Directors are storytellers. They are in charge of every creative aspect from development to post-production, ensuring the film’s story is conveyed through the Actors’ performances and the onscreen visuals.
Film Director, Movie Director
$250K to $2M
How To Become a Director (Film)
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Film and TV Directors are some of the most respected individuals in the industry. To learn about what it takes to get a foot in the door and build a successful career as a Director, we talked to several professionals working in feature films, scripted television, and reality TV.
In this article, you’ll hear from:
- Hisham Abed (Queer Eye)
- Cassius Corrigan (Huracán)
- Bola Ogun (Queen Sugar, Lucifer, Charmed)
- Mark Tonderai (Spell, Locke & Key)
- Norberto Barba (Law & Order: SVU, FBI, Mayans MC)
Though a Director might be most commonly identified as the person who works with the Actors and directs them in their performances, the person in this role often has a hand in every part of the filmmaking process from pre-production through post-production.
Many Directors participate in script rewrites ahead of production either on their own or with the Screenwriter(s). They also collaborate with department figures such as the Storyboard Artist, Cinematographer, Production Designer, and Head Costume Designer to establish the look of the film.
Because they are responsible for getting great performances out of their Actors, a Director will also typically work with the Casting Director and their Associates during the casting phase of pre-production and give input as to who is chosen for a given role.
A Director is expected to have a working knowledge of each primary part of making a movie, mainly so that they can competently converse with the individuals in charge of those departments.
That’s why part of their day-to-day duties during production will generally involve working with the aforementioned Cinematographer, Production Designer, and Head Costume Designer, as well as the Producer(s) of the production.
Once a production moves into the post-production phase, the job of a Director is often not finished. Many Directors are heavily involved in the process of putting together the final film, TV show, or other project. A Director will generally work closely with the Editor of the film, as well as the Re-recording Mixer, Sound Designer, Colorist, and Composer to guide the look and sound of the project.
If a project includes visual effects, the Director will also work with the Visual Effects Supervisor to ensure that those effects are created and implemented as needed.
What does a Director do?
A Director interprets a script and helps assemble the crew of people that s/he communicates his/her vision to in order for the crew to help execute that “vision,” or interpretation, of the story.
Before filming starts, a period called pre-production, the Director is part of casting the roles (though not always, there are exceptions, like in TV series), “scouting” or choosing locations, deciding on the “look” or “texture” and “tone” of the film — will it be dark, light, scary, genre-specific, etc.?
During filming, or “production”, the Director gives “direction” to not only the Actors (are they interpreting and acting the scene as the Director sees it?) but also to all the other departments that contribute to the visualization of the film, including the Art Department, the Cinematographer (figure out all the shots and angles that “cover” or comprise a scene), the Costume or Wardrobe Department, Hair and Make-up Artists, etc.
One of the most important aspects of the Director’s job is to capture all the necessary pieces–the shots and scenes on time and on budget — that come together in order to edit the movie in “post-production.”
Films are shot out of order, due to practicality, so the Director has to have a clear idea of all the emotional and visual arcs that s/he envisions at any given time so that when the movie is edited, the audience is unaware of that process and sees it all as one continuous story.
Finally, visual effects, sound effects, and music are added to complete the project. All under the supervision of the Director and in collaboration with the Producers and other members of the team.
What goes into being a Director of a feature film? It starts with the screenplay. If you didn’t write the screenplay, you have to deeply, deeply understand what it is, the story that you’re telling, and why it’s going to resonate with people.
What are the critical aspects of it that just need to come across in the experience of the movie? [It’s] understanding if you can or can’t deliver those, and what you need to make sure they come across.
Take Huracán, for example. If I hadn’t written the screenplay, but I wanted to direct it, I would look at it and say, “Okay, what are the most salient things that I need to get across?”
The first thing is you really want to build the mystery and the suspense of this deep dive into severe mental illness, and I wanted to find creative, cinematic ways to put that on screen because I think that can be very thought-provoking.
That’s a huge feature of the movie. Directorially, you have to identify that type of feature, and have an idea, practically, how you’re going to bring it to life. On the other side, it was the MMA element. We had this opportunity to have this really authentic and visceral mixed martial arts fight action onscreen.
