Weekend Roundtable: Directors Who Sold Out

With his $160 million ‘Warcraft’ opening this weekend, ‘Moon’ director Duncan Jones is (seemingly) the latest example of an indie filmmaker previously known for smart, interesting little movies selling out to make big, dopey Hollywood blockbusters from then on. Here are some more examples of promising filmmakers whose careers got a lot less interesting when their budgets got higher.

Shannon Nutt

I can think of no current director that fits this week’s topic better than Alex Proyas. After impressing audiences early in his career with his adaptation of ‘The Crow’ as well as the visionary world of ‘Dark City’, Proyas has done nothing but coast on his name and success, turning in movies that range from the mediocre (‘I, Robot’) to bad (‘Knowing’) to downright awful (‘Gods of Egypt’).

What makes Proyas’ downfall even more annoying is that he’s chosen to blame others for his lack of success. During the recent release of ‘Gods of Egypt’, the director publicly put the blame on movie critics for the dismal performance of his film, as if any us (even the known ones you’ll find outside this website) had that kind of power anymore, or as if the critical press had a personal vendetta against him. I have a theory that when Hollywood stops writing checks to get Proyas to direct the next big thing, he might go back to roots and give us something really worth watching. Until then, however, his career has turned into a huge disappointment.

Luke Hickman

When I walked into ‘The Sixth Sense’, I thought I was going into a straightforward ghost movie. When I left, I was blown away at what newcomer M. Night Shyamalan had done. He basically made an indie-style movie that the masses took to. He did the same with ‘Unbreakable’, ‘Signs’ and ‘The Village’, but with diminishing praise and acclaim each time. After that, he pumped out two movies that ranged from bad to absolutely awful (‘Lady in the Water’ and ‘The Happening’).

After getting bashed for those, Shyamalan bowed down to Hollywood and made two of the very worst big-budget movies I’ve ever seen: ‘The Last Airbender’ and ‘After Earth’. I rarely wish bad things on my enemies, but I willed both of those movies to bomb at the box office. Although Shyamalan himself made that happen, I like to think that the negative thoughts I projected into the universe had something to do with it.

M. Enois Duarte

One movie director who sold out to a major studio, learned his lesson for a while, but then returned for more quick cash is David Gordon Green. The indie filmmaker who brought us the engagingly quirky ‘All the Real Girls’ and ‘Snow Angels’ followed those dramas with ‘Pineapple Express’. Granted, the stoner comedy is not a wholly terrible movie and it became a surprise box office hit, but it’s nowhere near the quality of his previous efforts and makes a weird choice as his first major studio production.

Worse still, Green followed that success with a pair of utterly awful disasters: ‘Your Highness’ with Danny McBride and ‘The Sitter’ with Jonah Hill. That last one could almost be considered the end of his relationship with Hollywood. Thankfully, Green returned to his roots and surprised his fans with another pair of amazing indie dramas in ‘Prince Avalanche’ and ‘Joe’ – the latter of which also gave us one of Nicolas Cage’ best performances. Sadly, Green quickly lost the momentum he gained with ‘Manglehorn’ (which stars Al Pacino) and the snoozefest ‘Our Brand is Crisis’. Here’s hoping he does much better working with Jake Gyllenhaal and Miranda Richardson on ‘Stronger’.

Mike Attebery

I’ve said this before, but I believe Tim Burton will do anything if a studio comes to him with enough money. The funny thing is, more studios are willing to pay for Burton and his special sauce than you would ever imagine. ‘Beetlejuice’, ‘Batman’, ‘Edward Scissorhands’, ‘Ed Wood’, even ‘Mars Attacks’ (which I detest)… those at least seem like true Tim Burton movies. But ‘Planet of the Apes’? ‘Alice in Wonderland’? ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’?! All of those movies would have been better without Burton, and he would have been better for not having made them!

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

I get that the name Darren Aronofsky isn’t emblazoned across the poster art for one summer blockbuster after another, but that’s not for a lack of trying. At one time or another, he was attached or deep in talks to direct ‘Batman: Year One’, ‘RoboCop’, ‘Watchmen’, ‘Man of Steel’ and the ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’ sequel, along with about 300,000 other films that either wound up being helmed by someone else or were never made at all (among them ‘The Tiger’ with Brad Pitt and ‘Serena’ with Angelina Jolie). It quickly got to a point that when I’d see Aronofsky’s name mentioned in tandem with any project, it was a countdown until a follow-up article would report that he and the producers had parted ways.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think highly of Aronofsky. That’s saying something seeing as how I paid good money for the insufferable ‘The Fountain’ and all. For all I know, his takes on Wolverine and RoboCop could have been spectacular. If his oddball screenplay for ‘Batman: Year One’ is any indication, they would’ve been defiantly different, at the very least. After that many failed attempts, though – especially with as dismal as several of those movies wound up being – hopefully Aronofsky’s return to the director’s chair will be something far more inventive, far more interesting, and very little like ‘Noah’, his failed attempt to make a big-budget blockbuster for Paramount.

