While movie stars continue to fade at the box office, directors are having their day in the sun. “Dunkirk’s” $50 million opening weekend is just the latest indication that the spotlight may be shifting from actors to filmmakers, even for blockbusters and summer popcorn fare.
Star-driven films like Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler’s “The House,” Scarlett Johansson’s “Rough Night,” Tom Cruise’s “The Mummy,” Johnny Depp’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” and Charlie Hunnam’s “King Arthur” all failed to deliver audiences to movie theaters. The directors were the focus of the buzz on Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” earlier this year, and more recently for Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” and Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk.” Even comic book tentpoles and sequels like “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” directed by Jon Watts, and Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” succeeded with lesser-known leads taking on properties with troubled pasts, thanks to a strong directing vision.
Watts was able to deliver one of the biggest opening weekends in “Spider-Man” franchise history, overcoming the onslaught of sequels and reboots. Jenkins quashed the skeptics who wondered whether a female director could deliver on a $100 million film, while Wright has proved an original idea — and killer music — could get moviegoers into theaters even when opening against mega franchises like “Transformers” and “Despicable Me.”
And the duo of TV actor-writer Kumail Nanjiani and director Michael Showalter overcame a rough year for comedy with the surprise indie hit “The Big Sick.”
Is there a common thread to these success stories in a franchise-weary world?
“The bottom line is nobody knows anything,” says an agent who works with several top directors, falling back on the familiar William Goldman trope. “Real vision is rare and you know it when you see it.”
An exec who oversaw one of these hits says sometimes it comes down to a creative’s rep passionately pushing for that fresh voice to get the face-to-face meetings with the right people, as was the case with Peele and Watts, who had directed the indie “Cop Car” before taking on “Spider-Man.”
Tom Rothman, chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment Motion Picture Group, who has taken risks on filmmakers for several decades, says that giving Watts the job was nerve-racking at first, but he knew that Watts brought something to the series that had been missing for a while.
“Jon inspired a lot of confidence,” Rothman said. “There is only one person on a movie that determines the tone of the film, and that’s the director, and the tone of ‘Spider-Man’ is one of the reasons it’s been so successful.”
But for every fresh vision and surprise hit, there’s an equally disappointing miss. The films’ problems can range from the wrong director to the common dilemma of “too many cooks in the kitchen.”
With “Ghost in the Shell,” director Rupert Sanders was not only dealing with two major entities (Paramount and Amblin) calling the shots, but was forced to respond to the whitewashing controversy that followed the film after the first image was released of star Johansson. For “The Mummy,” the pressure to launch a cinematic universe became a bigger priority than the actual film at the center of that world.
Execs like Rothman are now hoping originality can become as important as universe-building.
“IP can sometimes lead you down a false road,” Rothman said. “To be theatrical, you need to be distinctive now. That’s what ‘Spider-Man’ and ‘Baby Driver’ have in common. Even though they are as different as night and day, the audience can feel both are distinctive, and so theater-worthy.”