Film News

The Director’s Dilmma: Stick With Indies or Leap to Summer Blockbusters?

It’s happened again. An indie director with little feature-length film experience has been given the keys to a big budget movie. To some, it’s a case of “Another one bites the dust.” To others, it’s more of an honest “I’ve never heard of this person before.”

This time, it’s writer-director Jon Watts, who followed up his directorial debut, 2014’s little-seen horror flick Clown, with Cop Car, a minimalistic thriller about two prepubescent boys (James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Welford) taking a cop’s (Kevin Bacon) car for a joy ride. It debuted at Sundance in January, Watts’ work with his young stars putting him on Sony and Marvel’s radar for the new, younger Spider-Man they plan to launch.  He’s now been hired to direct the Spider-Man reboot starring Tom Holland as the web-slinger, due out July 2017, beating out fellow writer-directors like Theodore Melfi, who made his directorial debut with last year’s Bill Murray dramedy St. Vincent, and Jonathan Levine, who has actually made several movies, including The Wackness, 50/50 and Warm Bodies. However, did Watts really “beat” those guys for the job? Hasn’t he just become a cog in a machine whereas Melfi and Levine are free to continue making smaller, more personal movies? Or is this the most important thing that will ever happen to Watts, forever shaping the rest of his career and opening up doors Melfi and Levine can’t even imagine?

Cop Car

It’s a very a familiar dilemma at this point. Do you mourn the hypothetical movies Jon Watts won’t make now because he’ll be locked into Spider-Man? Or do you celebrate the opportunity for someone to, as EW put it, “bring heart and intellect to what are essentially cartoon characters.”

Ava DuVernay fans have been wrestling with those same questions for months now, unsure if they really want the Selma director to take on Marvel Studios’ Black Panther. Earlier this week, it was reported that she’d officially been hired, but when asked point blank by THR Kevin Feige would only confirm that they have had meetings with Ms. DuVernay along with several others for the open directing gigs for Black Panther (due out in 2018) and Captain Marvel (2019).

Ava-Duvernay-Black-PantherShould DuVernay be hired, she’ll actually be someone who has gradually climbed the career ladder. After working for years as a publicist, she opened her own doors into filmmaking by using her own money to make a documentary (This Is the Life) and then a deeply personal full-length feature (I Will Follow). She upped her budget to $200,000 for a Sundance indie (Middle of Nowhere) about life in Compton, forming a relationship with the film’s star, David Oyelowo, which paid off several years later when he recruited her for a $20 million prestige picture (Selma) produced in the studio system. Even though a superhero movie like Black Panther would be a huge leap above Selma in terms of budget and miles away in terms of genre (she has no experience with action movies), she has already shown an ability to work independently as well as part of a studio team, taking on bigger financial risks with each subsequent movie she’s made. The same was true of Jon Favruea when Marvel hired him to direct the first Iron Man, although he was a little further along. He’d started out in the indie realm (Made) before climbing the ladder to a low-budget studio film (Elf) and then a mid-budget studio film (Zathura).

Lately, though, the studios have become increasingly annoyed with waiting for directors to establish that crucial next step. Why not just buy low on up-and-coming directors at film festivals and pair them with veteran producers who will surround them with experienced crew and SFX people?

Marc Webb on the set of a special She & Him music video with “(500) Days of Summer” stars Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt

After a career in music videos, Marc Webb made the indie darling (500) Days of Summer for less than $8m, and just like that Sony gave him over $200m to reboot Spider-Man, preventing him from making another romantic dramedy because now he could bring his flair for that material to Peter Parker and Gwen Stacey. Colin Trevorrow’s first movie was a quirky time-travel rom-com called Safety Not Guaranteed, which he co-wrote and made for less than a million, and somehow Steven Spielberg saw enough to decide this was a guy who could be trusted with a $150m budget and a crap-ton of special effects for Jurassic World. Josh Trank showed remarkably ingenuity and a love for the superhero genre in making the $12m Chronicle the world’s first found footage superhero movie. So, Fox decided his second ever movie should be a big budget reboot of the Fantastic Four, which has suffered a very curious production with plenty of whispers about a young director seriosly in over his head. Gareth Edwards made Monsters for less than half a million, wowing everyone with amazing special effects he actually created on his own laptop, calling upon his experience in the visual effects industry. That was his first movie, and Warner Bros. trusted that he could perform similar feats of fiscal magic with a Godzilla reboot.