Josh Zyber

I can rattle off a long list of directors who fit this topic. Especially in recent years, the big Hollywood studios have actively recruited indie filmmakers to helm their mega-budget franchise tentpoles. In doing so, the studios look for someone who has proven that he or she can finish a movie, yet has relatively little power or sway in the industry. They’ll work for far less money and can be pushed around to do what the studio wants much more easily than a Spielberg or a Cameron or a Ridley Scott. That’s how someone like Colin Trevorrow, whose biggest previous feature ‘Safety Not Guaranteed’ was made for well under $1 million, can immediately jump to the $150 million ‘Jurassic World’. Likewise for Gareth Edwards with ‘Godzilla’, Josh Trank with ‘Fantastic Four’, Marc Webb with ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’, and so many more.

In all of these cases, the directors have essentially made deals with the Devil, willingly compromising their artistic values for nice paydays and a chance to join the ranks of the A-List. Honestly, I don’t begrudge any of them for this. I’d probably do the same if I ever found myself in that situation. Nevertheless, as a viewer, it’s disappointing when someone who has demonstrated the ability to make a smart movie turns around and makes a very dumb one next.

Which filmmakers have most disappointed you by selling out their promising careers to make much dumber, less interesting big-studio movies?

45 comments

  1. Chris B

    Joe Carnahan’s debut film Narc is one of my all-time favorite movies. Made in Toronto (as a fill-in for the motor city), the shoot was plagued with financial troubles and even ran out of money early on in the production, resulting in certain cast members working for free just to get the project finished. What emerged from all the turmoil is a fantastic film. Jason Patric has certainly never been better and Ray Liotta delivered one of his all-time best performances (which is saying a lot considering his career). The movie had a tight script, a stripped-down gritty aesthetic that channelled 70’s cop thrillers and some real emotional heft to be sure. After seeing it I was convincd Carnahan was someone to watch and was certain he would do great things.

    Unfortunately, I couldn’t have been more wrong. After the indie success of Narc his next film was the abysmal and brainless “Smokin’ Aces”, which had a great cast but squandered it with a muddled script and unlikeable charcters. After that came the cinematic gem that is The A-team and the Liam Neeson misery-fest The Grey. Carnahan’s next project is said to be the third installment in the Bad Boys franchise….great….can’t wait for that one. What a shame.

    P.S. I can’t believe Narc hasn’t had a blu-ray release….where’s the justice?

      • Chris B

        Yeah sorry I should have been more specific. It hasn’t come out on blu in North America as far as I know. I’d import the disc from Germany if it was playable for anyone (as I’ve done with several other discs), but unfortunately it’s not region 1 compatible and I don’t have a region free player 🙁

  2. NJScorpio

    Not to veer off too far (which I tend to do)…I just want to mention two directors that I HOPE don’t end up on a list like this in 5 years. Bong Joon-ho (The Host/Mother/Snowpiercer) successfully brought the oh-so-disturbing South Korean horror sensibilities to an international audience with Snowpiercer, and I’d hate to see his twisted edginess get tamed for Hollywood action “horror” movies in the future. The other is Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson/Drive/Only God Forgives/The Neon Demon). Some may say he is style over substance, but that style is fantastic, and it wouldn’t take much to fine tune that substance. Again, like with Bong Joon-ho, there is a disturbing edge to his work that I would be concerned would be washed away with excessive studio involvement, trying to broaden his appeal.

    • NJScorpio

      Oh…and I didn’t realize the director of ‘Moon’ directed ‘World of Warcraft’. Now I’m depressed.

        • NJScorpio

          I never thought of it that way (though I’m not a parent). One of the many reasons I love ‘Moon’ is that so much is done with so little….then…’World of Warcraft’. I mean, good for him and all, but it doesn’t sound like the extra everything paid off.

    • Chris B

      I recently saw Gasper Noe’s “Love” and it seemed like he was trying really hard to ape Refn’s style. Tons of red in the colour palette and a lot of symmetrical widescreen composition. I know people accuse Refn of aping Lynch but….this could be a case of the accused aper being aped.

