Tyromania grips H’wood

Studios hooked on rookie helmers to stem costs

This summer, 15 films, including several tentpoles, are in the hands of first-time directors — an astonishing 33% jump over summer 2000.

The shift is not surprising: Hollywood has an eternal obsession with the next hot thing, and newbies help decrease a studio’s costs (tyros rarely get much more than Directors Guild of America minimum, which is about $168,000) and increase its power (no greenhorn will demand final-cut).

With the average cost of making and marketing a movie reaching a record-high of $100 million-plus in 2003, studios are often approaching films with an all-or-nothing attitude: If they can’t get a superstar helmer, they bet the bank on first- or second-time directors.

“With costs going up, everybody is being much more careful,” says producer Douglas Wick. “You’d rather bet on one of the greats, or bet that you’re getting one of the greats early.”

Of course, “careful” is a relative term.

Wick is being fiscally cautious yet artistically risky by hiring 24-year-old Jon Chu, a hotshot out of USC film school, to direct the latest version of the musical “Bye Bye Birdie” for Sony.

The tyro made waves with a 17-minute short film, and wooed Wick further with another short about how he planned to adapt the musical.

But this trend toward testing the untested is squeezing out the middlemen: Veteran helmers with solid (if not spectacular) resumes, who are comfortable on the set, have a strong sense of craft and are adept at solving pre- and post-production crises — a segment that has historically formed the backbone of the industry.

“For the guys making $3, $4 million a movie, it’s really tough out there,” says William Morris agent Rob Carlson. “You’ve got to be either a really established big player or one of the younger players, like Luke Greenfield or Tim Story.”

There is another danger: Studios tend to micro-manage newcomers, which can cause a director who hasn’t spent much time in the trenches to compromise his or her choices.

Thus it can become harder for the green director’s vision to be realized, begging the question: Are their films necessarily better?

Pics such as Story’s heartfelt comedy “Barbershop” and, almost a decade ago, Wes Anderson’s quirky charmer “Bottle Rocket” suggest yes.

But for every success story, there are a dozen Kinka Ushers, helmer of 1999’s buzz-to-dud “Mystery Men.” Many, including Danny Cannon (“Judge Dredd”), Michael Dinner (“Heaven Help Us”) and Allison Anders (“Gas, Food, Lodging”) move into TV, helming on shows like “CSI,” “Karen Sisco” and “Sex and the City,” respectively.

As one top producer says, “What’s missing today is the respected journeyman. I’d prefer to make a movie with a savvy veteran than with a kid who’s done some videos, but the studio won’t go along.”

Nonetheless, with an eye on the bottom line, film execs are hoping that newcomers strike gold the first time out. They tend to remember that hero helmers from previous generations made great successes early in their careers — but forget that they made several unpromising films before hitting it big.

George Lucas directed the flop “THX 1138” before “American Graffiti”; Peter Bogdanovich turned out “Targets,” which no one saw, before “The Last Picture Show”; William Friedkin made four blah movies, a la “Good Times,” before “The French Connection”; and Francis Ford Coppola made two bad little pictures (like “Dementia 13”) and two bad bigger pictures (like “Finian’s Rainbow”) before “The Godfather.” (See separate story.)

Today, however, the scrutiny on a director’s debut has never been more intense; a first film that doesn’t impress can impair, and sometimes derail, a career.

“If your first movie is good, you’re game,” says ICM agent Nick Reed. “In this town, the room for error is really small.”

Walter Parkes, co-head of DreamWorks Pictures, explains this by saying that it’s not just mid-level directors, but mid-level movies that have become harder propositions.

“There’s a size movie which is a particularly difficult bet financially — one that costs $50, $60, $80 million, doesn’t attract the best talent, and isn’t really an event movie,” he says. “It’s much more exciting to focus on either big concept pictures or on smaller movies with newer talent, ones where if they break out, you not only have a chance to really profit, but you’re also hopefully starting new relationships.”

Adam Goodman, production prexy at DreamWorks, adds that another appeal of hiring a first-time director is their enthusiasm.

“There is a passion and an energy with a new filmmaker that is contagious,” he says. “They show up and are like, ‘I can’t believe I’m on a lot!’ They make everyone love their jobs.

“What we try to stay clear of are the directors who come in and possess no spark. They’ve done it so many times, you get the sense they’re going to make the movie they made three times before. They’re so nonchalant.”

Since its inception in 1997, DreamWorks has always had an “avoid the middle” mandate, exemplified by its roster of directors, which includes Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis along with first-timers (at the time) Gore Verbinski and Todd Phillips.