Identifying those two features of the movie as big cinematic elements that I could use and combine to create a really engaging film experience: I’d say that is kind of the most important early work as a Director, creatively.
Then, it’s working with the Producer. The better you can cast and crew up your film, the much better position you’re going to put yourself and the project in. Because even [with] myself writing, directing, lead producing, lead acting, and co-editing, there were so many other people that had to play a very big role and execute at a very high level for the movie to turn out how it did.
So, it’s really understanding what you need from your collaborators and what they want — and making sure you’re delivering that and staying conscious of that. That’s a huge part of the direction of one of these sorts of ultra-low-budget first features.
As a Director, your job is to tell the story. Which sounds super basic, but I think a lot of people are confused about what “story” is sometimes. They’re always focused on the flashier things like car chases or fight punches, but sometimes it’s just about the themes of the story; what are you trying to say?
So much can happen on set, in pre-production, and in post-production. Your job as a Director is to make sure that throughout that process, the message comes through clearly. Every decision you make–down to color, hair, makeup, the way you shoot something–is a tool to help tell the story.
Prior to COVID, my job was very simple. It’s to make everybody else their best selves. That’s still the same post-COVID, but it’s a little different.
To help everybody be their best selves means creating an environment where people feel free to create, feel free to talk about ideas, and feel free to smile without any form of recriminations. That’s really all my job is if I’m honest with you: to make everyone their best selves by creating an environment where people feel they can flourish. (That seems quite simple, but it’s not because it sort of splits into substratum.)
That involves a huge amount of preparation because crews need to know you know what you’re doing, and so do cast. Cast needs to have that trust in you, so they need to know that you know subtextually what’s going on in the text.
I’m doing a show at the moment for Netflix. I have a Showrunner that I have to answer to. I have a network, Netflix, that I have to answer to. If I’m doing a film, I have a studio that I have to answer to. So you have to take all of those into consideration, and try to keep the eye on the prize, i.e., the true north star of the story. I know that sounds a bit nebulous but that’s kind of what I do.
There are so many aspects to the Director’s job and one can answer differently depending on how one views a Director’s responsibilities. My feeling is a Director tells a story, and the Director is a leader who works and collaborates with other artists; for example, the Cinematographer, Production Designer, Casting Director. He or she works with them to tell a story.
The Director’s responsibility is to harness all that talent to tell the best story he can tell. A Director’s other main responsibility, I think, is working with Actors and getting the best performance—the truest and most honest performance.
I had a mentor once who said that the Director’s main responsibility is to separate the machinery of making film from the Actor so that the Actor can be in the moment. On a set, there’s 150 people around, there’s lights, there’s all this stuff that can distract an Actor, and the Director is there to make that disappear, to instill trust and to protect the Actor so that the Actor can be in that moment.
That’s a big responsibility. I recall Sidney Lumet, a famous Director, once said, “A Director’s most important power is when that person says, ‘Okay, print! Moving on.’” Because that means you’ve committed that you have it, now we’re moving on, you can’t go back. That’s a very important responsibility.
As with most specialties, a Director’s salary can vary wildly from one medium to another, as well as from project to project.
Depending on the Director’s experience and a film’s budget, they can potentially earn between $250,000 to $2 million per project. If it’s a film backed by a major studio, a Director will likely earn more than $1 million for it.
Keep in mind that these figures typically correlate with a Director being part of the DGA–the Directors Guild of America–that sets rates for its members. Currently, the weekly rate for a high-budget film is $20,616 and $14,723 for a short or documentary.
In television, a Director in the DGA can earn a minimum of $80,532 per episode for a half-hour network (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC) show. That rate can increase for a longer show but can also be significantly lower for programs that air on cable or streaming.
If a Director is not yet part of the DGA, their salary again can be significantly lower. Moreover, a Director may have substantial breaks between projects, which may mean that they only get paid for one or two projects in a given year.
How much does a Director make?
Salaries for Directors vary as widely as the projects that they work on and even what niche of filmmaking they work in. Some projects have the base salaries regulated by the Directors Guild of America, or DGA, and can be negotiated beyond that.
A starting salary for a Reality TV Director might be $4,000 to $5,000 per week, but a Sitcom TV Director might make $60K or more per week or episode. A Commercial Director might make $40-$50K per day for a very high-end commercial, or a couple thousand dollars for a local TV commercial. Plus, there are often royalties or “residuals” you might collect (depending on the deal you’ve made) for your work after it airs or is in theaters for a period of time.
