Auteurs Go A-List: Arthouse Directors Drive Genre Films at Cannes

From indies to studio fare, genre films are being driven by auteurs in the Cannes festival lineup and marketplace as never before.

The trend comes on the heels of two record Cannes deals: Paramount’s $20 million North America/China pre-buy of Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi pic “Story of Your Life” in 2014, and Focus Features’ $20 million-plus worldwide pre-buy of Tom Ford’s thriller “Nocturnal Animals” (with a hefty $10 million P&A commitment) last May. With directors like Colin Trevorrow jumping straight from his $4-million-grossing debut, “Safety Not Guaranteed,” to the $1.67 billion-hauling “Jurassic World,” producers are taking bigger chances on smaller, artier names in genre films. And buyers seem willing to gamble along with them.

“We are operating in a world where we typically have to find less-proven talent than studios,” says Glen Basner of FilmNation, which co-produced and co-financed “Story” with 21 Laps Entertainment and Lava Bear Films, and negotiated the “Nocturnal” deal with CAA. “We don’t often have the opportunity to attach a studio director, but we do have the opportunity to attach someone who’s made a great first film.”

But while some auteurs are reshaping the majors’ genre slates, others are working to redefine what a genre film is. Cannes director winner Nicolas Winding Refn (2011’s “Drive”) says his third competition film, “The Neon Demon,” is “a teenage horror film without horror” that’s “interesting, funny, beautiful, scary and sexy.” First-time feature director Michael O’Shea describes his Un Certain Regard entry “The Transfiguration” as a “neorealist horror film” that will serve as a calling card for three more features he hopes to finance at the festival — “a slasher film, a ghost story, and a film about possession” — each of which also defies simple categorization.

Regardless of whether these helmers will have any of the impact on Hollywood fare that Christopher Nolan has had with his Dark Knight trilogy, more in the industry are giving them a try. J.A. Bayona, for one, jumped from his 2007 Spanish thriller “The Orphanage” to the true-life disaster pic “The Impossible” to Universal’s 2018 “Jurassic Park” sequel with the support of Trevorrow champion Steven Spielberg.

“Perhaps because studios are making these big franchise films now, differentiating them and having directors speak with their own distinctive voice becomes more important,” says Universal production president Peter Cramer. “Directors with a strong point of view do help put an imprint on these films that they might not otherwise have. You don’t want them to ever feel cookie-cutter. And with the ‘Jurassic’ films, having Steven Spielberg and Frank Marshall as producers gave us a level of comfort that the franchise would be well taken care of.”

Another indie talent pool advantage? “The best scary movies work because the spine of their story is a drama,” says Intrepid Pictures founder Trevor Macy (STX’s supernatural thriller “The Bye Bye Man”). “The scares land because you care about the characters, and the best directors to do that are the ones who’ve successfully executed indie dramas. It tends to be true for international directors — you’ve got a ton coming out of Spain and Mexico — because genre isn’t a dirty word for them.”

Hiring writer-directors known for their uncompromising visions and distinctive voices seems directly at odds with the late Blake Snyder’s hugely influential 2005 book “Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need.” Some argue that the book has been so impactful, many Hollywood films now seem to be programmed with identical story “beats” (right down to the script page numbers), bringing a dispiriting sameness to studio fare.

“I don’t think there is any formula to the way the stories are constructed in big studio blockbusters,” says Cramer. “There was no point at which we said to Colin, ‘You’ve got to hit this beat by this point.’ It’s just about finding directors who have this storytelling gene and can sense what the audience needs, given the kind of genre film that they’re making.”

Regardless, WME partner Jeff Gorin (who reps Refn) doesn’t see much risk in the pairings: “These big studio movies are almost instant hits because they’re going to market the hell out of them, so the chances that they won’t do well are probably more slim [than with other films].”

While some indie helmers are foaming at the mouth for studio jobs, some are turning the other way. “Financially, my first instinct is always to figure out how inexpensively I can make a film — how much can I realistically get without giving any creative freedom away, and still cast the movie how I wish to cast it,” Refn says. “It’s worth every struggle and paranoia trip, because no amount of money will ever come close to that high of doing what you want to do.”

Fortunately for Refn, his work has always played with commercial themes. “When I started making my first film, ‘Pusher,’ in the mid-’90s, so-called genre movies were not looked very well upon,” he recalls. “It was a time of the ‘yapping movies’ — people sitting around talking about life. Many great films were made, but they were very dominant, and we couldn’t get one film festival to take ‘Pusher.’ Now television is making a lot of these ‘kitchen sink’ films, and genre has become the savior of independent cinema.”

Refn’s R-rated “Demon” was made for a reported $6 million, the second in his two- feature deal with Wild Bunch and Gaumont. “Amazon Studios came with the best offer I’d ever gotten in my life!” he says. The deal covers all U.S. rights, including a theatrical window and Amazon Prime streaming. Another advantage auteurs like him bring is the ability to attract stars like Keanu Reeves and Ryan Gosling to low-budget fare that can be marketed as popcorn entertainment — at least with the right trailer.

In the international marketplace, according to one genre film producer, certain truisms apply. “Gore and splatter don’t really travel, except in a couple of territories in Southeast Asia and around the Mediterranean, but really not in Europe or Australia,” he says. “South America is hit and miss — and the U.K. and Canada tend to go as the U.S. goes. In France or Germany, films need to be less on the gory end of the spectrum and more on the suspenseful end.”

For New York City-based O’Shea, whose official entry “The Transfiguration” is seeking distribution via Protagonist, it’s still all about the art. His film follows a teen who “immerses himself in the world of the vampire,” according to the film’s logline. “It deconstructs horror tropes, and it’s as much a horror film as 1942’s ‘Cat People’ or ‘Berberian Sound Studio’, ” he explains, struggling to define an original work without setting false expectations or giving away key spoilers.

“The best I could do was get it into the Cannes Film Festival,” he adds with a laugh. “Everything from here on out is good!”

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