One of the key elements that helped define “New Hollywood’s” mark on the industry was the rise of the director-driven productions. Prior to the 1960s, Hollywood was largely a producer/studio-driven industry that lost a bit of power with the rise of television combined with the shifting demographics and didn’t quite know how to adapt. With their backs against the wall, the studios became less risk-averse and began giving young, innovative directors more creative freedom in hopes of bringing a new, young audience back into the theaters. This trend continued into the 80’s (with a slight resurgence in the 90’s with directors like Smith, Tarantino, Woo, Rodriguez all making a big splash on the indie scene) but especially in the last decade the industry has shifted back, leaving the producer/studio with a great deal more control of Hollywood productions.
Franchises run Hollywood: A large part of that is thanks to the rise of franchise popularity, be it Star Wars, superheroes or Fast and Furious’s. Just look at how often very notable directors with strong creative voices have been booted from popular franchises. Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Baby Driver) was dismissed from Marvel’s Ant-Man largely due to him not toning down his own creative voice. Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street) stated they were given zero creative freedom on the redundantly named Hans Solo solo movie (which they were removed from and subsequently given to Ron Howard). The list goes on – before directing Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins walked away from Thor 2 due to creative differences, Colin Trevorrow is no longer directing Star Wars. Even Joss Whedon, who directed the first two Avengers movie cited a creatively suffocative working environment – something directors who grew up during the rise of New Hollywood probably aren’t used to.
That isn’t to say some creatively singular directors don’t make their mark on these franchises (Coogler, Waititi), but they are few and far between as it seems television directors fare better within the studio system – and that makes sense considering most “movies” are now just another episode in a long-running series of films. What this points to is that the director is no longer that important for big budget films. A lot of money is on the line and these studios need to stay solvent, after all. Even with franchises whose director’s chair isn’t a revolving door, having a strong creative voice isn’t the most important thing. The Fast and Furious franchise has built itself an immensely successful foothold in the world of Hollywood – an amazing feat really, when you consider they’re not based on a pre-existing franchise or a comic book – but just like with the MCU, directors who work on these movies have to know that their voice is secondary to continuing the overall tone/style of the larger franchise.
Theater-going audiences want continuity between their movies and studios are more than happy to oblige them. With ticket prices going up and the increasing availability of nigh-theater quality home entertainment systems, studios need to have 100% sure-fire winners on their hand to continue to get people out of their houses and into the theaters. After all, why take a chance on some “director’s vision” when you know for sure exactly what you’re getting with the next Marvel movie. It’s like McDonald’s vs a local burger joint. The local joint may be way better or a complete bust, but Mickey D’s (while not even close to being the best burger for your money) will always be reliable and a safe option for eating out. And, to be honest, sometimes you just want to chow down on some junk food and not think about it that much.
What does this mean for the role of the director in Hollywood? It certainly appears like we’re swinging back towards the studio system of Old Hollywood in many ways. Further evidence of this is how many A-list directors and actors are going to cable television for their projects. Danny Boyle, David Lynch, Baz Luhrmann, Cary Fukunaga, Spike Lee, Dee Rees, Steven Soderbergh, Jean Marc Valee, The Wachoskis and countless other movie directors have made the switch to TV recently in their careers. If not cable tv, then streaming giant Netflix has received nothing but effusive praise from nearly every director in regards to how much creative freedom they’re given vs their experiences within the traditional studio system. Even the name amongst names, Steven Spielberg, said that his Lincoln biopic was very close to ending up on HBO instead of the theaters.
Spielberg is still releasing Hollywood films – his latest project? Ready Player One – a film that is basically bunch of pop culture franchises all thrown into one movie. If Spielberg doesn’t have the sway he used to, what does that mean for any up-and-coming directors?
Medium-sized studios seem to be preparing themselves for this shift as well. Lionsgate recently announced “Studio L” which is basically a fancy rebranding of their direct-to-video market. Long gone are the days where DTV is solely a dumping ground for the stuff “not good enough” for theaters and is now hosting some of the most innovative and interesting filmmakers on the scene.
This isn’t all doom and gloom. There are still plenty of great, director-driven projects who find their way into theaters via distribution deals, but in terms of studio-produced output – the die is cast. Which isn’t all bad. That’s the beauty of the digital age, after all. Prior to digital streaming it was kind of an either/or scenario, but now we get to have our cake and eat it too. Big budget, producer-driven studio fare dominate the box offices, but anyone with a TV and an internet connection has access to some of the best tv/movies in a long time. Ask yourself a serious question – when you think of high-quality entertainment (not just the best effects, but seriously good storytelling) where do you usually turn first? The latest superhero flick or a miniseries on HBO or Netflix? TV is a completely different animal now than it was 5-7 years ago and is becoming a destination for directors who want a place to put their vision on the screen (even if it is a bit smaller than they’re used to) without a studio exec standing over their shoulder.
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