New directors grab spotlight

Studios cutting costs with extreme makeover

Wannabe directors, listen up: This is a good moment to be a first-timer.

This year, nearly 30 newcomers have pics unspooling in theaters, double the number in 2006. And 20 more are lensing or readying to tackle projects that will bow next year.

The numbers aren’t expected to go down anytime soon.

First-timers are proving especially attractive to Hollywood at a point when the biz is undergoing an extreme makeover.

For one thing, studios and producers are looking for ways to cut production costs across the board. Tyros work for lower fees and will agree to shorter shooting schedules.

And fresh blood is especially needed as Wall Street dollars launch indie ventures like Overture Films, Summit Entertainment, Sidney Kimmel, Mandate and a revamped MGM — all of which are looking to fill production pipelines. These companies are often more open to new talent and don’t have long-standing relationships with established directors.

They’re also seeking talent capable of delivering the increasingly complex visuals auds are demanding in pics like “300.”

These days, “first-timer” doesn’t translate to “no experience.”

Many in Hollywood’s new crop of helmers have either directed foreign films, TV episodes, musicvids or commercials. Others have earned their production chops by having shot second unit on feature films, served as editors or f/x supervisors on studio pics or produced vidgames.

Still others are established actors and screenwriters, even former studio execs and architects.

They’re landing high-profile projects like the “Harry Potter” or “Mission: Impossible” franchises, or pics headlined by George Clooney, Will Ferrell, Tom Cruise or Nicole Kidman.

“Talent is talent,” says producer Adrian Askarieh, who along with Daniel Alter tapped first-timers to tackle three projects: “Hitman,” bowing from Fox in November, and “Hack/Slash” and “Lost Squad” at Rogue Pictures. “Look at

what Chris Nolan did with ‘Me-

mento’ and Bryan Singer did with ‘The Usual Suspects.'”

Among the latest to break through:

  • Thesps like Ben Affleck, Helen Hunt, Sarah Polley, David Schwimmer and Stuart Townsend bowed their first pics this year. Jada Pinkett Smith recently signed to direct “The Human Contract,” and Dustin Hoffman is expected to get his first onscreen helming credit with “Personal Injuries.”

  • Scribes Tony Gilroy (the “Bourne” franchise) and Alan Ball (“American Beauty”) were in Toronto to tout their dramas “Michael Clayton” and “Nothing Is Private,” respectively. John August’s “The Nines” rolled out in August, Robin Swicord’s “The Jane Austen Book Club” bowed in September, and Michael Dougherty (“Superman Returns,” “X2”) has “Trick ‘r Treat” unspooling early next year. Earlier this

year saw Scott Frank’s pet project “The Lookout.” All were pics the scribes had written.

  • Among TV hotshots, “Sex and the City” vet Michael Patrick King is sticking with what he knows and helming the film version of the HBO series as his first pic. David Yates made Warner Bros.’ “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” his debut pic after spending most of his career helming TV shows and mini-series in Britain. J.J. Abrams made a similar move tackling Paramount’s “Mission: Impossible” franchise as his first bigscreen endeavor, after having helmed episodes of “Alias” and “Lost.”

  • Studio execs are ankling to go behind the camera with New Line’s exec VP Kent Alterman on the Ferrell laffer “Semi-Pro,” and Fox’s former veep of physical production James Dodson helming MGM and Hyde Park’s “The Other End of the Line.”

  • Below-the-liners such as film editors Mark Helfrich and Jon Poll directed “Good Luck Chuck” and “Charlie Bartlett,” respectively, while f/x artists Colin and Greg Strause helmed Fox’s “Alien vs. Predator” sequel.

  • Comicbook icon Frank Miller will debut as a director with “The Spirit,” and photographer Carter Smith is adapting the novel “The Ruins.”

  • Musicvid and commercial directors are as popular as ever, with helmers in that arena like Jonas Akerlund making the leap with “The Horsemen,” Xavier Gens on “Hitman” and Dave Meyers having helmed the remake of “The Hitcher” this year. Architect-turned-commercials helmer Joseph Kosinski landed Warner Bros.’ redo of “Logan’s Run” and Disney’s “Tron” followup.

Last year, Neill Blomkamp was onboard to direct “Halo,” based on Microsoft’s popular Xbox franchise, as his first pic, but the project fizzled when the budget, split between Universal and Fox, ballooned.

“Film is a visual medium. These guys know how to deliver the goods,” says one studio exec.

