Where do Good Film Directors Grow Up?

Herbert Brenon

Director Herbert Brenon with actress Alla Nazimova

Roger Ebert, the film critic, wrote a recent blog post that began, “Ramin Bahrani is the new great American director. After three films, each a master work, he has established himself as a gifted, confident filmmaker with ideas that involve who and where we are at this time.”

I’d never heard of Ramin Bahrani, but if Roger Ebert was enthused about him, I was curious to learn more. The blog revealed some details: Bahrani was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to Iranian parents, his father was a psychiatrist, he went to Columbia University in Manhattan, then spent some years in Iran, returned to America, and started making movies.

Winston-Salem Skyline
Winston-Salem Skyline

Winston-Salem is probably best-known for its tobacco industry. It isn’t known for incubating film directors. I wondered what places are known for incubating film directors, especially good film directors. To answer that question, I made a list of good film directors, along with where they grew up.

Who qualifies as a “good” film director? I decided to look at those directors who’ve received two or more Academy Award nominations for best director. I figured that getting one nomination might be a fluke, but getting two nominations is significant.

As of writing this, there are 83 directors who got nominated for best director twice, treating Joel and Ethan Coen as one because they always got nominated together.

I also had to decide what I meant by the “place where they grew up.” For example, Frank Capra was born in Sicily but his family immigrated to Los Angeles when he was six. I decided to go with the place they called home for the longest time before age 18. Using that definition, Frank Capra grew up in Los Angeles and Elia Kazan grew up in New York City. Steven Spielberg moved around a lot growing up, so I didn’t know what to put as the place where he grew up, other than the United States!

Frank Capra

Frank Capra cuts army film as a Signal Corps Reserve major during World War II

I created the list in an OpenOffice Calc spreadsheet and also uploaded it to swivel.com.

[Update: swivel.com shut down in the summer of 2010, and the live embedded charts that used to be in this post vanished with them. I guess the lesson is to make your own charts; don’t rely on live charts provided by third parties.]

So where did the good directors grow up?

52 of the 83 (63%) grew up in the United States, eleven grew up in England, three in Austria-Hungary, two in Germany, two in Italy, and two in Sweden. The rest are the sole good directors to grow up in the country that they did. I didn’t expect to see three who grew up in Austria-Hungary, a country which hasn’t existed since the First World War. Those three are Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, and Otto Preminger.

Only one good director grew up in my home country, Canada, namely Norman Jewison. He grew up in Toronto and has been nominated for best director three times. James Cameron, Atom Egoyan, Arthur Hiller, and Jason Reitman didn’t make the cut because they’ve been nominated only once. James Cameron also won—for directing Titanic—but I guess it was a fluke. He’s free to prove me wrong by getting nominated a second time.

[Update: James Cameron did prove me wrong. He was nominated for best director again (for Avatar).]

I was also curious about the cities where good directors grew up. I found that twelve grew up in New York City, five in Chicago, three in London, two in Los Angeles, two in Philadelphia, and two in Vienna. All other cities had either one or no good directors who grew up in them. (There were 14 where the city where they grew up wasn’t clear or was multiple cities.) I wasn’t surprised that so many grew up in New York City, but I was surprised with how many grew up in Chicago.


Many good directors grew up in New York City

I noticed there are no women in my list of good directors. In fact, only three women have been nominated for best director, and each of them was nominated only once, so far. Those three are Lina Wertmuller, Jane Campion, and Sofia Coppola. All were nominated since 1975. I suspect we’ll be seeing more female nominees in the future.

[Update: After I wrote this post, Kathryn Bigelow went on to be nominated for, and win, the best director award for directing Hurt Locker. She was the first woman to win best director.]

The bottom line is that no good directors (by my definition) came from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. All are men and most grew up in the United States, with New York City being the most productive city. I don’t mean to suggest that Winston-Salem won’t produce some good directors. If Roger Ebert is right, we can probably look forward to that in the coming years.

Did I make a factual or logical mistake? If so, please let me know in the comments below. I may repair the mistake and if I do, I’ll give you credit.

Image credits: Photo of Herbert Brenon with actress Alla Nazimova is a press photograph from the George Grantham Bain collection, which was purchased by the Library of Congress in 1948. According to the library, there are no known restrictions on the use of these photos. Winston-Salem Skyline at Night Courtesy of: Winston-Salem Convention and Visitors Bureau, http://www.visitwinstonsalem.com. Photo of Frank Capra: This image is a work of a U.S. Army soldier or employee, taken or made during the course of the person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain. Manhattan Sunset Dream #3 by aturkus on Flickr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

A friendly human.

5 thoughts on “Where do Good Film Directors Grow Up?

