Last week, director Quentin Tarantino released what he considers to be his 9th (if you count both volumes of Kill Bill as a single movie) and penultimate feature film; Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt and set in and around the heart of the film industry at the height of the 60’s counterculture, with the upending Manson Family murder of actress Sharon Tate as the backdrop, is quintessential Tarantino, which is good news for anyone who’s a fan of his work. It’s indulgent, lengthy, and extra violent, but also hilariously observant of all the quirks of both the world of Hollywood and the people who inhabit it. But what makes the movie even more remarkable is the way it stands out in the current field of the summer box office. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood it turns out is a real oddity in today’s Hollywood; an original concept film from an acclaimed director that’s not a sequel or a remake, and one that is capable of opening to healthy blockbuster numbers against tough competition. Had this movie come from another director, I don’t think it would have nearly been as successful as it has, and would have probably quickly run through the art house circuit before fading into obscurity. But because Tarantino has built a reputation and a fan base over the last few decades, he was able to generate enough hype around this movie to give it the best opening weekend box office of his career. And even more amazing is the fact that he did it without ever having to compromise his vision. Once Upon a Time is through and through a Tarantino film, and that is why people are showing up in big numbers to watch it. All this makes Quentin Tarantino one of the most envied filmmakers in the business, because he has the power to deliver the movies he wants to make and have them succeed at the box office. For most others, power like that is very hard to come by.
There really are only a handful of directors today that have the kind of artistic sway that Tarantino has on his movies, and even fewer are able to consistently deliver at the box office as well. The only other director who is able to deliver an un-compromised vision like that and still generate huge grosses is Christopher Nolan. Nolan certainly has his history working in mainstream franchises (the Dark Knight trilogy) but it’s his own original work that people have become most fascinated with. His 2010 film, Inception, became one of that year’s most profitable movies, and cemented him not only as one of the most acclaimed directors of his time, but also gave him the goodwill to pursue even more ambitious projects in the future, something he has continued to do with Interstellar (2014), Dunkirk (2017) and his upcoming Tenet (2020). And like Tarantino, his name now is synonymous with big screen grandeur, which may seem strange today to think as being unusual for a filmmaker, considering the fact that there are so many big name directors out there. But, here’s the thing: how many directors out there can sell a film purely on their own name alone, let alone have it be their untarnished vision brought to the big screen. Most of the time, for a director to see their complete vision make it to the big screen, they either have to tamper expectations or compromise, because Hollywood just doesn’t invest in bold, directorial styles anymore. If a director is lucky or talented enough, they may be able to work outside the system to maintain the purity of their vision within their body of work, but it’s a rare thing, and rarely do you get to the level of Tarantino or Nolan from it. You have your Wes Anderson’s and David Lynch’s in this group, but you also have your Richard Kelly’s and M. Night Shaymalan’s as well. The director is a powerful position within the film business, but over time the role of a director has diminished as a level of importance when it comes to determining whether or not a movie will be a hit.
The power over what gets made and how it gets made has shifted dramatically over the years. For many years, the movie star became the biggest selling point of a movie. The output of a studio was very much determined by the strength of their stable of contract players and, as was often the case, the bigger the profile of the movie star the better choices of movie roles they would get. And the studios would push their movie stars heavily, whether or not the movies were any good, because it was what the audiences wanted to see more than anything. But, after the break-up of the studio system in the early 50’s, the movie star appeal was no longer the driving factor in Hollywood. Now it was spectacle, as new technologies were created to help movies compete against the rise of television. Widescreen, surround sound, 3D, and other gimmicks were introduced as the main selling point of movies of this era, and it brought to audiences larger than life productions like Ben-Hur (1959), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Sound of Music (1965), all of which were defined by the epic size of their productions. And then came the 1970’s, which ushered in an era that very much changed the landscape of Hollywood, to the point where we are still feeling it’s effects today. For decades before, the concept of the auteur in film-making had been gaining traction within the industry, thanks in part to European film scholars who themselves became auteur filmmakers themselves and ushered in the New Wave era in movies. Celebrating uncompromising directors of the past like Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, Hollywood embraced the auteur theory of it’s past glory, and gave more power to the director than ever before. The 70’s was the era of the movie director, with up and comers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and William Friedkin being allowed creative freedom from the powers that be in the industry that they otherwise wouldn’t have been given in any other time, and gaining success at the same time. This continued with the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who would continue to keep the identity of the director a powerful force within the industry, even as it continued to change.
