Hol­ly­wood’s di­rec­tor shuf­fle

Re­cent ma­jor chair swaps re­flect flexed cor­po­rate mus­cles

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Josh Rot­ten­berg and Daniel Miller

Film has long been con­sid­ered a di­rec­tor’s medium, with cin­e­matic au­teurs pre­sid­ing over movie sets like gods. But as high-pro­file film­mak­ers are be­ing re­placed on big-bud­get projects with in­creas­ing reg­u­lar­ity, some say film is fast be­com­ing more of a boardof-di­rec­tors’ medium, es­pe­cially in the crit­i­cal realm of the fran­chise.

This new re­al­ity was un­der­scored last week when Colin Trevor­row was sud­denly dropped from “Star Wars: Episode IX” be­cause of cre­ative dif­fer­ences; on Tues­day, Lu­cas­film an­nounced that J.J. Abrams, who di­rected “Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens,” would take the helm.

There was a time when the re­place­ment of some­one like Trevor­row — hand­picked by Steven Spiel­berg to di­rect 2015’s “Juras­sic World,” a $1.67-bil­lion-gross­ing hit — would have been earth-shat­ter­ing news. But Lu­cas­film cur­rently has one of the high­est di­vorce rates in the in­dus­try. In the past two years, co-di­rec­tors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were ejected from an up­com­ing film about Han Solo al­ready deep into pro­duc­tion; Tony Gil­roy was re­port­edly brought in to as­sist with ex­ten­sive re-shoots on Gareth Ed­wards’ “Rogue One” and Josh Trank fell out of his planned “Star Wars” spinoff.

As Ar­mando Ian­nucci

wryly ob­served while in­tro­duc­ing his dark com­edy “The Death of Stalin” at the Toronto Film Fes­ti­val, be­ing a di­rec­tor on a “Star Wars” movie evokes the un­nerv­ing un­cer­tainty that fol­lowed the Soviet dic­ta­tor’s death: “You just don’t know from day to day what’s go­ing to hap­pen to you.”

And it isn’t just “Star Wars.” Over the past sev­eral years, an un­prece­dented num­ber of film­mak­ers, in­clud­ing Edgar Wright, Patty Jenk­ins, Michelle MacLaren, Tim Miller, Ben Af­fleck, Seth Gra­hame-Smith, Rick Fa­muyiwa and Cary Fuku­naga, have either walked away or been ousted from highly an­tic­i­pated films at vary­ing stages of de­vel­op­ment, most cit­ing “cre­ative dif­fer­ences.”

To be sure, di­rec­tors have dropped out of — or been dropped from — projects for as long as there have been movies; films like “Gone With the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz” saw their orig­i­nal helmers re­placed along the way to cin­e­matic glory. But never be­fore have so many been re­placed on such big projects in so short a time. And, not co­in­ci­den­tally, nearly all of those movies were cen­tered on the ul­ti­mate power play­ers: su­per­heroes.

In an in­dus­try fi­nan­cially de­pen­dent on an ev­ers­maller hand­ful of films, stu­dio ex­ec­u­tives are less will­ing to take chances and more will­ing to make big changes if needed, even if the moves gen­er­ate ugly head­lines or ex­pen­sive re-shoots. When hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars are at stake in ticket sales and an­cil­lary busi­nesses, no one is ir­re­place­able.

“When you are talk­ing about a glob­ally branded film, like a Marvel movie, ex­ec­u­tives are more like brand man­agers — they are very in­volved in the project,” said Chris Sil­ber­mann, man­ag­ing part­ner at tal­ent agency ICM Part­ners. “You are work­ing for ‘the man’ — and I don’t mean that pe­jo­ra­tively. There are a lot of good things that come with that. You get the bud­get, the at­ten­tion, the no­to­ri­ety and the pay. But you are clearly work­ing with some­one else’s [in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty], char­ac­ter and uni­verse. And there are dif­fer­ent rules that go along with that.”

For a film­maker, ab­sorb­ing those rules can be a frus­trat­ing and some­times hum­bling ex­pe­ri­ence. “I learned that, no mat­ter how com­pelling you are or no mat­ter how great your idea is, th­ese stu­dios have huge re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to a lot of peo­ple,” Jenk­ins told The Times re­cently of her ex­pe­ri­ence drop­ping out of Marvel’s “Thor: The Dark World.” “It was heart­break­ing be­cause it was a movie I had al­ways wanted to make.”

In the end, Jenk­ins says, the split was “right for ev­ery­body,” and, in her case, the story had a happy end­ing. She went on to di­rect this sum­mer’s smash “Won­der Woman,” hav­ing taken over the reins of that film from MacLaren, who had left the project in 2015 due to — you guessed it — “cre­ative dif­fer­ences.”

Bri­tish film­maker Wright had a sim­i­larly bruis­ing ex­pe­ri­ence when, in 2014, he ex­ited the Marvel film “An­tMan” af­ter more than a decade of de­vel­op­ment. “There was a point about eight weeks be­fore were sup­posed to start shoot­ing where they wanted to do a draft with some­body else,” Wright told The Times in June. “Once you’ve been a writer-di­rec­tor on a movie for eight years, it’s kind of tough to take.”

