AFM Looks to Produce the Next Bradley Cooper With Influx of Actor-Directed Films

A STAR IS BORN Still 1 - Publicity -H 2018
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

On the heels of the success of 'Lady Bird,' 'A Quiet Place' and 'A Star Is Born,' the industry is embracing actors who want to direct, knowing star power — even on the other side of the camera — helps drive sales.

"What I really want to do is direct." That used to be the ultimate line to puncture the pretension of actors who dared think they could step behind the camera.

No longer. The hit rate of actors-turned-helmers — this year in particular — has been impressive. Given the blockbuster success of John Krasinski's A Quiet Place, which earned nearly $340 million worldwide, to the indie cred — and $4 million-plus take — of skateboard drama Mid90s, Jonah Hill's directorial debut, to the awards-season explosion that is Bradley Cooper's A Star Is Born ($257 million worldwide and counting), it's hardly surprising that actors are increasingly open about their directorial ambitions.

And that, increasingly, the industry is letting them take the helm. ??

At AFM this year, there are at least a dozen new projects featuring actors making their directorial debuts. HanWay has Viggo Mortensen's family drama Falling as well as Farming, a Nigerian-set coming-of-age tale from Suicide Squad actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. Cornerstone has Georgetown, the first film directed by double Oscar winner Christoph Waltz, and Chiwetel Ejiofor's literary adaptation The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Endeavor Content is selling Monkey Man, an Indian-set action revenge film that Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel will direct, and is handling global rights for El Tonto, a Hollywood satire directed by, and starring, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's Charlie Day. 

“It's helped that two of this year's strongest films have come from actors-turned-directors, namely Bradley Cooper's A Star is Born and Jonah Hill's Mid90s,” says Endeavor Content partner Christine D'Souza Gelb, explaining the thesp-to-helmer boom. Buyers who in the past may have balked at the idea are more willing to take a risk on an untested actor taking the reins. 

“Films like A Star is Born, A Quiet Place … these tangible success stories are excellent flag-bearers,” says HanWay managing director Gabrielle Stewart. “We've sold first-time directors who aren't actors, and it takes more convincing.” (Greta Gerwig helped convince when she earned an Oscar nomination last year for directing Lady Bird, and Maggie Gyllenhaal recently acquired the novel The Lost Daughter for her directorial bow.)

What actors, particularly stars, bring to the table, Stewart notes, is a built-in marketing hook.

“If the actor is well-known, people are going to be interested in their first film as a director,” she says, an important factor given the challenges in attracting attention in a crowded marketplace. “Plus, they have the contacts: they can cast their films, get below-line-talent and even get financing through personal relationships.”

“Things often go smoother, on set, with an actor-turned-director compared with other first-time directors,” adds Jonathan Kier of Sierra Affinity, which recently picked up Bruised, Halle Berry's directorial debut. “Actors have been on film sets all their lives; they know what's involved in making a production work.” 

Actors also typically bring themselves — that is, their commercial pull as onscreen talent — to their projects. It's rare that an actor-turned-director will not also step in front of the camera. For their debuts, Mortensen, Patel, Waltz and Berry will all direct themselves. 

“For the presales market, star power is still very important,” says Stewart. “Having a Viggo Mortensen in a film puts buyers at ease. And they're more willing to take a chance on him as a director.” 

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Nov. 1 daily issue at the American Film Market.