Vet helmers squeezed as studios reel in rookies

Feature film directing has never offered job security.

Still, in the past, budget-adhering helmers with a couple of studio credits under their belts could pretty much count on working every 18 months.

But lately, a convergence of factors — from shrinking studio slates to cutthroat competition — has led to a grim labor market for directors who are watching their earning potential wane.

“In the past, a director worked every year and a half,” says a longtime agent at a major tenpercentary who boasts an impressive roster of helmers. “Now, it’s about every 2-3 years. That’s the equivalent of a salary cut, even if you’re getting your quote — which no one is.”

Midlevel helmers — those earning $2 million-$4 million per pic — are being hit the hardest. They’re increasingly being squeezed out by newbie talent commanding far more modest paydays, in the $200,000-$250,000 range.

“(Paramount president) Adam Goodman has a philosophy that he will throw $10 million and 10% at Michael Bay or else hire the hot new commercials director, but he doesn’t want anyone in the middle,” says a lit manager. “It’s refreshing that studios are willing to take a chance on an unproven entity instead of hiring a journeyman, but it ultimately is having the effect of eroding everyone’s quote.”

Catherine Hardwicke, for one, is said to have lowered her quote for Warner Bros.’ “The Girl With the Red Riding Hood,” despite coming off the hit “Twilight.” Similarly, Ridley Scott is no longer able to command his $10 million rate. McG watched his $8 million quote to helm Disney’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” whittled to $4 million to direct 20th Century Fox’s “This Means War.” And though Disney will likely meet David Fincher’s $10 million quote to replace McG on “20,000 Leagues,” it’s trying to tack on an over-budget penalty on Fincher’s salary.

Even the top helmers who are able to maintain their quotes are having to “audition” for jobs — a once-unheard of requirement for directors at that tier. In recent weeks, Adam Shankman, Timur Bekmambetov and Sam Raimi are said to have made formal presentations to Disney execs in an effort to land “Oz the Great and Powerful,” one of the town’s few open gigs.

“The big studios have a lot of leverage (in the current economic climate), and they’re using it,” the agent adds. “They are of the mindset: If your guy won’t cut his quote, we’ll get someone else.”

To be sure, Hollywood has seen this sort of retrenchment in the past. In the mid- to late-1960s, as the basic economy of the studios collapsed and upstart helmers like Frances Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich began to emerge, established directors had to take pay cuts to keep working. The recessionary period of 1972-73 saw studios also cut back on projects and become more willing to take chances on cheaper, as-yet-unproven, directors.

In the current economic climate, the power is squarely in the hands of the majors, who have little incentive to acquiesce to talent demands, in general. But unlike actors and even writers, directors are feeling the crunch in particular because of the time they spend on a project. Whereas an actor averaging two films a year can add a third project to make up for a de facto salary cut, directors typically spend at least 18 months on a project. It’s not uncommon for a helmer to spend two years developing a film that ultimately ends up being shelved, thus pocketing a paltry $20,000 development fee.

Another agent, who is finding greater success these days with his first-time directors than his vets, says the studios have become more unyielding on director salaries.

He explains: “What you are seeing now that you never saw before is a studio saying right off the bat, ‘We’re not going to pay more than $1 million for the director on this film. We don’t care if your guy makes $5 million. We’ve run the profits-and-loss numbers, and this is what we’ll spend.’ And that sucks because people have their quote for a reason.”

The biggest hurdle being faced by seasoned and even top-tier directors is the dearth of open directing assignments at the majors.

In recent weeks, an abundance of idle helmers chased less than a dozen open directing assignments: “Oz” at Disney, “Wolverine 2″ at 20th Century Fox, “The Hobbit” and “Final Destination 5″ at New Line, an untitled Jack Ryan project at Paramount, “Ghost Rider” at Columbia Pictures, “The Bourne Legacy” at Universal, and “All You Need Is Kill,” “Clash of the Titans 2,” “Godzilla” and “Snabba Cash” at Warner Bros. Though Warners is taking presentations for “All You Need Is Kill,” the job will likely go to Doug Liman.

In an effort to save money, studios are increasingly inclined to take a chance on a cheaper first- or second-time director. For many industry watchers, the watershed moment came when Sony entrusted its crown jewel “Spider-Man” franchise to sophomore director Marc Webb, who will earn roughly $9 million less than Raimi pocketed on “Spider-Man 3″ in upfront salary.

Warner Bros. hired a first-time director in Jason Winer for its “Arthur” remake and instead surrounded the novice with a name cast that includes Russell Brand, Helen Mirren, Jennifer Garner and Nick Nolte.

And New Line ultimately handed the reins of its “Journey to the Center of the Earth” sequel to relative newcomer Brad Peyton, who beat out at least two more established directors: Eric Brevig, helmer of the first “Journey,” which took in $242 million worldwide, and Tim Story, who shepherded a pair of “Fantastic Four” pics to land some $620 million worldwide combined. Likewise, the company also declined to put a more seasoned helmer on “Final Destination 5″ and instead tapped Steven Quale, the second-unit director for “Avatar.”

As salaries and job opportunities decrease, the amount of time required to make the f/x-heavy tentpoles that dominate studios slates is actually increasing, further reducing the earning power of directors.

“In the past, you could have a director in and out in six to eight months on a drama,” says an agent. “But who’s making dramas anymore? Instead, you have your director working for at least two years on a project if it’s effects-driven. They are overseeing every frame of that movie until the end. And it’s not like he can slip in a TV gig during that period. We actually need a new compensation structure in place to reflect that.”

Also time-consuming are the presentations being conjured up by directors involved in bakeoffs. When Sony greenlit a reboot of its “Karate Kid” franchise, it decided to go with a midlevel director. The competition for the gig came down to Dutch helmer Harald Zwart and Thomas Carter, who appeared to have the edge, given that he had previously directed such inspirational sports pics as “Coach Carter.” But Zwart won the gig in part based on a presentation that included a hand-crafted model of a key set piece.

“When I had my meeting with (studio topper) Amy (Pascal), I turned off all the lights in her office and I walked in with a lit model,” recalls Zwart. “It’s about the size of a small kitchen table. I could just show and tell the whole movie with that as a centerpiece. It helped to show how visually stunning the movie could be, and more importantly it showed the passion for the project.”

The “Journey to the Center of the Earth 2″ bakeoff similarly included an elaborate presentation rendered in 3D from one would-be helmer, who ultimately lost out to a less expensive director in Peyton.

And to help land Sony’s big-budget sci-fi pic “Battle: Los Angeles,” South African helmer Jonathan Liebesman compensated for a short resume by spending months on a computer to create a key scene from the film. It helped him best more seasoned helming competitors.

Ironically, though it’s becoming harder for directors to secure a studio assignment, it has never been easier to land a meeting with a studio executive. With fewer greenlights and more acquisitions filling out slates, studios now have plenty of execs filling time taking meetings with directors.

“Even though the studios are making less movies, they still have the same number of bodies in their production departments,” observes one agent. “And these execs have to justify their jobs somehow. So, they sort of make busywork for themselves by calling in directors. And everyone’s getting their hopes up until you realize that these movies will never see the light of day.”

Dave McNary contributed to this report.

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