Here is a link to the DGA’s rate cards for the next year.
It depends on what path you take. For example, if you go and make an independent movie, you probably will lose money. Because you’re really putting yourself out there and you’re probably begging and borrowing to make that movie. But then ultimately, if it’s good, people will come to you and give you an opportunity to do another movie. How big the movie is kind of dictates how much you would make on it.
Television directing, it depends. There’s half-hour comedies, there’s one-hour dramas, and there’s TV movies. It could be extremely lucrative. For example, with the DGA (the Directors Guild), a one-hour drama minimum, I think is something like $47,000 for a one-hour episode. Then, you get residuals, where every time they show it, you’ll get a piece of that.
You make a great living being a Director if you’re successful, but getting there is tough, and staying there is tougher.
This is a little harder because it isn’t like most industries where, if you’re talented and hard-working, you can find a path up the ladder. There are a lot of people who are hard-working and talented in this industry who don’t get anywhere.
My theory behind that is that this business is four parts: talent, hard work, who you know, and luck. Now the percentages of those things are different. To me, luck is only 10%, and the other three are the larger percentages. You have to tackle it from all four sides, or really, three sides; the fourth side, luck, you don’t have any control over. But if you’ve done your work on the other three, it’s easier to get that 10%.
It’s tough. I’ve lived in L.A. for fifteen years, and I didn’t really start making money as a Director until last year. So it’s a long road. One of the best things you can do is, instead of focusing on how to live off of being a Director, focus on keeping your overhead low enough so you don’t have to worry about that yet. Keep your lifestyle as minimal as possible so that all your money, all your time and energy goes into what you wanna do: direct, create, and be a filmmaker.
It’s gonna be hard. It’s not gonna be comfortable. It’s annoying because everybody else is gonna have nice new cars, and you’re gonna wish you had that nice new car. But you’re focused on something bigger than the material things.
When you get those moments of struggle, or when someone who doesn’t understand your business is confused as to why you’re trying so hard for something that doesn’t give back the work you put in, tell them: the core of what you’re doing is about sending messages through your art. That’s way more important than the material things.
And hopefully, your focus will bring heat your way. People in this business are heat-seekers. It’s some of the best advice I ever received. People are heat-seekers, and unless you’re generating your own heat, no one is gonna come around and feel for you.
What creates heat is a focus on story. Focus on why you’re telling the story. Focus on what you wanna say because that’s unique to you–not everybody has what you have to say. So that’s gonna be interesting. The more you stay focused on that, the more likely you are to generate your own heat.
The common desire to be a Film Director makes it a highly competitive field to break into.
Unless a Director takes it upon themselves to produce a film, they’re likely vying for a limited number of opportunities along with hundreds of other creatives with similar experience and expertise.
With a greater focus on providing opportunities for individuals who historically have had a more difficult time breaking into the directing world, namely women and people of color, several programs have been created over the last few years to help aspiring Directors.
Aspiring Film Directors may also find success outside of cinema. Those looking to direct may want to consider alternate fields like TV or commercial directing. While still competitive fields to enter, they can overall provide more opportunities for Directors.
Is Film Director a good career?
If you feel drawn to tell stories through a visual medium like film, being a Film Director might be the perfect career for you. Keep in mind, though, that it is often a career with very little financial or professional stability. Some Directors like Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese have as much security as one can ask for, but in most cases, Directors are hustling for that next gig for their entire careers. That being said, directing as a career can afford you the opportunity to be highly creative, and should your name become a recognizable one, financially secure.
Is it hard to become a Director?
Hard depends on how you define it. The act of going out and directing something like a short film isn’t necessarily difficult. All you need is a smartphone and probably some friends to help both in front of and behind the camera. Is it hard to be a good Director? Sure, but with time, patience, and practice, you can likely pick up most or all of the skills that successful Directors have like having a clear vision, being able to collaborate with others, and of course directing your Actors to great performances.
Is it hard to be a Director with professional stability and financial security? Yes, very. Many filmmaking specialties come with high competition among both established and newcomer professionals looking to make it big, and directing is no exception. Many Directors do find success by branching out from a focus solely on directing studio-backed feature films by taking work as a music video, commercial, or other type of Director. Though not an easy career to navigate, it still draws in many people on account of the creativity and exposure it can provide.
