If you’d asked us yesterday which director’s career had generated a higher cumulative domestic box office, between James Cameron and Christopher Nolan, it would have been hard to bet against Cameron. After all, the guy is responsible for both Avatar and Titanic, the #2 and #3 (Force Awakens is #1) highest grossing films of all time in the U.S. But it’s not just about the highs—it’s about the averages. With the release of Dunkirk, it’s Nolan who has surprisingly passed Cameron, moving into the fifth all time spot in terms of domestic box office with a gaudy total of $1.983 billion. Thanks to Nolan being more active in a time of higher ticket prices, inflation, etc., his more recent efforts such as the Batman trilogy have each contributed much more to his cumulative total than older Cameron films such as Terminator 2, True Lies or Aliens. The directors ahead of Nolan are names that you would expect: Robert Zemeckis, Peter Jackson (thanks to LOTR), Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg in the obvious #1 spot.
Nolan’s highest grossing film has been The Dark Knight, which brought in $534 million domestically, but that’s only a small ways ahead of the likes of The Dark Knight Rises, which raked in $448 million, or films such as Inception, Batman Begins, Interstellar and Dunkirk, which have all brought in similarly gaudy totals. Nolan is the rarest of directors—a critically adored, occasionally experimental filmmaker with a touch of Kubrickian genius, who simultaneously crafts populist features that excite the average multiplex-goer.
Of course, these spots in the ranking likely won’t remain in their positions for long. Cameron has numerous Avatar sequels on the way, which might very well catapult him all the way up to the #2 spot within a few years. Ron Howard, meanwhile, has the Han Solo film coming after he replaced a fired Phil Lord and Christopher Miller on the Star Wars spin-off.
If you’re curious, the full top 10 of director domestic grosses can be found below.
1. Steven Spielberg – $4.445 billion
2. Michael Bay – $2.326 billion
3. Peter Jackson – $2.134 billion
4. Robert Zemeckis – $2.019 billion
5. Christopher Nolan – $1.983 billion
6. James Cameron – $1.974 billion
7. Ron Howard – $1.896 billion
8. Tim Burton – $1.840 billion
9. Clint Eastwood – $1.816 billion
10. Chris Columbus – $1.750 billion