      • Josh Zyber
        Author

        Refn apes whatever other director he happens to be infatuated with at the moment. For Drive, it was Michael Mann. For Only God Forgives, it was Lynch. For Neon Demon, it’s Dario Argento. Refn doesn’t actually have a signature style of his own. Everything he does is a copy of someone else’s work.

        • Chris B

          I’m rather familiar with both Mann and Lynch, however I don’t believe I have ever seen a Dario Argento directed film. What is considered his best work?

          • Argento tends to make the same film over and over. “Suspiria” has a big fan base, but I would go with “Deep Red”.

            If you liked Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead”, Argento helped with that and it looks much like his films.

            -Bill

          • Csm101

            The masses will probably responded with Suspiria. A supernatural type horror. Other than that, Deep Red is a giallo which is also very highly regarded in Argento’s filmography. My personal favorite is Tenebrae, which is also giallo, but very retro 80’s and has a unique vibe amongst his other giallos in my opinion. There’s an amount of cheesiness to some of those films that one must embrace to appreciate these types of flicks. Great stuff though.

          • Chris B

            Cool, I will check them both out. Thanks for the input.

            It’s funny, just even reading the plot synopsis of Suspiria…it sure sounds similar to The Neon Demon….

          • Chris B

            So is the term “Giallo” just a way to collectively refer to horror films from the 70’s and 80’s that were made by Europeans?

          • Csm101

            No , giallo is a specific type of euro horror. They’re kind of like sleazy slasher murder mysteries. Suspiria is not a giallo, but Deep Red is. The kills are usually in the pov of the murderer who is always wearing gloves and usually weilding a razor or knife. Giallos are full of red herrings and it isn’t uncommon pfor the culprit to be female. Lots of nudity, bitchslapping and blood. The word giallo means yellow in Italian . There were these yellow murder mystery paperback novels back in the day hat these type of movies borrow from. You could categorize Dressed to Kill as a giallo.

          • Deaditelord

            Before the late 90’s when he stopped giving a shit about his films (although I think his 2001 movie Sleepless occasionally channels some of that old-school Argento brilliance) Dario Argento was fairly consistent in the quality of his movies. While Deep Red, Suspiria, Tenebrae, and Phenomena were his best films during that period, even his lesser films like Opera, Inferno, Trauma, and The Stendhal Syndrome are quite watchable. Of the A tier, Deep Red or Suspiria are good starting points. I’m also a big fan of Tenebrae, but I find that movie harder to recommend to new people interested in Argento’s work only because of the overt sleaziness.

            If you do end up enjoying those movies, then I would strongly suggest watching his other films up until his disastrous version of Phantom of the Opera.

        • NJScorpio

          Yes, NWR’s influences are traceable, but that can be said about many directors, there are only a few current ones that come to mind that really created a solid and consistent style that they just own that style. Like Fincher and low shots with natural light and lots of yellows. It’s like, “yup, that’s a Fincher movie all right.” So I don’t mind a director who’s style shifts, and I like when it used with confidence.

          Now, if selling out is the topic, really the content of what is put on screen is at issue. That’s where the compromise is made, in theory, and the overall aesthetic style should remain the same. With NWR, I like the stories he tells. Not saying he is my favorite director, or they are perfect movies, but I would really hate to see someone who directed ‘Only God Forgives’ end up directing the next ‘G.I. Joe’ movie. That would be disappointing.

        • NJScorpio

          I just gotta say…I don’t believe that just because a director emulates other directors for each of their films that means they are devoid of their own inherent style.

          I also think there is a value to a director like this…as can be seen in the conversation had on this page. I don’t think Refn denies his influences, and as you said, it is an infatuation, an love for that director’s style. He is serving as a bridge, introducing audiences to directors they may not be familiar with otherwise. It also provides those of us who like those influential director’s styles to get a bit more of their flavor, by a different chef.

          • Chris B

            If there is a consistennt weakness in Refn’s films I’d say it’s the lack of strong characterizations. Most of the people in his films feel like vague sketches as opposed to real people. Hopefully he learns to balance his art-house leanings with stronger charcters in the future.

      • Csm101

        Hey Deadite, what about Dracula?!😖. Did you ever notice when Argento started putting his daughter in his movies, they got progressively worse? I don’t think that he doesn’t give a shit any more, but there is an interview with him in one of the Demons steelbooks from Synapse and he talks about how difficult it is to get a movie made in Italy anymore because they love all the American blockbusters so much and don’t care for their domestic films as much. I personally think he’s just demoralized and maybe that’s why his last few flicks have been…not awesome, hell, not even good. I agree with you about Sleepless. I’ve only seen it once, but I definitely see what you mean about him having the old spark in him for that one at times. I would love to revisit that one on a good quality blu. I seem to recall the DVD was pretty shitty. What are your thoughts on The Bird With the Crystal Plumage? I think that would be a pretty solid start for someone who’s never watched Argento. For being his first film, it’s very solid but not as over the top as some of his others.