Marc Webb on the set of The Amazing Spider-Man

Yet almost all of those moves make a certain level of sense.  The Andrew Garfield/Emma Stone version of Spider-Man needed a director who had shown a knack for romance. Josh Trank did something slightly new in the superhero genre at a time when “something new” was exactly what Fox wanted for the future of The Fantastic Four. Gareth Edwards had clearly studied his Spielberg and learned the “less is more” lesson of Jaws, applying it beautifully to Monsters, which is a story about two people falling in love in a world in which CGI monsters occasionally pop up in the background before finally getting a showcase sequence at the end. Plus, he did his own special effects! There was no better choice to make Godzilla than him. Colin Trevorrow…actually, I have no idea why he was hired to make Jurassic World off of Safety Not Guaranteed, which is about some horrible people (Jake Johnson, Aubrey Plaza) investigating a newspaper Want Ad in which an apparent crazy man (Mark Duplass) requested companionship for a forthcoming travel through time. But, hey, who am I to question Spielberg, and if you go by box office alone that decision’s clearly paying off.

Gareth Edwards on the set of Godzilla

What about the whispers that Marc Webb was sort of steamrolled by the studio suits and hands-on producers with The Amazing Spider-Man movies?   Or that Gareth Edwards got the CGI right in Godzilla but not the humans, mistakenly casting the remarkably bland Aaron Taylor-Johnson as his leading man and foolishly killing off Bryan Cranston’s character? What do you even make of Josh Trank at this point, who somehow scored the gig to make a Star Wars movie off of Fantastic Four but has since walked away, telling the LA Times, “I want to do something original after [Fantastic Four] because I’ve been living under public scrutiny, as you’ve seen, for the last four years of my life. And it’s not healthy for me right now in my life. I want to do something that’s below the radar.” And would a more experienced director have fought Bryce Dallas Howard harder and carried more weight in the decision making when she insisted upon wearing high heels throughout the entirety of Jurassic World in order to maintain her character’s femininity? It’s unlikely that Trevorrow was faced with anything remotely similar when dealing with pretty much the only actress, Aubrey Plaza, in Safety Not Guaranteed.

Were these people completely ready to make the jump? Are the mistakes they made the same ones they would have made regardless of their prior experience? Or would they have made better movies had they been allowed to grow a little more as a filmmaker before joining the land of superheroes, monsters and army-sized production crews?

Part of this is simply a byproduct of the way the mid-budget Hollywood film has died in recent years as well as a generational shift where many of these younger filmmakers grew up in the blockbuster era and are giant comic book/monster movie nerds. Another part of this is down to older directors having grown tired of making big movies or, if not tired, their talents are no longer affordable. Some of it might be a reaction to Joss Whedon turning The Avengers into one of the highest-grossing films of all time even though his only prior movie had been a $38m budgeted box office flop. Or that it makes a certain philosophical sense to pick a director who is just starting out to shepherd a franchise which is itself just starting out (or re-starting). You could also argue that it’s a reflection of a brain drain where a lot of filmmakers have simply seen the wind changes and gravitated toward directing TV where they can also end up being hired to make a huge movie, like Game of Thrones’ Alan Taylor for Thor: The Dark World.

Christopher Nolan Hilary Swank Insomnia 001
Christopher Nolan directing Hillary Swank on the set of Insomnia

Regardless of why it’s happening, Christopher Nolan thinks it’s not exactly the best thing for the filmmakers. As he told THR, “When people look at what I did with the Batman franchise, for example, they say, ‘Well, the guy did this little indie film [Memento] and then went and did that’” And it’s like, no, I did a medium-sized studio film [Insomnia, $46m budget], where I certainly felt a lot of pressure, unquestionably, but I did not feel the pressure that you feel when you take on a beloved character in a huge franchise, you know? So I had agreeable timing and I was able to build my relationship with the studio [Warner Bros.] through that film and learn how to deal with the pressures of big-budget Hollywood filmmaking. It was a very valuable experience for me.” He went out to every studio and film festival to sell Memento, and he was constantly asked, “Oh, you’ve done this very different, extreme thing. What are you going to do next? How do you top that?” Luckily for him, he was already working on Insomnia at that point, his first studio film and first time simply directing instead of both writing and directing. However, he recognizes that films like Insomnia are not made in the studio system anymore. That would probably be an HBO show now, like True Detective.