The career path to directing can be just as individualized as the person seeking it.
Film schools across the globe offer directing tracks for students, which may be the starting point for many aspiring Directors. But as with any other aspect of the film industry, forging a successful career path often depends on the relationships formed along the way.
Aspiring Directors must learn to find connections within the film industry, which can greatly help in getting jobs all the way from a student film to a studio blockbuster. It’s also important to reach out for opportunities early in one’s career, as there’s no substitute for on-set experience.
Many Directors start off their careers with smaller projects, such as commercials, short films, or music videos to build their portfolio of work and prove to studio heads, executives, Producers, and others in hiring positions that they can competently manage a larger production.
Emerging Directors may also look to any number of mentorship programs in the entertainment industry to aid their professional efforts. The DGA offers a Directors Development Initiative that pairs TV Directors with their more veteran colleagues to help expand their careers.
Other programs include the AFI Directing Workshop for Women, CBS Directing Initiative, Disney/ABC Directing Program, HBOAccess Program, NBC Alternative Directors Program, NBC Emerging Director Program, MNC Female Forward, Sony Pictures Television Diverse Directors Program, ViewFinder: the Viacom Emerging Directors Program, and Warner Bros. Director Workshop. Each of these opportunities afford aspiring Directors–especially BIPOC and women Directors–the chance to further develop their skillsets.
It’s also possible that some aspiring Directors pivot from a different specialty to directing. Many people, ranging from Charlie Kaufman to Jan De Bont and beyond, began as Screenwriters, Cinematographers, and more before making the leap to directing.
How do you become a Film Director?
Great question. The simplest answer is you just need to start. Given that so many people have easy accessibility to smartphones, which happen to have great video production value, you can start directing your first film now. A Director is a discipline where examples of your work really matter, which is why it’s important to start building a reel of your work as soon as possible. From films recorded on your phone to student films to indie shorts, examples of your work as a Director will help you get noticed and possibly hired for more substantial projects such as independent features, TV shows, and even multimillion-dollar movies.
How long does it take to become a Director?
The one thing about our game is that you need experience to get somewhere and no one’s gonna give you the experience.
I’m constantly astounded at how much I learn every day. Every single day I’m learning something new and something different because my attitude toward a script is, I look at the narrative, and then I figure out how to shoot it. I can now look at a scene or a schedule and begin to roughly sketch out how long it’s gonna take—and that’s through experience.
It’s a real oxymoron. I always say to kids, “Go out there and shoot, and shoot, and shoot, and shoot, and shoot, and keep shooting.” Even if it’s on a phone. Keep shooting, and watch stuff. Watch the DVDs of film, then watch the film. Listen to the commentary. Understand why people made decisions, why they went that way, why they went this way.
Experience & Skills
A Director’s job encompasses far more than just directing the performances of the Actors. Because Directors are generally considered the leader of a project, they must know how to interact with virtually every member of the crew.
That means understanding to some degree the major facets of making a movie, including screenwriting, cinematography, production design, sound, and editing. While a Director doesn’t necessarily have to be an expert in any of these specialties, they must know how to communicate their vision for the film to the people who are.
This very unique skillset can be attained both with formal education and on-set experience.
What skills do Directors need?
You need to be able to listen. Your most powerful tools are empathy, and your ability to understand all sides of a situation so that you’re never judging anyone. When Actors are playing villains, the number one thing they say is: “You cannot judge your villain.” Your character is not a villain, because to them, they’re doing the right thing.
As a Director, you have to do the same thing. You cannot judge any of your characters. You cannot judge any of the crew or people that you work with. You have to be open and know when to decline something and know when it’s a good idea.
Try to edit. If you’re a good Editor, or at least someone who understands editing, that will be a really powerful tool to have as a Director. Not so you can take the mouse away from your Editor and go, “Let me do it,” but so that you’re able to communicate with them. Same with the DP. You wanna be able to talk with your DP as clearly as possible in their language.
When you’re watching movies and TV shows, study those things. Why are they editing it this way? What does that make me feel? How did everybody–the Director, Editor, Production Designer, etc.–make me feel that? Play it over and over again and figure it out. Dissect it.