        • Deaditelord

          I try not to think about Dracula 3D, although I suppose the praying mantis scene is worth at least one watch just to marvel/laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of seeing Dracula portrayed as a six foot, poorly realized CGI insect.

          I’ve noticed that trend with Asia Argento too. Maybe her not starring in Sleepless is why the movie is more watchable? I actually have the Artisan DVD of Sleepless (bought it used for like $2 at the local video store many years ago) and while the movie is uncut, it’s also full screen, pan and scan which is completely unacceptable. The transfer is shoddy too. I seem to recall hearing something about an uncut version of Sleepless being released on blu-ray in Europe, but I never looked into it.

          I actually can’t comment on The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. It’s the only Argento giallo that I have not seen. I should fix that.

  3. I don’t know about “sold out” but I enjoyed early David Cronenberg and Wim Wenders, but not their later Hollywood pictures.

    I guess Wenders has stayed more or less “indy”.

    -Bill

    • NJScorpio

      David Cronenberg used to do great body horror movies, but he has moved away from that genre long ago. This is a perfect example of why a director like Nicolas Winding Refn is great to have around. I think he would do a great job emulating that early Cronenberg style and make his own body horror movie, giving us a bit more of what we aren’t seeing from the original director anymore.

      • Chris B

        Some of Cronenberg’s early stuff is so disturbing and it’s hard to articulate why. Videodrome is one of the most unsettling movies I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure if he ever really sold out…”A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises” still have his distinct flavor IMHO. The again I haven’t had a chance to see his most recent stuff…

        • NJScorpio

          Those two were excellent films, and I could see someone wanting to move on to more…um, palatable, films.

          If I had to say what makes his body horror films so disturbing, it be that the changes are coming from the inside, and are being perceived by the one changing. They are changes totally foreign to that person, so they don’t know if they are going crazy, or if this seemingly impossible thing is happening, and it is so horrific that they are afraid to confirm it’s existence with another person.

          (FYIY, it may be considered horror, but I think ‘Scanners’ is a beat for beat a perfect science fiction movie.)

  4. EM

    In response to Mike Attebery: Not only would Planet of the Apes, Alice in Wonderland, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory have been better without Burton, but they already were.

    • William Henley

      Planet of the Apes was fine, but not as good as the original. Alice in Wonderland seemed like the perfect world for Burton’s touch, unfortunatley the story was awful, Mia Wasikowska felt like she glanced at the script five minutes before they shot it, the color pallet gave you headaches and the CG fell into the creepy category (not sure if uncanny valley is right term since you were dealing with fantasy characters).

      Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, on the other hand, was FANTASTIC and was exactly what I expected from Burton. I actually prefer it to the original. That is not to say it is better – that is really comparing apples to oranges because they are so different from each other. But in terms of style, character development and acting, I prefer Burton’s. It’s truthfully like saying I would prefer an orange today – not that I don’t like apples or that oranges are better than apples, I just prefer the orange.

      But I do got to agree with Mike – somewhere around that time, Burton started to sell out, and now his name doesn’t carry what it once did. But maybe we just got used to his style, although I think it is more that HE got used to his OWN style, and no longer tries to innovate but rather just throws his trademark visuals all over a movie without bothering to have any sayso in the screenplay or bothering to direct the actors.

  5. Eric

    I hope all directors get a chance to “sell out” ala get a pay day, the freakin deserve to get paid. These guys have a better chance of winning the lottery on any given day than making a small film and being able to make enough money to live off of. When you accuse these guys of selling out, you are criticizing them for wanting to support their families and pay their bills. These guys suffer for years, so they can give us movies they truly believe in and that we love. We are going to get bad overstuffed mega budget movies no matter what, these guys might as well get something out of it.

    Also many times these directors bring the people that have been working for free and often homeless or otherwise jobless along with them so they can get something for all their years of dedication creating films we love and will never know the types of true sacrifice they make to be in the industry. Remember most people in the industry don’t get paid well, consistently or at all.

    When I see these directors get a shot in the big budget business, I hope they are able to get a deal where they can make their own films in between big opportunities. Or they get to have other forms of creative outlets or at least get to support their compatriots that are struggling in the business.

  6. Csm101

    I don’t think he’s quite there yet, but I think Alex Garland is on his way to directing something really big one day.

  7. meli

    When “The Usual Suspects” was released, I thought that Bryan Singer was going to have a much more interesting career than what it has turned into; namely poorly received superhero films.