Colin Trevorrow directing Chris Pratt on the set of Jurassic World

Times have changed, which weighed heavy on Colin Trevorrow’s mind when he was first offered the chance to direct Jurassic World. As he told SlashFilm:

I think that it was actually the first thing I said to Steven [Spielberg] when we sat down and he was suggesting this. However flattered I was, I acknowledged — I was, like, look, man, let’s just acknowledge, this is the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to me. Let’s put it on the table right now. That said, he had the privilege of making a series of original movies [Duel, Sugarland Express] that allowed him to build a voice and identity as a filmmaker over a long period of time. And by doing [Jurassic World], I am essentially being robbed of that in exchange for the best thing that ever happened to anyone. So, you weigh that.

The really interesting part is how indebted Trevorrow felt to Spielberg.

And in the end, I felt like I had a responsibility to do it mostly, you know, for Steven. In thanks for everything he’s done for all of us and how much his movies meant to me and to my childhood, but also if one is asked to do this, it’s almost insulting to everyone else to say no. We would all love this privilege to be able to recreate a film that meant so much to us.

However, he’s well aware of the general hand-wringing over people like him going from the festival circuit to the brass ring:

It’s so funny. I read certain articles about how all of the new filmmakers are immediately being given massive tent poles and there’s a lot of original movies that we have now lost as a result of this. I don’t want to call it a fad because I think it’s a good thing. I think the movies are better as a result.

But he really hopes he’s not now simply locked into making movies like Jurassic World for the rest of his life:

But, it’s very important to me to be able to tell original stories and I’m hoping that I can at least go back and forth. Because look, I love big movies. I love the kind of movies I watched when I was a kid. But, I also love telling great stories.

And that is the modern director’s dilemma. Those who have seen Cop Car, like IndieWire’s Eric Kohn, think Jon Watts is an ideal choice to make Spider-Man since his “technical credentials and cinematic enthusiasm in [the film’s] constant forward momentum” should perfectly translate to “a franchise featuring a character who never slows down.” However, this is an era in which “outsized hype and dumbed-down standards dangle from every direction.”  Those who have seen Ava DuVernay’s work fear that “attaching herself to a Marvel film could detour a burgeoning talent from her own path” while also recognizing “it could also circle her back and provide leverage to tell even more ambitious stories in the future.”

Things didn’t go so well for Josh Trank, whose reputation can likely only be repaired if Fantastic Four overperforms.  Gareth Edwards landed a Star Wars movie as well as an inevitable Godzilla sequel.  Marc Webb was last seen signing a deal with CBS Television Studios to executive produce the upcoming shows Limitless and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.  And Colin Trevorrow has all the leverage in the world right now to go make good, original stories, although Universal will certainly try very hard to get him back for a Jurassic World sequel despite his preference to move on to something else.


  1. Great rundown of this issue. I get really worried when directors are not allowed a chance to develop their own voice on smaller under-the-radar projects. All the greats had their mid-budget studio films wedged in between obscurity and massive success and that’s a learning curve that Trevorrow, Trank, and some of these other developing directors will never get. To me this is a curse of the reboot age where studios want more control over their properties and cheaper more compliant directors who won’t take big risks with their big IPs. There is so much money at stake that it is simpler to go for bland but crowd pleasing than really let someone like Edgar Wright make the film they want to make. It’s like the university: replaced tenure with adjusts because it’s cheaper, faster, and hey it still gets the job done. Who is going to give Trevorrow his next job and he is really going to deliver without Spielberg shepherding him through the studio process and forcing Universal to wait a year to make the script better?

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