Hollywood's Billion-Dollar Filmmakers

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas headline the select few in the ten-figures club.

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The movies you loved most as a kid (and beyond) have made some old men very, very wealthy. A select few have moved past the mere hundreds of millions in net worth into the fickle Three Comma Club. Here are five of the wheels in Hollywood who have made cash registers go ka-ching a billion times over.

1. George Lucas — Estimated Net Worth: $5.4 billion

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Unsurprisingly, the person to top the list of billion-dollar filmmakers is the creator of the galaxy far, far away — writer, director, and producer George Lucas. Lucas owned 100 percent of Lucasfilm and all of the franchises tied to it — including Star Wars, natch — before he sold it to Disney in 2012 for a whopping $4.06 billion. What is surprising is just how relatively little in terms of filmmaking Lucas has done to build his fortune. Dude has directed only six films, but he made ‘em count, and has continued ably as a producer, and as the steward of all things Star Wars.

With his cash stacked, Lucas has begun to focus on philanthropy. When he sold Lucasfilm in 2012, Lucas vowed to donate most of the $4 billion in proceeds to educational pursuits, telling the Hollywood Reporter, “For 41 years, the majority of my time and money has been put into the company. As I start a new chapter in my life, it is gratifying that I have the opportunity to devote more time and resources to philanthropy.” Since then, he’s donated to his alma mater USC, the Film Foundation, Stand Up to Cancer, and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He’s also planning to build the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art — which will hold his art collection, itself valued in the billions — in Chicago by 2018.

2. Arnon Milchan — Estimated Net Worth: $5.2 billion

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Everybody knows Lucas. Milchan? Probably not so much. But don’t sleep on Arnon over here. As the prolific producer of more than 130 films, Milchan has been one of the most powerful behind-the-scenes figures in Hollywood for a generation. He’s the guy behind such classics as Brazil, Pretty Woman, Fight Club, and Free Willy.

It should also be noted that he’s an undeniable badass, mostly because he used to be a professional soccer player and an Israeli secret agent and arms dealer in the 1960s. Of his spy game past, Milchan told the Guardian, “Do you know what it’s like to be a 20-something-year-old kid [and] his country lets him be James Bond? Wow! The action! That was exciting.” One guesses being the real Israeli James Bond transitions nicely into actually making something like James Bond movies.

After turning his family’s bankrupt fertilizer company around, Milchan created his own production company, now called New Regency Productions, in the early ‘80s. He’s been raking in huge amounts of cash and awards season hardware ever since. Most recently he scored back-to-back Best Picture Oscars with 12 Years a Slave and Birdman, and he’s set to produce the big screen adaptation of Assassin’s Creed in 2016. It’s safe to say this dude knows what he’s doing.

3. Steven Spielberg — Estimated Net Worth: $3.3 billion

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How cute, best buds on the rich list at number one and number three respectively. We’re sure there’s no animosity between Lucas and his best friend Steven Spielberg as the pair have always been known to engage in some friendly competition. When Star Wars premiered the same year as Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, each agreed to give the other 2.5 percent of his film’s profits. Both were outright hits, but Spielberg’s quick bet on the popularity of Star Wars made him $40 million richer, adjusted for inflation.

What really differentiates Lucas and Spielberg besides dollars and cents is Spielberg’s output. Among his 27 current feature films (number 28 is on the way with this year’s Bridge of Spies), Jaws, E.T., and Jurassic Park were the highest-grossing films ever made at the time of their release. Spielberg also produced Jurassic World, the highest-grossing film of 2015, so the money keeps rolling in. The irony is that he may be unseated for the year by Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which has nothing to do with his old buddy George.

4. Austin Hearst — Estimated Net Worth: $1.9 billion

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The saying goes, “It’s not what you know but who you know,” and for Austin Hearst, it’s also a little bit of who your grandfather was. Yup, he’s the grandson of media mogul William Randolph Hearst. It makes you wonder if little Austin caught a screening of Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ thinly veiled critique of his grandpa, and figured he had something to prove.

Hearst’s biggest and basically only filmmaking credit is for the 2012 romantic drama The Vow, starring Channing Tatum and Rachel McAdams. Though that movie was a big hit, earning over $196 million worldwide against a $30 million budget, it doesn’t exactly put Hearst in the same sterling company of the other titans on this list. Otherwise, he’s been a creative executive on outdated cartoons like Popeye and Beetle Bailey. His real power, also stemming from his last name, lies in the ownership shares of television networks like ESPN, Lifetime, and A&E that belong to Hearst Corp.

5. Ryan Kavanaugh — Estimated (Former) Net Worth: $1 billion

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Kavanaugh is probably the most controversial figure on the list (which, let us remind you, includes a former secret agent and arms dealer), so much so that he isn’t a billionaire any longer. The self-made producer behind production company Relativity Media was part of the reason the company filed for bankruptcy in July 2015. Despite producing hits like The Social Network, The Fighter, and Limitless, the man that Forbes once called “The Most Watched Man in Hollywood” is now being watched even more closely because of his mistakes.

Kavanaugh’s producing strategy consisted of investing not in huge franchises, but in mid-range movies that turned modest profits. The plan worked well enough to make him a self-made billionaire, but none of his past 10 films managed to gross even $40 million domestically. His company filed for Chapter 11 and has been looking for investors to try to salvage the business, and Kavanaugh was allegedly not among the executives recently offered incentives to stay with the rapidly sinking ship. Kavanaugh’s still richer than lard-based fudge, but he won’t be among the billionaires in the near future.

Honorable Mentions

ˇIn the spirit of Hearst-based nepotism, the trend of trust fund babies using family fortunes to make movies is worth bringing up. The tendency for trust-funders like Megan Ellison ($41 billion), Gigi Pritzker ($2.3 billion), Teddy Schwarzman ($10 billion), and Jeff Skoll ($4.1 billion) to fashion themselves after the plutocratic movie mogul network from the old golden age of Hollywood is a good thing, insofar as it puts the financial risks of making art onto people who can afford to take those chances. Often, those risks have paid off. Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures has generated 17 Oscar nominations, with a few Best Picture noms like Zero Dark Thirty in there. Most are auteur-based prestige pictures. But these gazillionaires should take heed before they get ahead of themselves: They could just as easily end up like Kavanaugh.

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