    I’ll also push back against the Darren Aronofsky nomination. The fact that he left so many of the dopey projects he was initially connected with might be taken as a sign of his dignity. And I find it hard to believe that many people, other than a few wishful studio suits, thought that “Noah” had a chance at being a blockbuster. I find Aronofsky’s less successful films to still be more interesting than most of the dreck being released. I’d rather watch a film that strives for something interesting (but somehow fails), than watch some some mindlessly mass-produced garbage.

  8. Idk if he counts because he’s always been a bit Hollywood, but Sam Mendes was making quality pictures before he got into the Bond game (and some quality Bond as well). American Beauty, Road To Perdition and Away We Go all great with an indie feel.

  9. I agree with most picks (or pics), but I’m willing to overlook the ‘selling out’ part in Duncan Jones’s case. I’ve read a few times now that the guy’s a huge ‘Warcraft’ fan, so clearly, this is just a labour of love for him. Imagine if they would ask me to work behind the scenes of a ‘Back to the Future’ or ‘The Goonies’ remake. I would totally hate the idea of the remake, but I would not be able to resist the gig because of fanboyish reasons.

  10. photogdave

    There was a director I liked in the 70s who made a couple of good low budget movies: an interesting sci-fi film and a charming coming of age movie. Then he directed another low-ish budget sci-fi film that became quite popular. He didn’t direct again for over 20 years but every movie he made since lacked any of his original skill.

    George Lucas.

  11. photogdave

    …however I guess you could say Lucas didn’t sell out to the Hollywood system as all his films were self-financed.

  12. Ryan

    I am having trouble following the logic of picking Darren Aronofsky. The guy ONLY makes his passion projects. He’s like the least likely to sell out director I can think of.

    Also, The Fountain is a misunderstood masterpiece. Easily one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen, and one that is better with each viewing.

    • Chris B

      I agree with you on The Fountain, I even prefer it over The Wrestler, although that’s a great film in it’s own right. I was super excited when I heard Aronofsky was set to direct The Wolverine…then really bummed when he left the project. I haven’t seen Noah simply because the subject matter doesn’t interest me. Hopefully his next film will be another great one….

      • Pete

        I’m not a religious person at all, but Noah was treated just like any film based on a book. Really interesting film, and one of the best looking blu rays out there.
        Whoever put Aronofsky on this list clearly doesn’t know what the list was about to begin with. Selling out is doing a mindless big budget movie for a big paycheck. Not a passion project that just happens to have a bigger budget. I suggest any fan of Aronofskys other work check it out.

    • itjustWoRX

      Just had to add my support for “The Fountain.” I truly hope it gets revisited someday by Aronofsky (he wanted to work with Criterion on a special edition of the film).

    • It’s hard for me to picture a Robocop remake or a sequel to the basically universally reviled X-Men Origins: Wolverine as a passion project of Aronofsky’s in the same way as, say, Noah. I may very well be off-base, though.

  13. William Henley

    Well, the guy made a ton of great movies in the 80s and 90s, then some awful big budget movies in the 2000s, but is now doing documentaries and such, so I am not sure if its right to calll him a sell out. Maybe a reformed sell out – he dabbled with the Devil, then went to rehab.

    I am talking about Ron Howard. He gave us movies such as Cocoon, Willow, Parenthood, Backdraft, Apollo 13, all brilliant films (and granted, Willow and Apollo 13 had decent budgets).

    However, he gave us The Grinch, The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons. Now, I am sure the issue with The Grinch was more issues with the screenplay than direction (the movie looked incredible, and the 30 minutes of the movie that followed the original story were incredible, but the rest of the movie was a train wreak). However, you then have The Da Vinci Code, and it looks like absolutely no one involved in the making of that movie cared if the movie was any good or not. With the horrible reception it got, I can’t believe that the studio greenlit the sequel.

    However, it looks like Howard learned his lesson from that, got help and is back to making smaller movies and documentaries again.

    • I actually like ‘The Grinch’. But I have never read the original story – from what I’ve heard: an American childhood classic, as essential as breakfast – so that may explain a whole lot.

      • William Henley

        The issue with The Grinch was really the back stories and the side stories. None of that existed in the original, and it was really weak. The original story was included word for word in the movie, and that part (like the last 30 minutes of the movie) was pretty good. But everything that lead up to it was really weak, and a lot of audiences who grew up with the original lost interest before they got to the last part of the movie.

  14. Tony

    Sam Raimi
    Peter Jackson

    Maybe Doug Limon, although looking back now I don’t know how much credit he deserves for swingers. Maybe Favreau is the sellout…

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