Wright went on to make this sum­mer’s sleeper ac­tion hit “Baby Driver.”

For stu­dios, nur­tur­ing good re­la­tion­ships with film­mak­ers is still im­por­tant; one­time in­die di­rec­tors Bryan Singer and Christo­pher Nolan rein­vig­o­rated the su­per­hero genre with “XMen” and “Bat­man Be­gins,” re­spec­tively. But hit­ting that sweet spot is dif­fi­cult, and if a com­pany like Bur­bank-based Walt Dis­ney Co., which owns Lu­cas­film, Marvel and Pixar, thinks a project is head­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion, the di­rec­tor’s vi­sion might need to be sac­ri­ficed on the al­tar of the almighty brand.

“They are go­ing to be very quick to guard against a dud,” said Jason Moser, an an­a­lyst with the Mot­ley Fool. “You are go­ing in there as a di­rec­tor, and you know you are go­ing to de­liver what Dis­ney wants — or they are go­ing to find some­one who does.”

As the power of the fran­chise be­gan out­rank­ing the power of the au­teur, stu­dio ex­ec­u­tives in­creas­ingly turned to rel­a­tively untested film­mak­ers, who of­ten found them­selves buf­feted by forces more pow­er­ful than any­thing they’ve ever dealt with. In per­haps the most chill­ing cau­tion­ary tale for film­mak­ers nav­i­gat­ing this new ter­rain, di­rec­tor Trank — a ris­ing star af­ter his 2012 de­but “Chron­i­cle” — saw his ca­reer go off the rails vir­tu­ally overnight in 2015 when he fell out of a planned “Star Wars” spinoff film. Though Trank pub­licly said that the de­ci­sion was his, re­ports quickly emerged claim­ing that Lu­cas­film had pushed him off the film over con­cerns about his be­hav­ior dur­ing the mak­ing of his su­per­hero flop “Fan­tas­tic Four.”

“At first I was, like, ‘I’m just not go­ing to say any­thing be­cause it will blow over,’ ” Trank told The Times in an in­ter­view not long af­ter his depar­ture from the “Star Wars” film. “But peo­ple get so ex­cited to raise their pitch­forks.” Wounded by the en­tire ex­pe­ri­ence, Trank said he wanted his next film to be some­thing smaller and more “be­low the radar”; he is cur­rently prep­ping a fea­ture on the last days of Al Capone.

On projects with more mod­est bud­gets and lower pub­lic pro­files, di­rec­tors still main­tain a high de­gree of con­trol. “It is still a di­rec­tor’s medium, and if you are see­ing a Sofia Cop­pola movie or a ‘Moon­light,’ clearly those are di­rec­tors’ movies,” said Sil­ber­mann. And stu­dios do still have some ap­petite for bold, au­teurist fare like Nolan’s World War II smash “Dunkirk,” fi­nanced and dis­trib­uted by Warner Bros., or Dar­ren Aronof­sky’s bizarro psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller “Mother!” which is be­ing re­leased this Fri­day by Para­mount.

But mind­ful of the pres­sures and com­pro­mises that can come with big­ger bud­gets and pre­ex­ist­ing brands, some film­mak­ers find them­selves choos­ing smaller, more per­sonal films. Oth­ers grav­i­tate to­ward tele­vi­sion or stream­ing ser­vices, where they may be given more cre­ative free­dom. Since ex­it­ing “Won­der Woman,” MacLaren has gone on to work on the HBO se­ries “West­world” and “The Deuce,” while Fuku­naga — who de­parted the hor­ror hit “It” just weeks be­fore shoot­ing was set to be­gin — has since worked on projects for TNT and Net­flix.

One of the last old-school au­teurs still work­ing in the stu­dio realm, Mex­i­can film­maker Guillermo del Toro has made his share of largescale movies, like “Hellboy” and “Pa­cific Rim.” But the di­rec­tor — who many “Star Wars” fans have long hoped would tackle a film in the fran­chise — has also walked away from huge projects. In 2010, ex­as­per­ated by on­go­ing de­lays with the pro­duc­tion, he dropped out of di­rect­ing “The Hob­bit” af­ter two years of work on the film.

Del Toro’s new film, “The Shape of Wa­ter,” is a haunt­ing grown-up fairy tale with a bud­get of $19.5 mil­lion.

“I think that money takes free­dom away,” Del Toro told the Times last week at the Tel­luride Film Fes­ti­val, where the film, which opens in De­cem­ber, earned rap­tur­ous re­views. “More money, less free­dom.”

Ali­son Co­hen Rosa Fo­cus Features

COLIN TREVOR­ROW has been re­placed on “Star Wars: Episode IX,” the lat­est in a rash of di­rec­tors’ ex­its from big-bud­get movies. Box of­fice is on the line.

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