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12 Indie Directors Who Jumped To Blockbuster Budgets

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
March 26, 2014 2:24 PM
8 Comments
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Bryan Singer
Indie Work:
Singer’s first film “Public Access” (about a drifter who causes an uproar in a small town through its local cable station) didn’t get a distributor, but it did win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1993, and thus managed to grab Singer some attention. This led to “The Usual Suspects,” a twisty, beautifully acted noir that hit right at the peak of post-Tarantino mania, and became an immediate cult hit as a result. That brought Singer to the attention of studios, but before he went into tentpole territory, he helmed an adaptation of Stephen King’s short story “Apt Pupil,” about a young man who finds out his neighbor was a concentration camp guard, for mini-major Phoenix Pictures.
First Big-Budget Movie:
Singer’s first true studio movie was “X-Men,” the long-awaited adaptation of some of Marvel Comics’ most beloved and long-running characters. Singer initially turned down the project before signing on in December 1996, and after a long road of development, the film, detailing superpowered mutants, was released in July 2000, to strong reviews and a healthy worldwide box office of just under $300 million.
Budgetary Leap:
“The Usual Suspects” was about $6 million, “Apt Pupil” was about $14m. “X-Men” was nearly five times that, at $75 million
Success Or Failure?
That depends if you’re talking short-term or long-term. “X-Men,” more than any other film, is responsible for the glut of superhero movies we now have -- the film was the first in a long time to treat the source material with respect (after the 90s “Batman” movies and things like “The Phantom,” this proved important), and showed that they could work without A-list stars, with the property doing the heavy lifting. The first film was flawed and compromised, but a good start, and Singer nailed it with sequel “X2.” But he’s become a less and less interesting director as time’s gone on, culminating in last year’s dire “Jack The Giant Slayer,” and his return to the franchise for X-Men: Days Of Future Pastdoesn’t look that much better. If you’re not keen on superhero movies, this movie is the one to blame.

The Wachowskis
Indie Work:
Andy and Lana (originally Larry) Wachowski started off their career as comic book writers before breaking into movies, penning a script called “Assassins” in 1994 (later heavily rewritten as a Sylvester Stallone vehicle). They teamed with veteran producer Dino De Laurentiis for their directorial debut in 1996 with “Bound,” a taut, stylish lesbian-themed neo noir. It was picked up by Gramercy Pictures and, after premiering at the Venice Film Festival, hit theaters in October of 1996, eventually becoming a cult hit.
First Big Budget Film:
Even before the release of bound, the pair had sold the rights to a secretive sci-fi project to Warner BrosLorenzo DiBonaventura. It took some convincing, but the studio eventually agreed to finance “The Matrix,” a heady, action-packed sci-fi film that cribbed liberally from cyberpunk novels, comic books and video games. A smart marketing campaign that mixed unique eye-popping imagery with the film’s central "What Is The Matrix?" question led to it becoming a pop culture phenomenon on release: it took over $450 million worldwide, and influenced almost every action movie to be released in the next decade.
Budgetary Leap
: “Bound” cost $6 million, “The Matrix” weighed in at around $63 million, nearly ten times as much (and the money was all on screen: it looked as though it cost much more).
Success Or Failure?
For the film itself, an unquestionable success: it birthed a new franchise (sequel “The Matrix Reloaded” took over $700 million), and is one of the most influential films of the last twenty years. For the Wachowskis, it’s more debatable; lost in their own mythology, the sequels proved hugely disappointing, and audiences turned against them swiftly (the third film took less than the first one did worldwide, even after the huge bump for the sequel). Nothing they’ve done since has been nearly as successful, with both “Speed Racer” and “Cloud Atlas” tanking hard (both films are better than their reputation, in fairness). And, to be honest, we’re not sure that Jupiter Ascending will turn that around. Maybe they need to return to their low-budget “Bound” days?

Marc Webb
Indie Work
: Webb kicked off his career as one of the best-known directors of music videos of the '00s, with clips for the likes of Green Day, Anastacia, AFI, Good Charlotte, Brand New, Snow Patrol, Pussycat Dolls, My Chemical Romance and Regina Spektor. This led to his first feature, indie rom-com “(500) Days Of Summer.” Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, it’s decidedly imperfect, but with the genre in dire straits, the film’s visual invention and melancholy tone clicked with audiences, and after Fox Searchlight picked it up, it became a sleeper hit, taking $32 million domestically, and almost as much again abroad. 
First Big-Budget Movie:
The director became a hot property off the back of the film’s success, and flirted with various projects (including “The Spectacular Now” and a re-do of “Jesus Christ Superstar”), but when Sony pulled the plug on development of Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 4” in favor of a cheaper, younger-skewing reboot, Webb swiftly became the studio’s first choice to helm. Eventually titled “The Amazing Spider-Man,” starring Andrew Garfield as the web-slinger, Emma Stone as love interest Gwen Stacy and Rhys Ifans as the villainous lizard, the film, released in July 2012, was the lowest-grossing of the franchise to date, but still took a very healthy $752.2 million around the globe. Webb’s sequel The Amazing Spider-Man 2 lands in May.
Budgetary Leap
: The independently financed “(500) Days Of Summer” cost around $7.5 million. While the plan was for the film to be significantly cheaper than Raimi’s third picture, Sony still ended up spending north of $200 million on “The Amazing Spider-Man.”
Success Or Failure?
A qualified success. The buzz during production was that Webb and Sony were clashing, and the results are evident on screen: the finished film is tonally awkward, and the story a little incoherent. Sony must have lost a little face when the film made less money than the Raimi trilogy, but can’t have been that disappointed, given that they’ve already greenlit three sequels, and at least two spin-offs, and any issues with Webb must have been smoothed over, as he’s directing both the new film and 2016’s threequel. As for the filmmaker, he dealt with the romance aspects better in the first film than with the superheroics: let’s see if that changes with the follow-up.

