Oscar Watch: Director

The recession is causing studios to get tough with directors

Catherine Hardwicke had every reason to celebrate as her latest film, "Twilight," opened to nearly $70 million in November. The haul exceeded even the most optimistic expectations, and reviewers credited Hardwicke for breathing cinematic life into Stephenie Meyer's cult novel. But when Summit Entertainment immediately began fast-tracking a sequel, "New Moon," Hardwicke was conspicuously absent.

The director had concerns about the direction of the new franchise and the amount of prep time available. Summit, by some accounts, had reservations about working with the indie-minded Hardwicke again. The studio soon announced it would hire another director, Chris Weitz, to ensure its follow-up film would be ready by November.

An isolated instance of financial dictates undercutting a director's power? Perhaps. But there is evidence this awards season that the current economic environment is causing studios to take tougher stands when it comes to keeping directors happy.

"It's the climate that's different," says one producer, who declined to be named. "It's not so much the conversations. Conversations about budgets have always been difficult. But in the last year, (they've) been markedly different. There's even more of a pressure on budgets."

When Danny Boyle turned in "Slumdog Millionaire" to Warner Bros., which was in the process of shuttering specialty divisions Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse, the studio was no longer interested in distributing the film -- even though it had invested in it. Instead, Warners allowed Fox Searchlight to take over distribution, and the film has since become an Oscar front-runner.

Director Stephen Daldry begged producer Harvey Weinstein for eight more filming days on "The Reader," so Weinstein made him agree to a Faustian bargain: In exchange for the shooting upgrade, Daldry had to consent to test an early cut of the movie. If it passed muster with the audience, the director would then be obligated to finish the film in time for a 2008 release.

Never mind that both films were specialty fare, where the director's vision is more highly valued. Business interests took precedence.

Of course, the days when directors were given blank checks and full creative freedom are long gone. No way would Dennis Hopper be allowed to disappear into Peru for a hallucinogenic project like 1971's "The Last Movie." Francis Ford Coppola likely could not set up base camp for months on end in the Philippines, as he did to capture 1979's "Apocalypse Now" -- the excesses of Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate," which crippled United Artists in 1980, saw to that.

But even in the current era of corporate Hollywood, the downtrodden economy is putting added pressure on filmmakers.

That's partly because studio execs don't control their own destiny. Rather, it's the bosses at congloms like Time Warner, News Corp., Disney, Viacom and Sony who call the shots.

A studio regime that enjoys a good year at the boxoffice can't automatically roll over some of those returns into its upcoming production slate. Instead, with parent companies decreeing cost cuts, and companies like Disney and Paramount cutting back on the number of films they release, it's become even more challenging to mount a risky movie.

Oliver Stone, forced to turn to independent financing for "W.," adopted a near-gonzo style, knocking off the biopic in just 46 filming days and shooting in Louisiana to take advantage of tax incentives.

Even Clint Eastwood, known for his economical shooting style, picked up the pace. Back in 2004, his "Million Dollar Baby" was budgeted for 39 shooting days and he completed it in just 37. But he raced through his latest film, "Gran Torino," in a mere 32 days, while also agreeing that Nick Schenk's script, originally set in the writer's home state of Minnesota, be reworked so that it could be shot in tax-friendly Detroit.

In fact, tax incentives played as large a role as anything in shaping this season's awards hopefuls, making the Australia-shot "Australia" feasible and also leading David Fincher's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" to be set in New Orleans rather than the Baltimore of the original F. Scott Fitzgerald short story.

These concessions suggest a slight shift in the balance of power away from top directors and toward the studios that control their purse strings.

"To the extent that it's a buyer's market, (studios) may feel empowered to exert more authority," says Endeavor agent Robert Newman. "But at the same time, nobody hires someone to make their life miserable. There's enough competition for each (directing) job that you want to find someone who shares your vision, with whom you can establish a lasting relationship."

The most expensive tentpoles -- where, presumably, studios watch over directors' shoulders most closely -- often turn into the most collaborative enterprises, since both usually are focused on turning out a commercial crowd-pleaser.

"I welcome the collaboration. The studio often has greater objectivity than the director," says Rob Cohen, who masterminded the summer sequel "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor," which has grossed nearly $400 million worldwide. "Working with (Universal execs) Marc Shmuger and Donna Langley, I took them entirely into my process and benefited from their insight. The net result was a better movie."

In the middle of postproduction, Cohen screened a second assembly of the movie for the Universal execs. Shmuger didn't believe the Mummy character was scary enough. At first, Cohen says, he was taken aback, but then decided he had become too involved in the technical challenges of bringing the emperor and his terra cotta army to life. Mulling it over that night, Cohen returned to an earlier idea that the terra cotta should break open to reveal a burnt and shriveled version of the emperor. At 5 a.m. he called character designer Aaron Sims to work up some sketches, and by noon he was back at Universal.

"This will be scary, but it will cost $4 million," Cohen says he told Shmuger, who immediately OK'd the new effects. "He was the one who put his finger on the problem. I came up with the solution and he paid for it. If I had been stubborn about his first response, maybe I wouldn't have seen it myself."

Ironically, it's on those big movies where directors have to worry the least about being nickel-and-dimed.

"If you're already into a movie for $100 million, you'll do what's necessary to protect that investment," says one insider. "If a director wants a couple of extra days, as a percentage of the budget, it's not that great. A few extra days has a much greater impact on a smaller film."

The studios often put greater pressures on the directors of midrange pictures -- thrillers, action pics, comedies -- that fill out the bulk of their schedules. With only a few exceptions -- like Judd Apatow, whose genially raunchy comedies have been successful enough to afford him rare freedom --genre directors don't call the shots. And where filmmakers once resisted or downplayed test screenings, those results now often dictate the final shape of a movie.

"Everybody's trying to score an 80 or 90 in the top two boxes at the research screenings," says one veteran.

If signs are ominous, drastic measures are sometimes taken: Unhappy with "The Invasion" (German director Oliver Hirschbiegel's 2007 remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"), producer Joel Silver recruited James McTeigue to helm reshoots.

Yet even in these economically depressed times, directors can still take some comfort in the fact that though some studios want to view them as hired hands, they remain essential to the process.

"Studio executives are always thinking about the next movie, and the right director can get a movie made," says Tom Pollock, a former studio head-turned-producer. "So the studio doesn't want to be fighting with a director because they may want to woo him for his next movie."
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