Hollywood Won’t Give Up on Some Directors

By  · Published on January 13th, 2015

Universal Pictures

In October 2012, Alex Cross was promoted by the full faith an effort of Summit Entertainment as a would-be hit. Before the film was even released, Double Crossed, another book in James Patterson’s detective series, had been greenlit to follow shortly after, making Alex Cross the inaugural entry in a franchise organized around Tyler Perry as the titular character. But Alex Cross grossed only $25 million against a modest $35 million budget, and was subject to blisteringly poor reviews that called out the film’s ineptitude and its miscasting of Perry. Eric Hynes of The Village Voice deemed Alex Cross “a strong candidate for the dumbest film of the year.” The highly visible critical and financial failure of the film effectively put to rest any plans to franchise the series.

Filmmaker Rob Cohen’s helming of Alex Cross was labeled “inept,” and its poor performance effectively prevented its studio from its franchising goals. In some circumstances, such a rollout could seriously threaten the career of a director. Yet here we are, slightly over two years later, and Rob Cohen has another Hollywood film coming out in ten days, the Jennifer Lopez-starring thriller The Boy Next Door.

A name director helms a widely recognized flop, yet has seemingly little trouble moving onto a next project. This formula seems to fly in the face of common wisdom about Hollywood as a bottom-line-oriented, cutthroat industry with short-term memory, yet this story is relatively common. Plenty of directors have had their names attached to films that have lost money in no uncertain terms, and incur few long-term career obstacles after. And this tells us a few important things about the priorities of contemporary Hollywood.

Hollywood doesn’t give up on certain directors, even when it looks like everyone else has. In 2013, M. Night Shyamalan made After Earth, which seemed like a safe return to form for a director largely lacking in the good will department with critics and audiences. If nothing else, it appeared to be a surefire hit as a summertime science-fiction spectacle led by a movie star with an incredible track record in summertime science-fiction spectacle. The result was disastrous, as After Earth grossed less than half of its $130 million budget in the US and received terrible reviews, a line of reception that had by then developed a nasty habit of following Shyamalan’s work.

Between accusations of unchecked narcissism in Lady in the Water, Mark Wahlberg’s monologue addressed to a plant in The Happening, the amateurish Last Airbender, and now After Earth, Shyamalan seemed by 2013 a persona non-grata and an easy punchline in movie discourse. Yet M. Night Shyamalan not only has a release date for his next studio-backed thriller – Universal’s The Visit, opening wide this September – but he’s successfully made the jump to the now-vaunted prestige small screen as well, with a miniseries debuting on Fox this year titled Wayward Pines, sporting a prestigious cast including Melissa Leo, Terrence Howard, and Toby Jones.

The longevity of Shyamalan’s career despite a roll of less-than-beloved films would seem to be a contradiction that produces the inevitable question, why are gatekeepers still letting this guy make movies? This isn’t posed as a snarky dismissal about who has the “right” to make films. But rather, what does Shyamalan’s career look like within Hollywood, and how does he seem like a viable investment with studios’ high-stakes/minimal risk logic of doing business?

When the numbers are crunched, Shyamalan has had only two clear financial failures – Lady in the Water and After Earth – with the rest of his filmography since The Village (his last blockbuster) consisting of films that essentially broke even. As Shyamalan’s case exemplifies, there can exist a significant difference between the reputation of Hollywood directors within critical discourse and the reputation of directors within the industry, even when that discourse surrounds the subject of an unambiguous flop.

So there is, to a degree, a logic of Hollywood filmmaking of which we will likely never know as outsiders, a dynamic of what occurs during a pitch or during a producer’s overview of positions for a project that involves an intersection of factors not necessarily reducible to a question about whether a director’s last film was a hit or not, and often based in personal history and degrees of compatibility in doing business. There exists also, perhaps, a sense of historical perspective within studios that doesn’t necessarily align with our stereotypes regarding Hollywood’s short-term memory: the idea that a filmmaker’s entire track record, not the status of his or her latest release, is worthy of consideration in making decisions about who gets to make what. Whatever the reason, recent numbers alone simply cannot explain the continued directorial careers of numerous directors.

But today’s Hollywood is also a Hollywood that simply doesn’t consider people and personalities as part of its industrial logic in ways that it had before. Studios don’t rely on a director’s reputation or a star’s gravitas to sell a film. Today’s Hollywood is one of properties, not personalities. And this line of thinking produces an understanding that a film’s success or failure has little to do with the numeric bottom line – much less quality – of a director’s work, and likely more to do with a general assumption of competence in completing it. Thus, Robert Schwentke signs onto not one, but two Divergent movies only six months after R.I.P.D. opens to execrable box office and reviews.

The filmmakers that we tend to think of as the most elastic and durable in the face of financial failure are critically respected or fan-beloved directors, names that at the very least have some site of clear support and advocacy regardless of how their films perform with mass audiences. That Tarantino made a film two years after Grindhouse seemed inevitable. But many directors – with less name-based clout, with varied careers of successes and failures, who have helmed some of the more forgettable films or most visible flops of recent cinematic years – represent surprising success stories, at least towards the perpetuation of their own careers, regardless of the varying quality and financial intake of their filmography.

There’s something knee-jerk encouraging about one meager sign of a Hollywood that isn’t willing to write a director off based solely upon their most recent history. A financial flop, of course, does not always mean a bad director.

But this is also an essential part of the existing problem of a Hollywood extremely averse to risk as a power play that can be leveled by studios against directors who feel the pressure a career in need of a hit. Embedded within this tradition of directors that Hollywood won’t give up on is perhaps a regular practice of finding competent directors who are more than willing to play by Hollywood’s rules.

On the one hand, some of our most visionary talents get sucked into the all-consuming void of franchises, with their unique abilities weighed against a potential alignment with the defining characteristics of an existing property. On the other hand, well-known independent and small-scale filmmakers have an extraordinarily hard time getting films off the ground at all. In between these poles are studio veterans whose work is reliable, inoffensive, and altogether unremarkable – in other words, perfect for Hollywood.