  1. Well at least two logical problems.You are assuming that the nominations for academy awards are equally distributed and so form a good tool to assess excellence of film directors. But:It’s an American industry award and it tends to have a bias towards the American film industry. It most certainly has a strong bias to the English-speaking film industries. It’s hard to determine how biased and political the nomination process is, but if you look at fantasy and science-fiction as a genre there are a lot fewer nominations as a percentage than films in the genre compared to overall production. Horror too. Perhaps they are "less good" proportionately, but it strikes me (and others) that there’s just a bias against this genre and so Cameron is in trouble for all his Sci-Fi movies. He has produced movies in genre that should count towards his excellence, but not been nominated because they’re not "proper" films.Either of these alone would throw doubt on the measure of excellence you’ve created. Whilst it might be fair to say that "prior to Bahrani, North Carolina had produced no directors considered great" the stats you’re using to assess greatness don’t mean greatness can’t arise there, even if you decide they are a valid measurement of greatness in this case. Historically it’s obviously unlikely if your measure has validity – but that simple statement of mine could be used to indicate that too without spurious stats – but artistic greatness isn’t really geographically constrained, it’s just more likely to arise in denser population centres because there are more people there to let those great individuals appear by probability and there’s possibly an element of the population density supporting an environment to let them train and develop their skills more readily too.


  2. Hi Eloise,I’ll agree that there are problems with using Academy Award nominations for best director as a way to define who is a "good" director. For example, should I include the director’s ability to motivate and bring out the best in the actors? This is something actors care about, but how am I to measure that? Shall I survey a bunch of actors? Maybe I could ignore the best director nominations and look at the acting nominations instead, checking to see who directed *those* movies to see if certain directors keep coming up. Another thing to look at might be whether the director stays on budget and on time, or tends to go over budget or get behind schedule. Those things certainly matter to the folks who fund films. In short, people have different metrics for "goodness" depending on what they want out of a director. I’d be happy to know if anyone has studied other measures.


  3. A fascinating post, thanks Troy. It got me to thinking, what defines a good director? I would also agree with Eloise that Oscar nominations are biased to US directors, though I was actually a little surprised that only 63% therefore came from US.You are probably being unfair omitting Cameron. Even though he was only in the Oscars once, its hard to say that he wasnt one of the best for making what must be one of the top 10 of all time films. Similarly, I would have like to see one of our own Scottish directors Danny Boyle in the list but he is excluded by the two times nominated rule. Good to see one Scottish director in there, though. I didnt know about Frank Lloyd until seeing your list. To be fair though, Scottish and English should really be counted in the UK group, as you have with Ridley Scott (one of my personal favourites, actually). Thats one little error that you might consider correcting, and bump up the UK position.So how do you define a good director? Well, naturally, as soon as you use the word "good", pretty much all objectivity goes out the window. To find an objective measure, you could use something like the most box office sales, or bums on seats in the cinema. There has been some research done on these, e.g.http://www.channel4.com/film/newsfeatures/microsites/U/ultimate_film/results_100.htmlhttp://www.boxofficemojo.com/This is of course assuming that a successful film implies a good director. I would support this, but thats just my point of view with no solid evidence base. Personally, I consider the "goodness" of the director to be the most important factor in making a film "good". Again, I also consider that a good film is measured by the number of people who watch it and are entertained. Yep, thats a risky assumption to make and there are many great films that were not as successful as Titanic, or Gone with the Wind. Also, some films are not necessarily made to be entertaining. My argument falls down a little when you look at the all time most viewed Youtube video. As cute as "Charlie Bit My Finger" is. But thats a whole other subject – What makes a good Youtube video? Though it is becoming more relevant in defining good films as the world is moving to Internet entertainment and we see less bums on seats in cimemas.Cinema is Brain Dead, or so Peter Greenway states. Theres a good discussion on that here http://mattkelland.blogspot.com/2009/03/cinema-is-brain-dead.html


  4. Hi Russell,You’re free to make your own definition of "good" director and then check the statistics. I had to pick something. I briefly considered using box office or total revenues (including video sales and merchandising) but I don’t think that’s fair. The director may play a role in the revenues (e.g. people will go out of there way to see a Spielberg film regardless of what it’s about), but other factors are also important: the script, the headline actors, the marketing budget, and so on.I’m not going to change the England and Scotland country listing to the UK. It wouldn’t affect the results much anyway – the England count would become the UK count and would go from eleven to twelve directors.


  5. Hi Troy,Sorry for the delay in replying to your comment – RL has been hectic.Anyway, you seem to be painting yourself into a different corner, or perhaps more firmly into one you already knew about. That would be the question of whether or not you can objectively judge greatness in the arts.Given I’m unsure you can even judge a great textbook – sure you can assess its factual accuracy, but can you assess how well it can be used for learning and reference objectively – I’m pretty sure I’m on the side of you can’t really objectively assess great art, nor great artists. You might argue that directors aren’t artists, but I think you’re on a losing proposition there – their product is film and that’s art rather than science no?So, if you can’t objectively assess greatness in the arts and artists, how do you do it? Literature has an answer: it has an august group that say "This is canon" and thus great. Of course that might not be fair: does a group of white, male academics judge literature from black women fairly for example? But this sounds quite like your situation, you have a director you respect saying "this guy is great" so why not accept it on his recommendation?


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