Looking for the next big thing

10 Directors to Watch: Agents look to vfx guys, ad men, foreign tyros

10 Directors to Watch
Looking for the next big thing
Richard Ayoade | Daniel Espinosa | Ed Gass-Donnelly | Elgin James | Patrick Lussier | Baran Bo Odar | Andre Ovredal | Denis Villeneuve | Juanita Wilson | Jason Winer

Few things have changed in the race for the next big thing: Everyone is looking for talent and originality.

But the rules of the game have shifted recently. As Hollywood further transitions toward movie events, franchises and tentpoles, agents aren’t just looking for folks who can “direct,” in the conventional sense of the word; they’re looking for helmers who can deliver a “great trailer,” says one agent who prefers to remain anonymous. “They’re leaning toward someone who has a visual effects history,” he continues. “They need something to sell to the audience. That’s the reality of the market. For the guys used to dramas or romantic comedies, it’s really tough.”

The transformation has created an ever-greater need for unique, commercial-oriented talents. Many agents point to mature markets like France and Spain, in particular, and to some extent, the U.K. and Japan, as breeding grounds for filmmakers with a flashy, mainstream sensibility.

“I think these young filmmakers are influenced by American filmmaking, especially with genre fare,” says Paradigm agent Trevor Astbury. “A lot of them would like to make movies in the States, so you get a commerciality from those countries that you don’t see elsewhere.”

Filmmakers from Scandinavia are also particularly fashionable right now. Witness the astounding success of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” trilogy, the rapid rise of “Let the Right One In” filmmaker Tomas Alfredson and the buzz around Andre Ovredal (“The Troll Hunter”) and Daniel Espinosa (“Snabba Cash”).

“They have a great tradition of crime thrillers and a strong TV infrastructure,” says UTA’s David Flynn about the latest Scandi wave.

“The crossover for these directors is so easy,” says one agent, speaking about overseas helmers working in action films and other easily translatable cinema, “because they’re used to playing in the same sandbox as Hollywood.”

In such a climate, American indie talents may be less coveted. While UTA’s Richard Klubeck says he expects to find new filmmakers that the company would like to represent at Sundance, and though SXSW and Fantastic Fest in Austin are considered emerging hot spots, there appears to be less urgency to scoop up U.S. low-budgeteers.

“Obviously, there’s still a world for that,” says Paradigm’s Astbury, who cites the company’s recent signing of Southern indie horror director Adam Wingard as example. “But as far as translating those people to U.S. studio films, it’s almost easier to do that with a Spaniard or a French person,” he explains.

Scouts may be finding more U.S. talents in the world of commercials and advertising, where Joseph Kosinski (of “Tron: Legacy” fame) broke out. Such helmers not only tell stories and sell a product succinctly, they also get jobs in a similar way as Hollywood hired guns by pitching themselves and their vision, notes one agent. “There’s a reason why the guys at Anonymous Content and Smuggler are all working,” he says.

And while tales of discovering talent on YouTube may make for headlines, UTA’s Flynn is skeptical. “There’s a lot of those shorts on the Web that are not necessarily made within a structured budget or production schedule, so studios are reticent to hire them,” he says.

Despite the risks of signing and employing unproven talent, however, there is a growing sense that Hollywood, desperate to innovate and adapt to changing audience habits, wants “filmmakers with original voices,” as Sony’s Amy Pascal recently told the New York Times.

“We hear more and more talk at the studios about a desire to work with new filmmakers both from a creative standpoint and a financial standpoint,” says Klubeck, noting that fledgling directors can often keep costs down.

For the watchmen at the tenpercenteries, that means they’re busier than ever, getting early leads on promising talent by every possible means: festivals, producers, sales companies and young insiders keeping taps on the latest viral video.

And even if it doesn’t pan out immediately with a particular director, sometimes that’s OK. As Astbury says, “If you love their film, it’s worth the risk.”