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David Poland

By David Poland

How New Directors End Up In The Studio System

This survey was originally titled “The Male Director Challenge.” You can find out why, in detail, here.

The basic idea was to answer the question being posed often these days about why so many more men are directing studio movies than women. Answers to the question, mine included, tend to be a bit off the cuff. And I would prefer to have some facts going into any serious conversation.

The standard I set for myself was any first-time major studio director with a non-animated film that ended up grossing in the Top 50 of any of the last 15 years, 1999 – 2014. This means it is, naturally, a somewhat incomplete list. But it feels to me like there is some insight here.

There are 101 people who became studio directors for the first time in the last 15 years. Some are amongst the biggest working these days… some have never made another film.

Of the 101, only 3 are women. Sharon Maguire, Phyllida Law, and Anne Fletcher.

(Why is Ava DuVernay not on this list? Selma ended up as the #61 film of 2015. That is the quirk of this survey. She is not alone. There are others who might have made the list were it not for under-#50-grossing films that were for studios in this time period, leaving them as ghosts.)

The question of how many “people of color” is a lot more complicated, as there is a good-sized chunk of non-Americans that so qualify. That said, there are only three African-Americans on this list of 101.

There are all kinds of stories about how these folks got to be studio directors and many fit into multiple categories of prior history getting there. But the biggest group by far is people who have already made independent feature films. Fourteen of the thirty-four newcomers in this group are people who came from other countries.

1999 – Notting Hill – Roger Michell
2001 – The Others – Alejandro Amenábar
2003 – Gothika – Mathieu Kassovitz
2004 – The Bourne Supremacy – Paul Greengrass
2004 – The Grudge – Takashi Shimizu
2005 – Flightplan – Robert Schwentke
2005 – The Ring Two – Hideo Nakata
2006 – The Pursuit of Happyness – Gabriele Muccino
2009 – Taken – Pierre Morel
2010 – The Tourist – Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
2011 – Rise of the Planet of the Apes – Rupert Wyatt
2012 – Safe House – Daniel Espinosa
2012 – Contraband – Baltasar Kormákur
2013 – Mama – Andy Muschietti

1999 – The Sixth Sense – M. Night Shyamalan
1999 – The Matrix – The Wachowskis
1999 – Inspector Gadget – David Kellogg
2000 – Gone in 60 Seconds – Domenic Sena
2002 – Insomnia – Christopher Nolan
2003 – American Wedding – Jesse Dylan
2003 – Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde – Charles Herman-Wurmfeld
2005 – Saw II – Darren Lynn Bousman
2005 – The Exorcism of Emily Rose – Scott Derrickson
2005 – The Family Stone – Thomas Bezucha
2006 – Nacho Libre – Jared Hess
2007 – Stomp the Yard – Sylvain White
2008 – What Happens in Vegas – Tom Vaughn
2008 – Cloverfield – Matt Reeves
2012 – The Vow – Michael Sucsy
2012 – Looper – Rian Johnson
2014 – Guardians of the Galaxy – James Gunn
2014 – Godzilla – Gareth Edwards
2014 – The Fault in our Stars – Josh Boone
2014 – 300: Rise of An Empire – Noam Murro

The next biggest group of new directors came from television roots, both here and abroad.

1999 – She’s All That – Robert Iscove
1999 – House on Haunted Hill – William Malone
2000 – Bring It On – Peyton Reed
2000 – Coyote Ugly – David McNally
2000 – Snow Day – Chris Koch
2000 – Final Destination – James Wong
2001 – Bridget Jones’ Diary – Sharon Maguire
2002 – The Santa Clause 2 – Michael Lembeck
2003 – S.W.A.T. – Clark Johnson
2005 – Sahara – Breck Eisner
2005 – White Noise – Geoffrey Sax
2006 – Borat – Larry Charles
2007 – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – David Yates
2008 – Sex and the City – Michael Patrick King
2011 – The Muppets – James Bobin
2012 – Pitch Perfect – Jason Moore
2012 – Chronicle – Josh Trank

The next group is the much-maligned Music Video/Advertising group.

