigsberg; November 30, 1935) is an American film director, writer, actor, and comedian whose career spans more than six decades and multiple Academy Award-winning films. He began his career writing material for television in the 1950s, mainly Your Show of Shows (1950–1954) working alongside Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart, and Neil Simon. He also published several books featuring short stories and wrote humor pieces for The New Yorker. In the early 1960s, he performed as a stand-up comedian in Greenwich Village alongside Lenny Bruce, Elaine May, Mike Nichols, and Joan Rivers. There he developed a monologue style (rather than traditional jokes) and the persona of an insecure, intellectual, fretful nebbish. He released three comedy albums during the mid to late 1960s, earning a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album nomination for his 1964 comedy album entitled simply Woody Allen. In 2004, Comedy Central ranked Allen fourth on a list of the 100 greatest stand-up comedians, while a UK survey ranked Allen the third-greatest comedian.By the mid-1960s, Allen was writing and directing films, first specializing in slapstick comedies such as Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas (1971), Sleeper (1973), and Love and Death (1975), before moving into dramatic material influenced by European art cinema during the late 1970s with Interiors (1978), Manhattan (1979), and Stardust Memories (1980), and alternating between comedies and dramas to the present. Allen is often identified as part of the New Hollywood wave of filmmakers of the mid-1960s to late 1970s such as Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, and Sidney Lumet. He often stars in his films, typically in the persona he developed as a standup. His film Annie Hall (1977), a romantic comedy featuring Allen and his frequent collaborator Diane Keaton, won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actress for Keaton. Critics have called his work from the 1980s his most developed period with films such as Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Radio Days (1987), and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). In the 21st century, many of Allen's films were shot in Europe, including Match Point (2005), Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), Midnight in Paris (2011), and To Rome with Love (2012), returning to America with Blue Jasmine (2013), Cafe Society (2016), and A Rainy Day in New York (2018). In 1979, Allen began a professional and personal relationship with actress Mia Farrow. Over a decade-long period, they collaborated on 13 films and conceived one child, the journalist Ronan Farrow, who was born in 1987. 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, the seven-year-old Dylan Farrow. The allegation gained substantial media attention, but Allen was never charged or prosecuted, and he vehemently denied the allegation. Allen married Previn in 1997, and they adopted two children.Allen has received many accolades and honors, including the most nominations for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, with 16. He has won four Academy Awards, one for Best Director, and three for Best Original Screenplay. He also garnered nine British Academy Film Awards. In 1997, Allen was awarded the BAFTA Fellowship by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. In 2014, he received the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award for Lifetime Achievement and a Tony Award nomination for Best Book of a Musical for Bullets over Broadway. In 2015, the Writers Guild of America named his screenplay for Annie Hall first on its list of the "101 Funniest Screenplays". In 2011, PBS televised the film biography Woody Allen: A Documentary on its series American Masters.
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 (; 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). His film The Godfather Part II (1974) became the first sequel to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Highly regarded by critics, the film gained Coppola three more Academy Awards: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture, 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 nine 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). 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 and granddaughter Gia are directors, 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 and a 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, painter, visual artist, actor, musician, writer, and philanthropist. A recipient of an Academy Honorary Award in 2019, Lynch has received three Academy Award nominations for Best Director, and the César Award for Best Foreign Film twice, as well as the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and a Golden Lion award for lifetime achievement at the Venice Film Festival. 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", while AllMovie called him "the Renaissance man of modern American filmmaking". His work led to him being labeled "the first populist surrealist" by film critic Pauline Kael.: xi Lynch studied painting before he began making short films in the late 1960s. His first feature-length film, the surrealist Eraserhead (1977), became a success on the midnight movie circuit, and he followed that by directing The Elephant Man (1980), Dune (1984), and Blue Velvet (1986). Lynch next created his own television series with Mark Frost, the murder mystery Twin Peaks (1990–91), which initially ran for two seasons. He also made the film prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) and the road film Wild at Heart (1990) in the same period. Turning further towards surrealist filmmaking, three of his subsequent films operated on dream logic non-linear narrative structures: Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001), and Inland Empire (2006). Lynch and Frost reunited in 2017 for the third season of Twin Peaks, which aired on Showtime. Lynch co-wrote and directed every episode, and reprised his onscreen role as Gordon Cole. 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 music and sound design for a variety of his films (sometimes alongside collaborators Alan Splet, Dean Hurley, and/or Angelo Badalamenti); painting and photography; writing the books Images (1994), Catching the Big Fish (2006), Room to Dream (2018), and numerous other literary works; and directing several music videos (such as the video for "Shot in the Back of the Head" by Moby, who, in turn, directed a video for Lynch's "The Big Dream") as well as advertisements, including the Dior promotional film Lady Blue Shanghai (2010).An avid 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. 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. His films are among 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. 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), while also editing The Empire Strikes Back. 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). 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 Star Wars Trilogy (Now known as The Original Trilogy) as part of a special edition featuring several alterations; 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), Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002), and Star Wars: 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).
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, writer, producer, and actor. His films are characterized by frequent references to popular culture and film genres, non-linear storylines, dark humor, stylized violence, extended dialogue, pervasive use of profanity, cameos and ensemble casts. Other directorial tropes that identify his style include the use of songs from the 1960s and 70s, fictional brand parodies, and imagery of women's bare feet. 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. 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) told an alternate history with the war film genre. He followed this with Django Unchained (2012), a slave revenge Spaghetti Western, which won him his second Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Tarantino's eighth film, The Hateful Eight (2015), was 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 controversy, such as the depictions of violence, frequent inclusion of racial slurs and the alleged negligence of safety in his handling of stunt scenes on Kill Bill: Volume 2. During his career, Tarantino's 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", and listed as one of the most influential people in the world. 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 and naval officer. He is renowned both for Westerns such as Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and adaptations of classic 20th century American novels such as The Grapes of Wrath (1940). He was the recipient of six Academy Awards including a record four wins for Best Director. In a career of more than 50 years, Ford directed more than 140 films (although most of his silent films are now lost) and he is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential filmmakers of his generation. Ford's work was held in high regard by his colleagues, with Akira Kurosawa, Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman among those who named him one of the greatest directors of all time. Ford made frequent use of location shooting and wide shots, in which his characters were framed against a vast, harsh, and rugged natural terrain.
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 and artist. He is known for his gothic fantasy and horror films such as 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). 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, Johnny Depp, Lisa Marie (former girlfriend), Helena Bonham Carter (his former domestic partner) and composer Danny Elfman, who made scores for 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, 360 (64.52%) 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.