Askarieh agrees, “They have a great handle at visual storytelling which not a lot of people can do. We’re moving into a medium where visual storytelling is taking over Hollywood. People like Zack Snyder and the Wachowskis are defining pop culture with what they’re doing.”

It’s also helped that they’ve delivered at the B.O., with Michael Bay, David Fincher, F. Gary Gray, Simon West, Spike Jonze, Ridley and Tony Scott, and Adrian Lyne all coming from the spot biz. Snyder and Francis Lawrence are among the latest to break out.

“It’s kind of a formula that works,” says Jules Daly, president of RSA Films, the musicvid, commercial and film production house owned by Ridley and Tony Scott. “We get phone calls constantly asking, ‘Who’s the next young hot guy?’ It’s not always going to work, but it’s worked more than it hasn’t worked.”

What first-timers are landing still hasn’t changed much over the years. It’s still mostly low-budget horror or comedies — genre fare that can be made on the cheap and generate significant profits, or prove less risky should auds avoid them entirely.

Yet there are some standout exceptions, such as Yates landing “Harry Potter,” Abrams on “MI3” or Blomkamp on “Halo.”

That’s expected to continue as studio brass and producers grow more comfortable with first-timers.

Some producers and studios don’t have a choice as they try to control costs.

“It can be hard to go to an established director and offer them a budget that’s much lower than they’re used to working with,” says one studio exec. “But a first-time guy is happy to take the job. And we’re not talking bare bones here.”

“Order of the Phoenix” and “MI3” each came in at around $150 million.

Helping jumpstart careers are producers like Askarieh and Alter. Also doing so are Ben Stiller and Stuart Cornfeld, whose Red Hours Films hired newcomers to direct “The Ruins,” “Blades of Glory” and “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story.” The same is true with Bay’s Platinum Dunes, which has handed its horror redos like “Hitcher” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” to new helmers.

More jobs will quickly follow should that first pic turn into a hit.

Warner Bros. surprised the biz when it handed British TV vet Yates the fifth installment of its “Harry Potter” franchise. The pic conjured up $929 million worldwide and easily landed Yates the sixth film.

After the Ferrell comedy “Blades of Glory” skated to a $118 million domestic finish, helmers Josh Gordon and Will Speck landed “Baster,” an artificial-insemination comedy at Columbia.

Similarly, Matthew Vaughn produced Guy Ritchie’s pics “Snatch” and “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” before segueing to the director’s chair with the slick caper “Layer Cake.” The pic made him a highly sought-after helmer, with Fox going after him to direct the third “X-Men.” He chose to make the fantasy “Stardust,” instead, and now is gearing up to direct Marvel’s comicbook pic “Thor.”

Sometimes you don’t even need to work on your first film to land a second.

Before he’s even shot one piece of footage on WB’s redo of “Logan’s Run,” Kosinski landed “Tron.”

What has changed, however, is the process of getting those first gigs.

In the past, helmers would simply rely on their previous work or flashy visuals in pitch meetings or mimic the more established directors and keep their ideas and plans for films “close to the vest,” according to some producers, making hiring decisions tough. That’s no longer the case. Directors need to be more vocal and fully explain to producers or studio brass just what kind of movie they want to make.

“They’ve come in with plenty of visuals and eye candy, but that almost goes without saying that these guys can do that,” Daly says.

“It’s a whole different thing now. How they are in a room has become so important. (Producers) want to feel in a short amount of time that they have a handle on the characters and the story, not just the visuals. They want to see confidence. We advise the directors to go over the top and overcompensate for that.”

For a tyro, it’s not a good idea to accept just any pic. There’s a lot of pressure to pick the right first project. A flop at the B.O. could stall a career.

For every Bay and Fincher, there’s a Tarsem and Hype Williams — high-profile helmers in the short-form medium who weren’t able to make the successful move into features (“The Cell” and “Belly,” respectively). Not yet, anyway.

“A lot of these guys don’t want to bite off more than they can chew,” Daly says. “They’re cautious. They know how important that first movie is. You only have that first movie once. It sets the tone for so many things to come.”

For scribes, the chance to direct a favorite script is just too good to pass up.

Recently, “Point Break” scribe W. Peter Illiff took up Yari Film Group’s offer to direct “Loaded,” an action script he’s coveted for more than seven years, and a project he says “defines him as a writer.” Being a filmmaker has always been his “passion.”

Daly has heard that one before.

“I don’t think we sign a director that doesn’t want to do one,” she says. “It’s just a matter of when. The trick is doing it at a time when they’re right.”

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