The studio system once accommodated filmmakers like Darren Aronofsky. It's hard to remember how many genres the Hollywood majors used to churn out, supported by myriad writers, executives, producers, directors and craftspeople who knew how to make romances, melodramas, slapstick comedies, musicals, psychological thrillers, moody film noirs, biopics, sword-and-sandal epics, historical adventures, swashbucklers, westerns, sports dramas, monster films, and ripped-from-headlines contemporary dramas. Most were made on reasonable production and marketing budgets.
Now the studios have boxed themselves into focusing on the one thing they think will lure audiences into theaters: big-budget event movies reliant on CG animation, not just pitched to mainstream moviegoers in North America, but all over the world. And so I find myself in theaters wishing yet again that I could see the smart indie version of a bloated popcorn picture. Except on those rare occasions when the studios do it right--usually the handful of studio-backed movies directed by A-list filmmakers like "Les Miserables," "Gravity" or "Argo" that wind up in the Oscar race at the end of the year.
Take Aronofsky's $130-million "Noah," which opens on Friday. I discovered the filmmaker at Sundance with the brainy 1998 black-and-white mathematics drama "Pi," and remember being struck at our first meeting by how ambitious he was. This brashly confident Brooklyn-born Harvard and AFI grad had no intention of staying in the low-budget indie realm. He wanted it all. And so he tried to move from surreal indie drug drama "Requiem for a Dream" in 2000 (which first showed what Jared Leto could do) to trying to cast Brad Pitt in his wildly fantastic three-period drama "The Fountain" at Warner Bros., which showed why he was not cut out for studio filmmaking. Take Aronofsky too far out of the real world and he loses his bearings. Intensify, push the boundaries of what's possible in the here and now, yes. Go back in time or invent a world from scratch, even if the Bible provides some clues? Not good. (Check out Tad Friend's excellent long profile in The New Yorker, which shows how access can inform a story.)
The problem the studios confront when they chase the big-budget scenario with indie-minded filmmakers like Aronofsky is how to reach a wide audience without losing the auteur's signature voice. Finding that place where a director can be what The New Yorker's Friend calls a "mainstream visionary" is tricky. He cites David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Quentin Tarantino as examples. I would argue that Fincher is a director-for-hire comfortable working inside the studio playpen, as are writer-directors Ben Affleck and George Clooney--who like to work with limited budgets to keep their freedom. But writer-directors P.T. Anderson, Tarantino, Woody Allen, Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers are like Aronofsky--defiantly indie auteurs who do not thrive inside the studio system. They are financed outside of it or by partnering with studio subsidiaries Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics and Focus Features or The Weinstein Co. None of these filmmakers has ever been remotely mainstream. Neither has Tarantino, although he delivers genre entertainments that delight a wide smart audience all over the world.