The first thing you’ve got to have is an absolute cast iron work ethic. That’s really, really, really important. Especially if you’re a person of color, frankly, and if you’re a woman. You have to be undeniable, and that means really putting in the graft.
In prep, I tend to have maybe two hours, three hours consistently for about ten days because I’ve got to be ready for that first tech scout. So, work ethic is really important.
Being able to talk to people is even more important. Be tenacious, be prepared. [It’s] having a real bulletproof plan…and then being able to deviate with that.
Being able to course correct is really important. Being able to pivot is really important because things happen. The other day, we were shooting and we had rain and we also had kids, which meant I lost the kids at a certain time. I lost them because I had been rained out. I had to work on how to do the scene in less shots. Those are the sort of esoteric things.
But then the sort of practical: you have to know things like lenses, you have to know cameras, you have to know how to block. You have to know how to get out of a scene really quickly with the amount of time that you’ve got left, which seems an easy thing to do but it’s incredibly hard because you need coverage.
One of the things I’ve done just in the last four years is operate camera — which means I can pick up the camera and just literally shoot. A lot of my favorite Directors like Zack Snyder, Tony Scott, and Ridley Scott all operate…and they do it for a reason. I can just go, “Okay, I’m the roller of this, and I’m gonna do this, do that, do that,” without getting cut.
It takes out a couple of levels of communication [and] that’s really gonna save you time. Time is the biggest factor in my job: juggling time, working out your time lengths, and sticking to a plan that allows you to deliver on that time.
I’ve found that I want to know everybody’s job so if I can do it, I can do it. So I know that when I get on the floor how the DP’s gonna light [and] I know how long that’s gonna take. I know what the first AD does, I know what the Grips do, and I know how long it takes for them to do their job.
That really helps because all the time I’m doing this continuous sort of math puzzle, where I know that if I’m after that shot, I’m gonna have to come around, which means lighting this way, and this way, and this way, which means this, this, and this, and all these different computations go into my mind. Then I work out how long it’s gonna take and based on that I make my decision if I’m gonna do it.
If I’m honest with you, I’ve made up decisions in prep a long time ago. I write an extensive shot list. I write it again and again and again…and I storyboard. It’s great to have a plan, but as Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
Having a plan allows you to pivot. A lot of the time, my job is all about setting up this shot here, but knowing that I’m gonna have to go to that set there and do this and do that, so you’re always five or six steps ahead.
Good communication skills, patience and a will to deal with people in a diplomatic fashion is a necessary foundation for a Director. You really need to know yourself and what your point of view is–both of yourself in the world, your world view and values and how you apply that to your work and the stories you tell.
Equally important to the craft of directing is a solid understanding of story, story structure, visual storytelling, knowledge of each department that you work with, “knowing your way around a set” is immensely useful. So, I think it’s great to try out working in different positions as you work towards your goal as a Director.
And, above all, being kind to everyone you work and being a good leader is vital. If you can create a positive environment for everyone to do their best work, and inspire them to do so, then you are more likely to be called back to work for more jobs.
I think the best Directors are wonderful communicators. You have an idea; it starts with a script, a story, and the Director is going to interpret that story to make it into a film or television episode. To do that, the Director must be able to communicate his or her ideas to his team and to the Actors.
Communication is essential, and the other thing is, I think, collaboration. You’re working with a team, and you want to bring the best out of the team so that you can tell the story you want to tell.
What do Film Directors do on a daily basis?
A Film Director’s daily duties will vary, based on where they’re at in the filmmaking process. A Director’s work will be very different during pre-production than it will be during pre-production.
Throughout the entire process of making a movie, a Film Director might do any of the following (in order from the start to finish of a film):
- Pitch potential film projects to investors
- Create pitch decks
- Weigh in on film casting, locations, and production/costume design
- Consult and run production meetings with department heads
- Help plan the shooting schedule
- Work with Actors to get their best performances
- Make sure the footage is working
- Call “action” and “cut” on various scenes
- Go through dailies for the Editor
- Work with Editor on picture lock
- Work with Composer on soundtrack
- Work with Colorist on the film’s look
- Do press for the finished film
- Accompany the film to festival appearances and red carpet premieres
Education & Training
A formal film education can play an important role in giving an aspiring Director early momentum for their career.
