How DGA Is Hoping to Discover the Next Orson Welles

The Directors Guild of America is handing out its inaugural first-time feature director award at Saturday's ceremony: "It is our hope that this award will be part of the start of lengthy and successful careers," says guild president Paris Barclay.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

For those marking time, and checking their watches, on the awards dinner circuit, the fact that one of the guilds is introducing yet another category to its awards program might be expected to trigger a collective groan. But when Steven Spielberg took the podium at last year's Directors Guild of America Awards to announce that the DGA had decided to do just that, he was met with enthusiastic applause.

The guild, he explained, was creating a prize that would go each year to a first-time feature director. If the award had existed in the past, he observed, nominees might have included such names as Orson Welles for Citizen Kane, Mike Nichols for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Barbra Streisand for Yentl and John Singleton for Boyz n the Hood. Said Spielberg: "Our guild was founded on the premise of providing support for filmmakers in what can often be a complicated business. This new honor is the culmination of something our organization does very well — honor creativity and foster support."

At this year's DGA dinner, taking place Feb. 6, that award will be handed out for the first time, and, as DGA president Paris Barclay elaborates, it's designed "to recognize fresh viewpoints in visual storytelling and spotlight up-and-coming talent."

Michael Apted, the guild's secretary-treasurer and a former DGA president, spearheaded the initiative, which was then endorsed by the guild's national board, and he chairs the committee that oversees it. The inaugural nominees were chosen by a blue-ribbon panel of directors, who voted by secret ballot, and the award was open to directors of feature narrative films (animated movies and docs were not included) that played one-week qualifying runs in either Los Angeles or New York.

The films directed by the first class of nominees are an eclectic lot. The biggest commercial success of the five is the suspense pic The Gift, written and directed by Joel Edgerton, the Australian actor who also appeared onscreen last year as an FBI agent in Black Mass. Produced on a tight $5 million budget and released by startup studio STX, the movie went on to gross $59 million worldwide. The sci-fi tale Ex Machina, from A24, also attracted a following. British screenwriter Alex Garland, whose credits include Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later and Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go, made his directorial debut with the film, which has grossed $36.9 million to date and is in contention for five BAFTAs and two Oscars.

Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes made a splash with his first film, Son of Saul, which plunges viewers into the horror of the Holocaust, when it made its debut at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize. An Oscar nominee as best foreign language film, the film has collected more than $500,000 domestically as it begins its U.S. rollout via Sony Pictures Classics. SPC also handled the coming-of-age drama The Diary of a Teenage Girl, from actress turned director Marielle Heller; it bowed last year at Sundance, grossed $1.5 million domestically and is up for three Spirit Awards. Brazilian director Fernando Coimbra certainly is the least known of the nominees — his film A Wolf at the Door mixes comedy and drama, a kidnapping and a love triangle — but he already has gone on to direct a couple of episodes of Netflix's Narcos.

Assessing the DGA's initial sampling of first-timers, Barclay says: "This group exemplifies the breadth of range and excellence in the art of the modern filmmaker. It is our hope that this award will be part of the start of lengthy and successful careers."

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