Can helmers go home again?

Edgy filmmakers feel wedged twixt arty and mainstream

The next enfants terribles to emerge from the Sundance Film Festival and be discovered by Hollywood face an unpleasant question: once they direct their first studio features, can they ever go back?

“It’s fun to make a radical film that breaks some ground, and it’s fun to have a huge hit,” says director Joel Schumacher, whose long career runs a spectrum from studio to independent fare. “It’s great to find little, odd restaurants. Sometimes you really need a Big Mac.”

Most directors today can’t have it both ways. Either they become studio filmmakers or they’re relegated to the margins. Emulating the career trajectory of maverick directors like Schumacher or Steven Soderbergh, who alternate big-budget star vehicles with smaller, more personal projects, is increasingly hard to do.

Every fledgling auteur courted by studio executives faces the same dilemma: how to carve out a career in Hollywood while retaining the creative license of low-budget filmmaking. But in a climate where the combined production and marketing costs of the average studio feature have soared north of $75 million, creative license is a precious commodity.

Soderbergh, whose first film, “sex, lies and videotape,” helped put Sundance on the map in 1991, has managed to preserve an unusually high measure of creative autonomy within the studio system. He’s one of few directors who commands, apparently with equal authority, both studio spectacles and no-budget experimental fare. His last film, “Full Frontal,” was shot in 18 days for $2 million. He’s now prepping the mega-budget Warner Bros. sequel to “Ocean’s Eleven.”

Soderbergh remains a model for a rising generation of filmmakers who’ve emerged from the festival circuit and trained their sights on bigger things. Studios have recently handed some of their most valuable franchises to young auteurs with specialty hits. “Memento” director Christopher Nolan is prepping Warners’ next Batman; “Bloody Sunday” director Paul Greengrass has taken over the “Bourne Identity” franchise from “Go” director Doug Liman; “Y Tu Mama Tambien” director Alfonso Cuaron is shepherding Warners’ third Harry Potter, scheduled to hit theaters on June 4.

But it’s an open question whether these directors can and will, like Soderbergh, return to the no-frills, low-budget arena, in which salaries are deferred and production budgets are brutally short.

In his new book, “Dirty Little Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film,” Peter Biskind argues that the independent film movement is withering in the face of studios’ inflationary commercial standards, which push talent toward the mainstream, and pressure filmmakers to deliver theatrical and ancillary profits with every effort. “Indie film,” he writes, “is almost exclusively a cinema of first films.”

Soderbergh, Biskind writes, has responded to such pressure by adapting a “one-for-me, one-for-them” approach.

But it hasn’t been easy.

Soderbergh complained to Biskind that “Ocean’s Eleven” is “a movie about nothing.” Directing it, he says, was “brain-crushing.” But Soderbergh’s latest low-budget experiments, “Full Frontal” and the HBO series, “K Street” — both of which met with mixed reviews — may have been crushing in other, unforeseeable ways.

There are very few popular performers in any field who don’t mind losing a mass audience by navigating their own idiosyncratic path from middlebrow to highbrow and back.

Writers Walter Mosley, Larry McMurtry and Gore Vidal have done it. Recording artists like Beck and Prince have tried it. Even Cher followed her global No. 1 single, “Believe,” with a quirky album called “No Commercial.”

Hollywood has always produced a few directors — John Huston and John Ford are early examples — who’ve sought to intermingle offbeat personal projects with mass-market genre pics, and to infuse mass-market projects with their personal stamp.

But in today’s dramatically bifurcated industry dominated by two classes of films — those costing more than $75 million and those costing less than $25 million — directors are more likely to be put in a box.

The independent sector may be more vibrant than in previous years, but even Sundance has become a star system, splintered into as many niches as the studio business.

In “Dirty Little Pictures,” Biskind calls Sundance a “schizoid” institution — even as the festival tilts toward Hollywood, Biskind argues, the Sundance lab continues to nurture original talent.

He quotes Focus Features co-chair James Schamus lamenting that in this climate, filmmakers have no time to grow.

“The pressure is really on from the time you’re out of diapers to be an artist,” he says.

But Schamus tells Variety that one ray of light at Sundance this year is the rising influence of cable TV outlets like HBO and Showtime, which he calls “cinema-TV hybrids.”

“Rather than thinking of these things as transitory spaces people travel through to get somewhere else,” Schamus says, “they’re making really interesting independent film, and providing a dedicated but broad audience” for filmmakers.

“One of the most interesting back-and-forths this year,” he adds, is Mike Nichols, who directed “Angels In America” for HBO.

It’s telling, however, that Nichols hasn’t directed a theatrical feature since the disastrous 2000 Gary Shandling comedy, “What Planet Are You From?” Today, there’s a short list of directors who successfully migrate from one extreme to another.

Gus Van Sant arguably belongs on the list. Van Sant, who directed mid-budget studio projects like “Finding Forrester” and “To Die For,” last year won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for “Elephant.” But as he puts it, “They don’t send over the action movie because of the Palme d’Or.”

On Van Sant’s bigger budget studio projects, the director has sought to keep studio interference at bay, but it hasn’t always been possible. Columbia, he says, “wanted to dump ‘To Die For’ ” when it earned poor marks at test screenings.

“We tested it three times,” he says. “Before the third test, we dramatically re-edited it. It went up one point.”

For the moment, Van Sant appears committed to the independent fringes. His last two films, “Gerry” and “Elephant,” were produced for $3.5 million and $3 million, respectively. “I’m really interested in very low budgets,” he says.

Says Schumacher: “When they give you a big budget, they expect big returns. The glory of making small movies with very small budgets is you can take enormous risks as a storyteller.”

Few directors have carved out a career quite as eclectic as Schumacher’s. He’s directed two Batmans, but his last two films were “Veronica Guerin,” produced for less than $17 million with local crews and local actors in Ireland, and “Phone Booth,” which was shot in 12 days with production costs of $1.2 million.

He’s now shooting “Phantom of the Opera,” slated for release from Warner Bros.

The trick, CAA’s Beth Swofford says, “is picking the right story to tell in either realm. Where it gets hard is if a so-called independent director makes a studio film and it doesn’t work. It’s hard to go back a second time.”

“Studios love new talent,” adds CAA’s Michael Peretzian. “But sometimes the marriage doesn’t quite work.”

To be sure, no director hits the mark every time. But as Schumacher sees it, directors ignore a studio’s expectations at their peril. “If you’re doing a movie called ‘The Perfect Storm,’ ” he says, “no matter how great the actors are, people are going to expect a perfect storm.”

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