Now, the seas of change have shifted again, and right now it is neither the director nor the movie star that has become the biggest draw in Hollywood. The power of one’s brand has become the leading currency in today’s film industry, with all the biggest movies coming out today in some shape or form stemming from a pre-established franchise. Whether it’s your Marvel, or Star Wars, or Harry Potter, or even Fast and the Furious, it doesn’t matter what the name of the movie is or what level of quality it represents, if it’s attached to the a popular brand, people will watch them. Disney is even taking their own classic animated films and remaking them in live action, to the point of completely copy and pasting the original scripts like with The Lion King (2019), and people are still seeing these movies in droves. For the most part, people are seeing these movies for what they are and for how they are placed within their franchises as a whole. It matters less now who is starring in them and even fewer people in the audience are aware of who is directing them too. Avengers: Endgame didn’t become the top grossing film of all time because the Russo Brothers directed it or because it starred Robert Downey Jr. (though both things probably helped that out a little). It became the top grossing film because it was the Marvel movie to eclipse all other Marvel movies. This is a business now clearly concerned with finding name brands that will capture the imagination of audiences, and the role that the actors and directors play only matter as a mean of making the brand look better. There’s nothing wrong with using brand appeal as a means of selling a film, but as some would tell you, it’s not an ideal place for filmmakers who want to carve out their own identity. The filmmakers and cast of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are all incredible, but they also understand that the movies they are making only have the attention they have received because they are part of the Marvel franchise, and therefore are identified as Marvel creations rather than independent films. And in a market where franchises are continually becoming the dominant force, this leads to far less individuality and ingenuity on display in the broad market.
Which makes the Tarantino’s and Nolan’s so rare today in Hollywood. For them to get to this point in their careers, it had to take years of establishing themselves as the brand; that their movies bear the unmistakable mark of their vision. As their audiences grew, so did the budgets allowed to bring their visions to life, to the point where they can now make any film with their name attached into an event. But, it has to be understood, these guys are the rare cases. They are at the point of their careers where they can deliver on ambitious projects, because they have the trust of the studios behind them, and in many cases, they lucked out by making movies that find their audiences at just the right time. For many other directors, they have to work through different channels in order to do something ambitious, and in many cases this leads them to sacrificing some ambition. Unfortunately, if you are a beloved art house director who wants to make something grander, and that involves making compromises with a major studio in order to find the funding, it sadly leads to claims by their fan-base that they’ve “sold out.” The fear of being labeled a sell out is enough to deter many a director from taking that next step. It’s probably why you still see filmmakers with very definitive vision like Terrence Malik working well outside the system, making movies limited by smaller budgets, but are purer to the director’s intended vision. That’s why you see far fewer “auteur” style directors working within the system. Sure, these directors are all excellent at what they do, but their direction is far more flexible and open to compromise, which in turn makes their work less “visionary.” For some directors, vision is everything while others value the work and the paycheck, and for the studios, they have far more confidence in investing in the latter.