Rupert Wyatt
Indie Work:
Wyatt had only short films behind him (most notably 2004’s “Get The Picture”) when he made his first film in 2008, the low-budget prison thriller “The Escapist,” which starred Brian Cox, who’d also appeared in the short, alongside Joseph Fiennes, Seu Jorge, Liam Cunningham, Dominic Cooper and Damian Lewis. Stylish and smart, it was pretty much dumped by its U.S. and U.K. distributors, but certainly got Wyatt in front of the right people, particularly after it screened at Sundance.
First Big-Budget Movie:
After Scott Frank left the project (then called “Caesar”), Fox offered the reins of their reboot of the “Planet Of The Apes” franchise to the likes of Kathryn Bigelow and Tomas Alfredson before settling on the surprise choice of Wyatt. The film, which saw the creation of the first intelligent ape, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his relationship with scientist Will (James Franco) took advantage of performance-capture technology and, after a confident Fox bumped it up nearly six months into the summer, it opened on August 5th, 2011 to surprisingly strong reviews. The film proved to have long legs, and eventually made nearly $500 million worldwide.
Budgetary Leap
: “The Escapist” cost a mere $2 million, while in contrast, “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” was said by the studio to cost $93 million -- low by tentpole standards, but thought at the time to be the biggest-ever jump in budget for a second-time director (though Marc Webb took the crown soon after, and Gareth Edwards will likely break the record again with “Godzilla”).
Success Or Failure:
Resounding success. Plenty (including Wyatt, presumably) must have been nervous about such an untested filmmaker taking on a big budget property, and an important franchise for the studio, but the film proved a surprise smash, and much of the credit (along with Andy Serkis’ remarkable performance) must go to Wyatt, who directed the film cleanly but brilliantly, and soon attracted the label of "the next Christopher Nolan." Wyatt bailed on this summer’s sequel is already wrapped, and will hopefully hit theaters later in the year.

Honorable Mentions: To keep the numbers down, we tried to restrict this mostly to filmmakers who went straight from indies to tentpoles, without stopgaps in between. That means we excluded some obvious names like Peter Jackson (who made the effects-packed "The Frighteners" for Universal before "Lord of the Rings"), Ang Lee (whose "Ride With The Devil" cost nearly $50 million before he took on "Hulk"), Alfonso Cuaron, whose "A Little Princess" and "Great Expectations" helped pave the way for "Harry Potter," and Christopher Nolan, who had the $45 million-budgeted "Insomnia" before "Batman Begins."

Also in this category: Steven Soderbergh, who spent $50m on Universal's "Out Of Sight" before he made "Ocean's Eleven," Sam Raimi, who'd shot a number of modestly-budgeted studio films ahead of "Spider-Man," and Gore Verbinski, who never really made indies, and had "The Ring" before he made "Pirates Of The Caribbean." Similarly, Sam Mendes mostly made studio pictures, even if the low-budget "Away We Go" was the film he did before "Skyfall," and Chris Weitz shot mostly within the studio system before "The Golden Compass." Better examples might be Catherine Hardwicke, although "Twilight" wasn't hugely expensive, and Joe Carnahan, although "Smokin' Aces," which preceded "The A-Team," was released by Universal.

Edgar Wright doesn't feel like an indie director so much, but "Hot Fuzz" only cost $12 million, a fair gap from the $60 or so spent on "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World." Finally, there's David O Russell, who leapt from "Flirting With Disaster" to the $75 million "Three Kings," though that never felt like it qualified as a tentpole. — Oliver Lyttelton with Jessica Kiang

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8 Comments

  • Vanihm | March 30, 2014 2:22 PMReply

    Why Isn't Peter Jackson on the list? He sent from 6 m Heavenly Creatures to 30 m Frighteners to 90 m LOTR in the course of 6 years?

  • John | March 31, 2014 8:42 AM

    C'mon, man, are you really going to argue with a website run by twenty-something drop-outs with laptops and too much time?

  • Demond | March 30, 2014 1:36 PMReply

    I Love This Article For It's In Depth Look at Indie Directors, But The Overall Tone Seems To Be Saying "Stay In Indie Film World, There's No Place For You Artistic/Non Commercial Directors in The Studio System." Unfortunately In Most Cases, This Is True.

  • Demond | March 30, 2014 12:59 PMReply

    Black Swan Made $330 Million Worldwide.

  • Yellow King | March 27, 2014 10:01 AMReply

    Wow - snarky remarks about Prometheus. That never gets old.

  • droop | March 26, 2014 6:10 PMReply

    "...the first intelligent ape." lol are you dumb? do you not realize that humans are apes? Caesar would be the first intelligent chimpanzee, sure enough, an ape, but not the first intelligent one. Neanderthals maybe?

  • Sam | March 26, 2014 2:36 PMReply

    Yay for white guys!
    C'mon, aside from Lana, could we really not dig a little deeper or is this just the sad reality of the business?

  • Chris | March 26, 2014 2:30 PMReply

    Roger Michell did not direct "Casino Royale."

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