Not only can film school provide instruction on the necessary skillsets that a Director must have, but also it typically offers multiple opportunities for a Director to test out those skills through the creation of student films. At film school, aspiring Directors can also begin to forge those all-important professional relationships that could prove helpful down the road.
If going to college for film isn’t an option, aspiring Directors can still make connections with those who do. Often student filmmakers will post notices about needing extra help–such as for PAs–which can be a great way for an aspiring Director to start getting that on-set experience.
Those just starting out can also look to see if any local productions are in need of extra help. With enough time and connections made, an aspiring Director can work their way up to actually directing a film one day.
Is film school worth it for Directors?
With filmmaking through USC, that’s really how I discovered what filmmaking was, the blend of entrepreneurship and artistry, and getting an understanding of what the roles were that went into filmmaking. But what I would say is that for someone who already knows they want to be a filmmaker, and if they’re reading Careers In Film they probably already have an idea that they’re interested in that, I don’t think going to film school is a critical or essential step on your path to becoming a filmmaker.
Because at the end of the day, your degree in filmmaking means absolutely nothing. As a Writer-Director, the fact that I went to USC doesn’t make an Actor want to be in a movie. It doesn’t make an investor want to finance development of a script or production of a movie. Those things are honestly completely irrelevant. The only thing that can speak for that is yourself as your own advocate, and your work.
Definitely. For me, yes. You know, there are people like Quentin Tarantino that didn’t go to film school. They worked in a video store. You don’t need to go to film school to become a Director. In fact, people come from different parts of life/jobs.
I went to film school because it afforded me the opportunity to have access to equipment and film. Also, I knew it would give me an opportunity to network, to meet other filmmakers and learn from other filmmakers.
I had three different experiences with film school. I went to Columbia University, initially. I was going there because I wanted to get medical school requirements, too, because I was thinking of being a Doctor. But I always loved film, so in my freshman and sophomore year, I kept taking courses at the graduate school—film history and film theory—because they didn’t have an undergraduate program then for film.
There was a limit [and] I got to the limit before you have to take production, but because I was an undergrad, I couldn’t do it. But I really got a great sense of European film, language, and theory because Miloš Forman ran the department at that time.
After two years at Columbia, I thought, “Well, I really wanna dive into film. I can’t go any further here.” So I transferred to USC, and from day one, (I went in as a junior) it was all production. I did every position you can think of and I networked, and I still have friends from that period—Academy Award winners and TV people—and after I finished there I thought, “Okay, I now want to really focus on directing,” and so I applied and got into the American Film Institute.
So I went to the AFI. The AFI was completely different; it was all about story. Story, story story. There wasn’t a class that taught you how to use a camera. There wasn’t any of that stuff. You go out, you’re making three short films, and you’re on your own. You use your classmates as your crew and we had access to SAG Actors.
When I look back at it, it was the best balance. Yeah, it made me broke, but it was the theoretical approach to film as language and using and seeing film in a formalistic way, then USC, which was much more hands-on and commercial, and it was about working to make movies, and it was more Hollywood-oriented.
And then, going to the AFI where it was much more conservatory, about telling stories. “How do you focus on story, story, story?” informs your choices for casting, which informs your choices for where to put the camera, and so that training to me was great.
The scholastic approach might work. It’s all very personal, you know? I’m not really that way. I kind of just want to get out there and make stuff.
Obviously, you can do that at college but I really feel there’s nothing quite like being in the cauldron of a floor, and working on a floor, and working with people on the floor and getting sweaty with people on the floor.
At the end of the day, when you’ve made your day, that feeling is incredible. To consistently go in every day–it’s something that happens to you that you don’t get anywhere else. So, if you’re asking me personally, I would say get on the floor and get on the job.
If you’ve got a contact in the game, it’ll get you on the floor. I would much rather be on the floor because you’re learning practically [and] it’s all about connections. The crews at this level are amazing. You cannot operate at this level if you’re an asshole. Right?
At this level, when you’re on the floor, everybody is so good at their job, and they’re really good human beings because all the bad apples have been weeded out, which tells you a lot about how the industry works. It’s a people thing.
Most jobs are all about someone calling you up and saying, “Oh, hey. Are you free?