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12 Indie Directors Who Jumped To Blockbuster Budgets

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist March 26, 2014 at 2:24PM

This week sees the release of “Noah,” and it’s notable for a number of reasons. For one, it’s that it’s a relatively rare Biblical movie not aimed principally at religious audiences (which may or may not pay off). For another, it’s the latest film from “Requiem For A Dream” and “Black Swan” director Darren Aronofsky. But perhaps more than anything else, it’s a movie that costs $125 million, almost four times as much as the director’s most expensive previous film, “The Fountain,” the helmer having been given the keys to Paramount’s war chest after the surprise smash success of “Black Swan,” which made nearly $300 million worldwide.
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Noah, Russell Crowe, Aronofsky

This week sees the release of “Noah,” and it’s notable for a number of reasons. For one, it’s that it’s a relatively rare Biblical movie not aimed principally at religious audiences (which may or may not pay off). For another, it’s the latest film from “Requiem For A Dream” and “Black Swan” director Darren Aronofsky. But perhaps more than anything else, it’s a movie that costs $125 million, almost four times as much as the director’s most expensive previous film, “The Fountain,” the helmer having been given the keys to Paramount’s war chest after the surprise smash success of “Black Swan,” which made nearly $300 million worldwide.

It’s the latest in a trend that’s become increasingly prevalent over the last decade or so, as studios have become more and more willing to give over their tentpoles to relatively untested directors from the indie world with only one or two low-budget features behind them. In the next year or so, we’ll see the $150 million budgeted “Godzilla” from Gareth Edwards, whose previous effort was “Monsters,” a film that cost only $500,000. We’ll get “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes,” from “Cloverfield” helmer Matt Reeves, there’s the $200m “Guardians Of The Galaxy,” helmed by James Gunn, whose most expensive film before now was the $15 million “Slither,” and, next summer, “The Fantastic Four” from “Chronicle” director Josh Trank,” and “Jurassic World,” whose helmer Colin Trevorrow has only one feature under his belt, the tiny indie “Safety Not Guaranteed.”

The history of such directors making similar leaps is a mixed one: some have found great success and shown they can work on a big canvas, others have been sent back to the indie world with their tail between their legs. It’s still too early to see how “Noah” will end up going down, but to give some indication, we’ve picked out twelve filmmakers from the indie world who made the leap into big-budgets, and worked out their success rates. Take a look below, suggest any others in the comments section.

Marc Forster

Marc Forster
Indie Work:
Marc Forster studied at NYU before making micro-budget first feature “Loungers,” which won the top prize at Slamdance in 1995. That was followed by Sundance entrant “Everything Put Together” in 2000, before he broke through with “Monster’s Ball," a bleak drama about the romance between a death row inmate’s widow and a racist prison guard that won Halle Berry an Oscar, and proved commercially popular as a result. Forster’s next few films proved a mixed bag: Miramax’s “Finding Neverland” was a Best Picture nominee, but supernatural thriller “Stay” was a barely-released disaster. Like that film, follow-ups “Stranger Than Fiction” and “The Kite Runner” were indie-flavored but studio backed, though performed better.
First Big-Budget Film:
Though Forster had worked in the studio sandbox before, there was a huge leap to his seventh feature, Bond movie “Quantum Of Solace.” Replacing the originally-tapped Roger Michell (“Casino Royale”), Forster took the reins of Daniel Craig’s second film as 007, and the result, which saw the secret agent out for vengeance against secret organization QUANTUM, and facing off against the villainous Dominic Greene, was the biggest-grossing Bond up to that point. The shoot had been hampered by the 2007 writers strike, and as a result, critical responses were decidedly more mixed than they’d been for “Casino Royale.”
Budgetary Leap
: Forster had dealt with a wider range of budgets than most of the directors on this list: "Monster's Ball" cost only $4 million, while "The Kite Runner" was $20m, "Stranger Than Fiction" $30 million, and "Stay" $50m. Even then, it was a huge leap to the $200 million cost of "Quantum Of Solace."
Success Or Failure?
If it’s possible for a film that took $586 million worldwide to be a failure, this might be one. Though the writers strike caused problems, the film had script problems that should have been sorted out long before (this is a Bond film where the plot revolves around a utilities contract), and Forster’s handling of the action was fairly poor, despite the presence of 'Bourne' action supremo Dan Bradley as second-unit director. The lukewarm response gave the franchise a hurdle almost as soon as it had been revived, and follow-up “Skyfall” was a reboot in all but name, ignoring the dangling plot threads from the previous film, resulting in the first billion-dollar Bond. Forster, meanwhile, has had a mixed bag since. “Machine Gun Preacher” made even less than “Stay” did, and while “World War Z” was a big hit (and suggested that Forster had a better grip on big-scope action now), the production was very troubled, and Forster won’t be returning for the sequel.

Michel Gondry

Michel Gondry
Indie Work:
A music video veteran of the 1990s and early 00s, with key work for Bjork, Daft Punk and Radiohead, among others, French helmer Michel Gondry ventured into features with 2001’s “Human Nature,” a one-time Steven Soderbergh project penned by Charlie Kaufman. He reteamed with Kaufman to far greater success for the tremendous “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind,” and followed it with the doc “Dave Chapelle’s Block Party,” the self-penned “Science Of Sleep,” and the Jack Black comedy “Be Kind Rewind,” backed in part by mini-major New Line Cinema.
First Big-Budget Film:
The Green Hornet,” a long-gestating revival of the popular radio-serial hero (and sidekick Kato), that Gondry had originally been attached too way back in 1997. Various others passed through, including Kevin Smith and Stephen Chow, before “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express” writer/star Seth Rogen came on with partner Evan Goldberg. Gondry came back on board the project in July 2009, and the film, which co-starred Taiwanese actor Jay Chou as Kato, plus Cameron Diaz and Christoph Waltz, hit theaters in January 2011, pushed back six months from its original 2010 date. It took a reasonable, but not jaw-dropping, $227 million worldwide, falling just short of the $100 million mark in the U.S.
Budgetary Leap
: Gondry’s early films had a range of budgets, but none higher than $20 million (about what both “Eternal Sunshine” and “Be Kind Rewind” cost). Including the $10 million it took to post-convert the film in 3D, “The Green Hornet” wound up costing Sony about $120 million. 