2000 – The Cell – Tarsem Singh
2000 – Next Friday – Steve Carr
2000 – Shanghai Noon – Tom Dey
2001 – Behind Enemy Lines – John Moore
2002 – Barbershop – Tim Story
2003 – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – Marcus Nispel
2004 – DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story – Rawson Marshall Thurber
2005 – Constantine – Francis Lawrence
2005 – The Amityville Horror – Andrew Douglas
2010 – Tron Legacy – Joseph Kosinski
2012 – Snow White and the Huntsman – Rupert Sanders

The groupings get much smaller from here.

2005 – The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – Andrew Adamson
2011 – Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol – Brad Bird
2012 – 21 Jump Street – Miller & Lord
2012 – John Carter – Andrew Stanton

2006 – Eragon – Stefen Fangmeier
2008 – Journey to the Center of the Earth – Eric Brevig
2009 – G – Force – Hoyt Yeatman
2014 – Maleficent – Robert Stromberg

2001 – Legally Blonde – Robert Luketic
2008 – Four Christmases – Seth Gordon
2009 – District 9 – Neill Blomkamp
2009 – Zombieland – Ruben Fleisher
2009 – Hotel for Dogs – Thor Freudenthal

1999 – American Pie – The Weisz Brothers
2002 – Two Weeks Notice – Marc Lawrence
2004 – Along Came Polly – John Hamburg
2008 – Forgetting Sarah Marshall – Nicholas Stoller

1999 – American Beauty – Sam Mendes
2002 – Chicago – Rob Marshall
2008 – Mamma Mia! – Phyllida Law

2009 – Paranormal Activity – Oren Peli
2012 – Ted – Seth MacFarlane

2001 – American Pie 2 – J.B. Rogers
2001 – The Animal – Luke Greenfield
2002 – Jackass: The Movie – Jeff Tremaine
2006 – V for Vendetta – James McTeague
2006 – Step Up – Anne Fletcher
2007 – Blades of Glory – Josh Gordon/Will Speck

And finally,”Other Professions.” There is a top-end veteran cinematographer and writer/producers and an actor-turned-choreographer-turned-director, etc.

1999 – Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo – Mike Mitchell
2000 – Romeo Must Die – Andrzej Bartkowiak
2001 – Cats & Dogs – Lawrence Guterman
2001 – The Wedding Planner – Adam Shankman
2002 – The Time Machine – Simon Wells
2004 – Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy – Adam McKay
2007 – TMNT – Kevin Munroe
2009 – Couples Retreat – Peter Billingsley
2012 – Act of Valor – Mouse McCoy/Scott Waugh
2014 – The Maze Runner – Wes Ball

Had I included 2015 in this survey, only Elizabeth Banks would be on the list so far. And she would have to be in the “Creators” or “Other Professions” group because she got the gig after producing the original film back to life… which is not that rare for a sequel, but not often a way in to the first studio gig on an original.

8 Responses to “How New Directors End Up In The Studio System”

  1. Peter T says:

    What about Sam Taylor-Johnson? Or is Fifty Shades of Grey not a “studio” film? (Or did she direct a “studio” film before that one?)

  2. Bob Burns says:

    so, they will have to pick their directors in a different way if they want to get their heads out of their asses.

    cool study. thank you.

  3. Bulldog68 says:

    Well that was fast. Looks like Colin will be rewarded for Jurassic World with being named Director of Star Was 9.

  4. John says:

    Wow. Guess there aren’t as many opportunities for writers to direct as I once thought.

  5. robb says:

    seth gordon made a Documentary. King of kong. thats the category he should fall in.

  6. David Poland says:

    Good call, Peter T. She had directed the indie Nowhere Boy before, but that would have still put her on this list.

  7. Joshua says:

    Simon Wells should probably be listed under Animation instead of Other Professions.

  8. dangeruss says:

    wasn’t JJ Abrams first studio film Mission Impossible 3

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin