4 Filmmakers That Survived the Sophomore Slump (Video)
These successful directors endured poor second outings.
The Sophomore Slump, in the entertainment world, usually refers to music. It's tossed at bands or artists that couldn't recapture the success of their debut album (think Weezer or The Stone Roses) with their follow-up. Fairly or not, the idea is the band had years to come up with material for the first salvo and then had nothing left. Or perhaps they swerved away from what made them successful in the first place. Or the expectations were too high. Or they choked. Regardless, it seems to happen a lot.
It also happens to movie directors. Think Richard Kelly, who hasn't recovered from following up the cult favorite Donnie Darko with the bloated, barely released Southland Tales. Or Karyn Kusama, who had a breakthrough with Girlfight, but headed to TV after Æon Flux tanked in 2005. Or Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez who seemingly disappeared after breaking the box office with The Blair Witch Project. It's always easier to arrive but tougher to stay.
Which brings us to Neill Blomkamp. In 2009, the South African filmmaker – with the help of producer Peter Jackson – made one of the biggest directorial splashes in recent memory with District 9. It was a surprise hit (opening in the dog days of August, no less) with both audiences and critics, and ultimately earned 4 Oscar nominations, including best picture and best original screenplay. Blomkamp's sci-fi epic had everything: Brains, emotions, complex characters, and rich, layered story. And he made $30 million look like four times that ... which is exactly what District 9's follow-up, Elysium, cost. While the 2013 sci-fi epic, starring a ripped Matt Damon and scenery-chewing Jodie Foster, looked fantastic, critics noted it lacked everything else that made District 9 successful. It was a mess. Audiences agreed and the film flopped.
Had Blomkamp sold out to Hollywood? Was District 9 a fluke? The writer/director has been doing press ahead of his third feature, Chappie, and to his credit, he's owned Elysium's failure. His responses have ranged from "I didn't get it right" to "I feel like I f---ed it up." Ultimately, it's not Blomkamp's humility but what's inside Chappie (and the next Alien film) that will convince audiences whether the director merely hit a bump in the career road.
There is hope. For every barrel full of one-hit wonders, there are a couple instances of directors surviving the Sophomore Slump and emerging as stronger filmmakers for it. Here are four that should give Blomkamp some reassurance.
Debut: sex, lies and videotape
The Slump: Soderbergh not only shouldered a hit debut when he set out to make his second film; his 1989 debut was so popular, it represented a whole explosion in American independent cinema. Many point to it for putting the then-modest Sundance Film Festival on the international map (the film launched there before going on to win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival) and reviving an Indie movement in the ‘90s. Soderbergh was not just a guy with a successful film debut; he was the poster boy for independent cinema. So, how did he respond? He made the very arty, very esoteric black and white, half-biopic, half-mystery called Kafka. What else would the independent poster boy do? Unlike sex, the experimental Kafka failed to find an audience or impress the critics. Mostly, people were just baffled by it.
The Survival: Soderbergh would spend the rest of the ‘90s making low-budget films that studios would call failures but ones that often impressed critics (King of the Hill, Schizopolis). Soderbergh remarkably stayed on people's radar so that when, in 1998, Out of Sight became his first commercial success since sex, it didn't feel at all like a Hollywood sell-out. Soderbergh had spent some many years honing his craft, that Out of Sight just seemed... natural: Independent and personal yet within the studio system.
Debut: The Evil Dead
The Slump: Sam Raimi made the terrifying splatter hit for a few hundred thousand dollars. It ended up grossing eight times that upon release in 1982 and put the Michigan filmmaker on the map. It's now considered one of the great horror films, but the fact it exists may be its biggest shock – the production was an absolute nightmare. But Raimi tapped into something primal, caught the eyes of the right people (among them a very enthusiastic Stephen King) and launched his career. For his follow-up, he again teamed with Evil Dead leading man Bruce Campbell and the Coen brothers as co-writers for a the black comedy Crimewave. And again the production was a disaster, though this time it was mostly studio interference (the defunct Embassy Pictures refused Raimi final cut, among numerous meddlings). The result was worse. Campbell wrote in his autobiography, If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor, "Crimewave wasn't released; it escaped!" In America, it only played only in Alaska and Kansas. Critics didn't get it, audiences didn't see it.
The Survival: For most directors, Crimewave would have been it. Done. However, Raimi still had The Evil Dead in his back pocket and he quickly rebounded from Crimewave by agreeing to make the sequel, Evil Dead II. His career instantly rebounded, only to trend downwards again during the ‘90s (he had a legion of loyal fans but movies like Darkman and The Quick and the Dead didn't perform). It wasn't until he found another franchise that his career would really soar; that was Spider-Man.
The Slump: Clerks is a filmmaking Cinderella story. Famously, Kevin Smith financed his slacker comedy (two dudes, just talking filthy in a convenience store) by maxing out credit cards and selling his beloved comic book collection. The estimated cost was just under $28,000. The film first created buzz on festival circuits in 1994 (winning prizes at Sundance and Cannes) and was released by Miramax in the fall. It went on to make over $3M on only 50 screens, and made Smith the poster boy of DIY filmmaking (you couldn't go anywhere in 1994 without hearing Clerks quotes). For his follow-up, Smith stayed in the same Clerks universe for the prequel called Mallrats. This time, he wouldn't need to hawk comic books; Universal gave him $6M to make the film. Critics accused Smith of taking the money and going through the motions. Audiences agreed. Mallrats barely made back a third of its budget.
The Survival: Following his critical and commercial drubbing, Smith went back to the low-budget formula that made Clerks successful. He rebounded from his first failure with his biggest success to date: Chasing Amy, which cost $250,000 and made over $12M. While it divided critics (countless debates about Smith's portrayal of lesbians), his audience returned. He survived the Sophomore Slump and had a great junior year, but many would argue that Smith never left high school.
Debut: The Maltese Falcon
Follow-up: In This Our Life
The Slump: The Maltese Falcon? Do debuts get any better? Huston first found success as a screenwriter at Warner Brothers (he was Oscar-nominated twice). Huston was allowed to finally direct in 1941 and personally selected the material for his debut: He chose to adapt Dashiell Hammett's detective novel. He cast Humphrey Bogart for the lead role of private investigator Sam Spade. The rest is history. Huston's second film for Warner was not as personal or the experience as pleasant. He didn't get to adapt Ellen Glasgow's dramatic novel In This Our Life (Howard Koch did), diva star Bette Davis caused a number of headaches and Huston had to leave the shoot before finishing it: World War II broke out and he had an assignment with the War Department, leaving Raoul Walsh to finish production. While not an all-out failure, the film is more of a Huston footnote.
The Survival: Let's just say Huston would be fine. Following the war, he returned to Hollywood to make the masterpiece The Treasures of Sierra Madre, which was followed by Key Largo, which was followed by The Asphalt Jungle, which was followed by The African Queen... Point made. And perhaps a good lesson for Neill Blomkamp: If your career goes long enough, sometimes your second movie isn't even remembered.