Success Or Failure?
A pretty major failure. The film was pretty much an unqualified disappointment, rarely funny (the usually likable Rogen carried across little of his charm here), without especially inventive action, and with Gondry’s lo-fi visuals basically nowhere to be seen. Both director and star have essentially disowned the movie, with Gondry saying he didn’t have much freedom on the project, and Rogen simply calling it “a fucking nightmare.” The film’s eventual box office toll wasn’t bad, especially for a January release, but the film probably cost more than it should, and any hopes of a franchise were quashed almost immediately. Gondry’s pretty much abandoned Hollywood and double-downed on his own work, with “Mood Indigo” reaching something like peak Gondry, for better or worse (clue: worse).

Paul Greengrass

Paul Greengrass
Indie Work:
Paul Greengrass (our full retrospective is here) started out as a journalist in the 1980s for U.K. current affairs program “World in Action.” Then, after the Berlin-premiering “Resurrected” in 1989 (about a Falklands soldier returning home) he became a TV mainstay, mainly writing and/or directing dramatizations of incendiary real-life events that already then blurred the line between documentary and fiction in their approach. His TV films dealt with institutional racism, an SAS action in the Gulf War and a notorious British football gambling scandal, before he tentatively ventured back into theaters with the subpar “The Theory of Flight” starring Kenneth Branagh and Helena Bonham Carter. That film reportedly was a valuable lesson in the type of movie he didn’t want to make, and Greengrass returned to real-life drama in 2002 with “Bloody Sunday,” a film which, while financed by Granada TV, premiered in Sundance where it won the audience award, and played Berlin, tying with “Spirited Away” for the Golden Bear.
First Big-Budget Movie:
Immediately following the success of “Bloody Sunday,” Greengrass was attached to the first sequel in the ‘Bourne’ franchise, “The Bourne Supremacy.” But unlike many directors whose visual identity is overwhelmed by the sheer scale of a Hollywood blockbuster, Greengrass actually brought his jittery, handheld docu-style with him to the tentpole, unassumingly (and jerkily) revolutionizing the action blockbuster aesthetic in the process.
Budgetary Leap:
Bloody Sunday” is estimated to have had a budget around $5m, while “The Bourne Supremacy” came in at $75m, so a factor of 15, then.
Success Or Failure?
Undeniably a success. Not only was the film itself a hit, it immediately and firmly established Greengrass as a big-time Hollywood director, which yielded another ‘Bourne,’ as well as the terrific “United 93,” among others. And the influence of his trademark handheld style can’t be overstated. While Doug Liman had done a good job with “The Bourne Identity” in establishing a grittier-feeling spy-serial it was Greengrass whose scratchy, frenetic, relentlessly real-feeling style would most change the action landscape, particularly in terms of how the rebooted Bond franchise would respond. Of course, there are those (often us) who bemoan the prevalence of herky-jerk, headachey camerawork, but if “Captain Phillips” proved anything, it’s that as irritating as the imitators may be, Greengrass himself still delivers.

Gavin Hood

Gavin Hood
Indie Work:
South African helmer Hood got his start making educational films before writing, directing and starring in his low-budget feature debut “A Reasonable Man.” That got him the job of helming Polish-language African-set drama “In Desert and Wilderness” in 2001 before he got his major breakthrough with gritty drama “Tsotsi,” which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and put him on studio radars. That  was followed by his English-language debut, the topically terrorism-themed thriller “Rendition” with Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal and Meryl Streep.
First Big Budget Feature:
Rendition” was a critical and commercial disappointment, but by then Hood had already landed his next megabudget film: “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” the first spin-off of 20th Century Fox’s “X-Men” franchise. Long in the works, the film, once more starring Hugh Jackman alongside Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, Lynn Collins and Ryan Reynolds, investigated the early life of Logan. After gaining the wrong sort of attention after a leaked workprint made its way online a full month before release, and was downloaded as many as 4.5 million times, the film finally hit theaters on May 1st, 2009, and made $373 million worldwide.
Budgetary Leap:
“Tsotsi” cost about $2 million, while “Rendition” leapt to about $25million. “Wolverine” was six times as much, with a stated production cost of $150 million.
Success Or Failure?
Failure, for the most part. Fox probably weren’t too upset at the film’s box-office, although it was nearly $100 million less than the franchise’s previous picture “X-Men: The Last Stand,” and they were undoubtedly hoping for more. But it’s the critical and fan reaction that was really negative. The film’s a mess, easily the worst in the franchise, layering on mutant cameos, nonsensical plotting, and cliches. Response from fans was basically poisonous, and Fox decided to essentially reboot the franchise with “X-Men: First Class,” with the essentially unconnected sequel “The Wolverine,” following in 2013. How much Hood is to blame is debatable -- there was clearly a lot of studio interference -- but it landed him in director’s jail for a few years, before he returned with last year’s better-received “Ender’s Game.”

This article is related to: Features, Noah, Darren Aronofsky, Feature, Marc Forster, Michel Gondry, Paul Greengrass, Gavin Hood, Bryan Singer, The Wachowskis, Marc Webb, Rupert Wyatt, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Spike Jonze, Doug Liman, David Lynch


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