The turn to devalue the auteur identity of the director and embrace the value of the brands occurred mostly because of two reasons. One, was the decline of the studios trust in the director’s ability to deliver through on their ambitious projects. Despite seeing the rise of the prestige directors in the early part of the decade, the latter part of the 70’s saw many runaway film projects that got to big to handle, all because the directors had been given too much power. This was the case with Francis Ford Coppola’s massive Vietnam War epic, Apocalypse Now, which went massively over-budget. Coppola actually had to be sent back home by Paramount, because he was just continuously filming with no real idea of where to end his movie. Thankfully for Coppola and Paramount, the movie recouped it’s massive budget, but Coppola was never trusted with anything as ambitious ever again. The same luck didn’t pan out for Michael Cimino. Having just come off the success of The Deer Hunter (1978), Cimino was granted almost complete control over his next film, which was going to be the epic Western Heaven’s Gate (1980). It too went massively over-budget and over-schedule, but unlike Apocalypse Now, it didn’t recoup it’s then record breaking budget, and it even put it’s studio, United Artists, out of business as an independent producer. Heaven’s Gate is widely regarded as the movie that spelled the end of the era of the director in Hollywood, but it was the rise of the blockbuster in the 80’s that really diminished the impact of the director even more. Even though a name like Spielberg still carried weight in this time, general audiences were far more interested in high concepts and broader entertainment than they were interested in who was behind the camera. People didn’t watch Back to the Future (1985) because Robert Zemekis’ name was attached to it; they watched because it was a movie with a time machine made out of a DeLorean. The time had arrived when the movies far out-shined the people who made them.
It is interesting how time has flipped the power dynamics in Hollywood. First it was the movie star and then director, now it’s the name recognition of the franchise itself that carries the weight in the business, and that mostly puts the power within the industry into the hands that control the brands themselves; the producers and executives. That’s probably why so many cinephiles lament this time in Hollywood so much, because far less power belongs to the artists and far more is given to the people running the business. But, when box office grosses matter, fewer creative risks are taken. We just have to trust that the people investing the money and organizing the productions have a vested interest in entertaining as well. That’s mainly what separates a Marvel from everything else; because producer Kevin Feige has a clear intention on doing justice to the brands that he’s in charge of. But even as the business of theatrical film-making has been coursing in this direction for years, the industry itself is also evolving once again, which in a way is allowing for more creative freedom to return to the directors. Streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon, and the upcoming Disney+ are giving filmmakers a chance to experiment once again with more ambitious budgets, because they are being funded by companies less concerned by box office results. That’s why we’re seeing so many directors flocking to these channels, because they are finally being given the opportunity to make more personal projects again, but with unbound ambition thanks to platforms that care more about having something unique on their platform and less generic. This is something that recently has challenged the status quo within the industry, and it will be interesting to see if this does open up a new era where the director becomes king once again.
For one thing, you’ll never see Quentin Tarantino leap over to streaming only for his films. He’s a stickler for the in theater experience, which is why he always shoots his movies on film with the intention of having them screened in large formats. Christopher Nolan likewise shoots most of his movies in IMAX, which demands the viewer to watch his films on the largest screens possible, as they lose much of their impact in home viewing. But, they have reached the point where they can comfortably survive doing things the old fashioned way in this “new Hollywood.” For other directors who haven’t gotten to that point, there is a dilemma that they have to face. To deliver a movie on the big screen, they either have to compromise or work within a budget, or they can see their visions fully realized with substantial budgets in the streaming world, but never have it play theatrically as a sacrifice. If anything, streaming has given back some clout to the brand of a director, but with their insistence on exclusive access, they also restrict the ability for the director’s vision to be seen in the way it sometimes should. Movies like Roma and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman should be seen on the big screen, but unfortunately Netflix just doesn’t have the ability or the desire to give these films wide releases. As a result, maintaining one’s vision now has another compromise within this industry; albeit, one that at least grants them more access to funding than what’s been allowed in the last couple decades. It will be interesting to see how this plays out as streaming becomes a far bigger player within the industry. In the meantime, it is reassuring that some visionaries like Quentin Tarantino still have the clout within the business to pull together un-compromised films that still find a large audience. It’s also pleasing to note that this new stand out film from him is also a love letter to the glory of Hollywood itself, particularly hearkening back to an earlier time when movie stars and directors were the star attractions.