Among the majors, Warner Bros. production prexy Jeff Robinov and Disney head Nina Jacobson are most often cited as big believers in first-time directors.

As one agent says, “The Nina philosophy is: I’m willing to gamble in order to get something different and hit a home run.”

As for where today’s young guns are coming from, the musicvid and blurbs industries remain major suppliers, as demonstrated by Zack Snyder (U’s “The Dawn of the Dead”), Jessy Terrero (MGM’s “Soul Plane”), Rawson Marshall Thurber (Fox’s “Dodgeball”) and Francis Lawrence, who is helming the $90 million “Constantine” for Warner Bros.

Film festivals are also showcases. Jeff Balsmeyer’s feature debut “Danny Deckchair” was screened at Toronto, where it was picked up by Lion’s Gate. Brian Dannelly’s “Saved!” was acquired by MGM at Sundance.

Yet increasingly there are alternate routes. Improv comedian and former “Saturday Night Live” scribe Adam McKay is directing DreamWorks’ “Anchorman”; self-described “nerd hobbyist” Kerry Conran, initially made “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” on his home computer.

Paramount is releasing the latter pic in June, further testament to Hollywood’s growing love of nascent talent; in the past Par has avoided gambling on first-time helmers.

Horror films are also providing entry for unproven talent, as was the case with Marcus Nispel’s remake of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” last fall, and Snyder’s current “Dawn of the Dead.”

“Horror movies are easier to break in with,” says Steve Golin, head of Anonymous Content, a production-management company that made its name by discovering feature directors in the musicvid ranks.

“Those are movies that studios are willing to take chances on. They’re stepping-stones. Established, successful directors probably don’t want to do those movies.”

But as film execs point to such first-time success stories as Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”) and Rob Marshall (“Chicago”) — whose debut films were artistically and financially buzz-worthy — holes are starting to show.

Frosh directors can be put into situations that create unrealistic expectations, asDisney’s “The Alamo” and MGM’s “Walking Tall” demonstrated this month.

Ron Howard was set to helm “Alamo” until Disney lowered the pic’s $125 million budget to $75 million (it ended up costing $107 million) and changed its targeted rating from R to PG-13.

John Lee Hancock was then brought in, a director whose only previous feature was “The Rookie.” The rookie went through production hell: delays, script changes, ballooning budgets, all of which contributed to negative advance buzz on the pic on Websites and in the press.

“Walking Tall,” which bowed to $13 million, was intended to further the career of the Rock as an action hero. Some critics disparaged the pic — Kevin Bray’s second directing gig following 2002’s “All About the Benjamins” — for having more polish than heart, a charge often leveled at commercial and musicvid grads such as Bray.

The pic’s hero — like real-life sheriff Buford Pusser, on which he’s based — swings a piece of lumber at his foes. The hero’s name was changed to the generic Chris Vaughn; at one point, Bray wanted to replace the trademark block of wood with an aluminum baseball bat because it was “more 21st century.”

The 1973 film “Walking Tall” was far less calculated and far more visceral in the hands of helmer Phil Karlson (whose movies include “Scandal Sheet,” “99 River Street” and the cult fave “The Phenix City Story”).

Despite Hancock and Bray’s battle scars, however, other aspiring helmers don’t even make it that far. Blurbs wunderkind Noam Murro was set to direct DreamWorks’ “The Ring 2” but recently fell off the pic over creative differences, according to Parkes.

(Other reports suggest that star Naomi Watts was uncomfortable working with a director who’d made his name making “Got Milk?” blurbs.)

At Universal, newbie Marco Schnabel was taken off the upcoming Will Ferrell comedy “Kicking and Screaming” a week into shooting and replaced with “American Wedding” director Jesse Dylan, because the film needed to move faster in order to accommodate Ferrell’s schedule.

Michel Gondry is one of the few examples of a first-timer who honed his skills on his feature debut (“Human Nature,” in 2002), and moved on to success with his second film.

The media stirred up hoopla over “Nature” and its teaming of scripter Charlie Kaufman with a hot musicvid helmer. The pic didn’t live up to the hype, but the two reteamed for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” which became a critics’ darling.

As Anonymous Content’s Golin says, “Your second film can sometimes be trickier than the first.” He cites David Fincher, who stagnated briefly after “Alien 3.”

“Things were a little dicey for him, but then he nailed it with ‘Seven,’ ” Golin says.

Indie producer and former Miramax exec Jason Blum says, “The odds are better when studios hire directors who are experienced craftsmen, who’ve also taken a few creative risks. And often, the movies they direct are better, too.”

Yet even he admits that “no director is foolproof.”

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