“Veteran helmers” is the Hollywood euphemism for those enfants terribles who are neither enfants nor terribles any longer. They never quite made it to the A list, but their fees are high, they’re not getting any younger and age-obsessed studio execs would rather gamble on a Steven Spielberg in short pants for half the money.
Historically, great filmmakers have done their most lasting work prior to the age of 50 and experienced slow to rapid decline – artistically and commercially – before hanging up their megaphones. With the move away from shooting on soundstages to locations, the physical toll has become more intense.
Notes one studio executive, “There are a lot of people who’ve had distinguished directing careers and have an increasingly difficult time getting work. When you suggest people who have multiple Oscars and 10 years ago would have been the person to dream for, the response is usually something like, ‘Isn’t he awfully old?'”
Anyone in Hollywood will tell you that age is not a barrier- when a filmmaker has a movie star in his package. It also helps if he’s had a recent hit or owns the rights to sought-after material.
“In general, the majors don’t want to deal with the tough, old dogs,” says director Paul Mazursky. “If you’ve spent 20 or 30 years making movies, you have a pretty good idea of what you do and have limited tolerance for readers’ reports or preview cards. I’ve originated most of my projects, and it wouldn’t have mattered whether I was 18 or 80; almost everyone said ‘no’ to a picture about an old man and a cat (‘Harry and Tonto’). I just did ‘Faithful,’ which was someone else’s script, but most of the projects I’m offered are pretty silly and should be made by younger talent.”
One studio chief acknowledges that such veteran talent as Arthur Hiller, Herbert Ross and Sidney Lumet is often mentioned to direct projects. He said their keen sense for a wide variety of material and “great work ethics” were definite pluses. But their fees – generally in the $2 million-$3 million range – pose budgeting problems.
Many older directors are now experiencing second careers directing offbeat projects for cable TV. John Frankenheimer, who began his career in TV, recently helmed the prison saga “Against the Wall” for HBO.
Hiller notes that having several decades’ experience certainly merits a higher salary for a director. But he contends that a fair deal with a real back end would prompt a lot of directors to lower their upfront fees. He characterizes himself as “happy to gamble” and cited “Love Story” as an instance when he worked well below his quote for a piece of the action.