Once-hot helmers plot return from Limboland

Two years after the expensive 2004 floppola “The Stepford Wives,” Frank Oz last week signed on to direct the comedy “Death at a Funeral” for indie Sidney Kimmel Entertainment.

It raises an age-old question: How long must a director stay in limbo after a mega-clunker?

So far, Martin Brest has been in a cone of silence since 2003’s “Gigli.” Kevin Spacey‘s directing career seems out to sea after “Beyond the Sea.”

Nora Ephron has been silent since back-to-back turkeys “Lucky Numbers” (2000) and “Bewitched” (2005).

After a dud, some helmers fear they’ll never direct again. They might be right.

Elaine May, who directed “Ishtar” in 1987, hasn’t had an assignment since then. Willard Huyck this year marks the 20th anniversary of “Howard the Duck,” the last pic he directed.

Some work, eventually. “Happy Feet” bows this year, George Miller‘s first film since “Babe: Pig in the City” brought that porcine franchise to a screeching halt eight years ago.

Others find work on TV. Mimi Leder, who cut her teeth on “China Beach,” “L.A. Law” and “ER,” moved on to films “The Peacemaker” and “Deep Impact.” But after 2000’s “Pay It Forward,” she returned to small-screen work. (She’s skedded to helm the Michael Douglas vehicle “Smoke & Mirrors” in 2007.)

After 2002’s “The Adventures of Pluto Nash,” Ron Underwood has mostly done TV work, including episodes of “Monk.” Also on TV is John Landis, absent from the bigscreen after “The Stupids” with Tom Arnold (1996) and “Blues Brothers 2000″ (1998).

On the other hand, some have quickly bounced back. With a good track record, Michael Bay seems unscarred by the ’05 “The Island.” He’s back with the “Transformers: The Movie” for 2007.

Kevin Reynolds has helmed three pics since the 1997 “Waterworld,” including this year’s “Tristan & Isolde.” Peter Chelsom has survived 2001’s “Town & Country” nicely, with several films released, including the 2004 “Shall We Dance?”

But it’s not just failures that keep auteurs on ice.

Chris Noonan this year is directing his first film following an 11-year absence after the big pig hit “Babe.”

And some just get fed up. It took Terrence Malick 20 years after his 1978 masterpiece “Days of Heaven” to come back to Hollywood for “The Thin Red Line.”

Then again, after “The New World,” maybe he’ll take an imposed vacation.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more