Unless you’ve been living under a rock, Marvel, PIXAR, and other major franchises run the film industry nowadays. These organizations offer up sequel after sequel, remake after remake, and spinoff after spinoff. For fans following every tiny detail and development of these jumbled plots and characters, this dependency on these expected franchises comes with a certain amount of loyalty. That means a certain level of trust that when these fans take time to go out to the theater and spend money, they know what they’re getting into. Who wouldn’t blame the studios for feeling the need to adhere to standards that have proven successful.
However, it seems as if, lately, many of these big studios (Disney especially) are taking fewer risks and refusing to tinker with the formula they have created. Here are a few examples of how Disney has reduced their risks by playing it safe and asserting complete control over their filmmakers.
When you have somebody like Rian Johnson take the helm for your little 200 million-dollar package, there’s obviously going to be some negotiations and guidelines involved — even though Johnson has consistently put out timeless and lucrative work. For any working director, landing this job is both a dream and a nightmare. That being said, who wouldn’t want to direct a Star Wars movie or a Thor movie? They’re clearly going to make millions upon millions, and it will only help these directors get the necessary funding for future projects, which ultimately brings us their passion projects.
Finding your own creative vision within the framework of the guidelines you must observe is the only thing that matters as a director. You want your voice and your ideas to come across to anybody who sees your work. But given the history of Disney and Star Wars movies, these jobs haven’t always been beacons of creative freedom.
The most recent example of the producers and directors under Disney’s eye clashing is the duo behind The LEGO Movie, Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Perhaps the most abrupt and disturbing aspect of the recent Star Wars universe revival is just how late in production the firing of the duo occurred. Citing creative differences, Kennedy and crew lined up good-old boy Ron Howard to finish the remaining month of production.
So when Disney and Lucasfilm deal with talent like Phil Lord or Chris Miller, communication should be strong from the beginning. Lord and Miller clearly refused to compromise their vision to please one Kathleen Kennedy, and now we’re all left to wonder what could have been.
And then there’s Colin Trevorrow. The director’s chair for 2015’s Jurassic World went to a successful indie director because, for a guaranteed hit like this, Universal and Spielberg needed somebody who could merely hold the reins while the studio spoon-fed money and guidance into the project. So the next logical step in the director’s journey would lead him to Star Wars. So, Lucasfilm gives the job of guiding the last film, their epic conclusion to The Last Jedi, to somebody like Trevorrow. After Johnson and J.J. Abrams, the stage was set, so Trevorrow entered the home stretch with all the established characters and plot points and everyone’s hope that everything would go okay. Frankly, hiring Trevorrow makes sense, given the extreme stranglehold over these directors, somebody with experience working with a big studio was essential.
It will be interesting to see how the upcoming Star Wars ends up. So far, it seems like Disney has given Johnson complete control from start to finish. With five months left until release, everything has looked like smooth sailing up this point, so we’ll see how things go in December. All this to say that when you’re spending as much money as Disney, would you risk someone bending your vision for the sake of their artistic approach to a story adored by millions?
The upcoming Thor: Ragnarok looks to be one of the most drastic shifts in tone for a sequel in the Marvel universe yet. This does show, however, that regardless of Disney’s or Marvel’s sway over the future of each franchise, they do listen to their audiences. After Thor: The Dark World released to mediocre reviews and disappointed fans, the studio sought a fresh face and a new approach for the next film. New Zealand’s Taika Waititi helms the third adventure in the Thor saga and has made what looks to be a completely different film than the last two installments. Who knows how much say he’s had in this drastic change, but so far, things are looking up.
Marvel has made big steps in the past few years widening their scope of directors from a critical and commercial standpoint. As a result, they seem to be doing much better than their competition. However, they could step up their game and hire more women directors. Not to be outdone, Marvel also has a history of running off good directors and shoehorning in a safe bet.
That being said, major studios are not always the antagonists, and 20th Century Fox is a shining example of a studio taking a chance on a director and achieving great success with the outcome. After The Wolverine did okay both critically and at the box office, the studio gave James Mangold the freedom to make the Wolverine movie he and the star (Hugh Jackman) wanted to make. Logan was the product of this experiment, and boy did it pay off. The two films hardly look like they came from the same director, but they’re shining examples of what a little bit of creative freedom looks like and how true passion can affect a film.
In the spirit of Mangold, when you’re working with corporate clients or higher-ups, no matter the profession, demanding unreasonable or simply impossible tasks or revisions, it’s important to remember to stand your ground. Compromising your vision and values is never worth the amount somebody is willing to pay. Especially if the demand or requirement does not feel right.
A shining example of differing studios’ approaches to handling one individual is Gareth Edwards. Edwards’s approach to his two tentpole films produced and distributed by Warner Bros and Disney were drastically different — and the same. With Warner Brothers, Edwards’s take on Godzilla was unique and challenging. For a monster movie, Edwards focused on the central characters’ experiences in the chaos, rather than a straight-up, giant-monster fight movie. The end result was not exactly what people were expecting, and the marketing was a bit misleading; however, the film did well (well enough to prompt a sequel and a King Kong universe spinoff). Given the lucrative success of Godzilla, Edwards scored the first Star Wars spinoff film, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Fans of 2014’s Godzilla and Star Wars alike were pumped, especially after seeing the first trailer.
However, due to “tonal issues” with Rogue One, Disney brought in Tony Gilroy to help write and edit reshoots for the film. This is normal for any mega-blockbuster; however, this was also months before release, so clearly there was some miscommunication between Edwards and Lucasfilm (Kathleen Kennedy) during all three phases of production. The end result was a great film that made a profit; however, there were massive set pieces and key scenes featured in the trailers that never saw the final cut. Disney’s unwillingness to compromise their vision is at once positive and negative for fans. On one hand, it’s given us some true gems like Rogue One. On the other, we’re left wondering what could have been if Edwards’s film had come together.
All of this to say that if we have the option of an original Rian Johnson or Ryan Coogler or Patty Jenkins film over something that carries a strict set of rules, which one would you prefer? Even though I would rather see a truly original film over any of these directors, the chance to see their vision (as little of it as might get through) with some of the characters I’ve come to know and love, I’ll take it. At the end of the day, if the director has a strong enough vision, the film will stand on its own. Let’s just hope they have the gall to stand up to the studio heads in a practical and reasonable way — unlike Lord and Miller.
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