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Post-Fest Lament: Directors Missing in Action

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood October 8, 2008 at 12:27PM

There's something missing from our American movies. After watching a mess of films in Telluride, Toronto and New York, I realized I was seeing great foreign films and mediocre American ones. What's the missing ingredient? Many of our great directors. Where's Lawrence Kasdan, Jim McBride, Bob Rafelson, Robert Towne, Joe Dante, Walter Hill, William Friedkin, Phil Kaufman? These directors should all be working at the top of their game.
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Dantejoe1There's something missing from our American movies. After watching a mess of films in Telluride, Toronto and New York, I realized I was seeing great foreign films and mediocre American ones. What's the missing ingredient? Many of our great directors. Where's Lawrence Kasdan, Jim McBride, Bob Rafelson, Robert Towne, Joe Dante, Walter Hill, William Friedkin, Phil Kaufman? These directors should all be working at the top of their game.

What other directors are we missing?

When foreign filmmakers like Caroline Link (Nowhere in Africa) come to America, they have the option of skipping town and going back to work in their own countries, where they can work at the top of their local food chain on modestly-budgeted movies with their top movie stars. (She finally made the terrific A Year Ago in Winter in Germany after developing it in Hollywood.) American directors are stuck here with our messed-up studio system that spoils and overpays people when they hit it big and then drops them cold when they become "irrelevant."

Here's my column.

Many studio helmers who don't direct tentpoles find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Not everyone can be Ridley Scott or Martin Scorsese. Even these A-list perennials can't get all of their passion projects made; they know that steering close to genre filmmaking and movie stars is the surest way to land a big budget and a green light.

You'd think that the studios would want to tap into its treasure chest of gifted moviemakers. Not so.

While indie writer-directors with foreign cred like Woody Allen and the Coen brothers can write their own ticket, even indie specialty divisions like Focus Features admit to succumbing to the lure of the new. But even if they still back the endangered serious drama, Focus doesn't develop much material, says prexy James Schamus, who insists he doesn't get pitches from name directors trying to make cheaper movies. They would have to bring in packaged projects.

Producer-director-star Kevin Costner has flirted with various indie prospects, but walks away when he can't get his fee. Many directors chase their passion projects and then freak when faced with the stark reality of how little time and money they can actually command.

But many studio directors are marooned within Hollywood's powerful caste snobbery about working in television or cable or Indiewood. Status is a terrible thing to crave, and so is a multi-million paycheck.

After Spanglish and Elizabethtown, James L. Brooks and Cameron Crowe are taking their time trying to twist their talent into something simultaneously personal and commercial: that magic commercial holy grail that is harder and harder to achieve these days. Both of those movies might have turned out better as indie projects. But it's scary to jump off the studio gravy train.

Brit Jon Amiel was demanding $4 million to direct low-budget indie Death Defying Acts (Gillian Armstrong eventually got the gig) when he got the siren call from Paramount to direct 2003's The Core. He got paid, but it didn't do his career any good.

Francis Ford Coppola looked at the fun his daughter Sofia was having and put some of his own Napa money into Youth Without Youth. It was the movie he wanted to make.

Producer-director-star Clint Eastwood develops material like Million Dollar Baby, assembles it, and shoves it at the studio. If they say no, he finds the financing independently. Million Dollar Baby won the Best Picture Oscar. Perhaps more directors should follow the model of such active writer-directors as Oliver Stone, Spike Lee and Steven Soderbergh, who pursue a two-tiered studio/indie approach.

[Originally appeared on Variety.com]

This article is related to: Festivals, Directors, Toronto, Telluride


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.