The A-List Directors

Issue 53 - Hollywood's A-List Redefined: Inception
Stephen Vaughan/Warner Bros.

Dream Weaver: Back-to-back blockbusters have put Christopher Nolan at the top of the power grid.

It's uncomfortably clear that the movie business is going through a painful contraction. And in the process, the power that used to flow through Hollywood's corridors has been draining steadily away.

A-list actors, studio chiefs, high-on-testosterone producers and agents used to take up top spots on magazine power lists. But as studios have become small and not necessarily favored cogs in big corporate machines, they are making fewer movies, and their execs, who tend to come from the ranks of lawyers or marketers, are not exactly masters of their domains.

The big producers -- Jerry Bruckheimer, Joel Silver, Scott Rudin, Brian Grazer -- also are a challenged breed. And the notion of an agent amassing enough power to hold sway over the industry like Michael Ovitz did? Very 20th century.

But there is one elite group that has held on to power and perhaps even amassed more than ever. It's the exclusive club of power directors with a track record of big-event movies or reliably popular and far-less-costly comedies.

The list is a short one: Christopher Nolan, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Michael Bay, J.J. Abrams, Tim Burton and, with the right material, Peter Jackson and Judd Apatow.

"These directors are like the big stars now," one talent rep says. "They create these tentpoles, they're the ones people are willing to bet on. ... Having them [as clients] is better than having a big-shot actor."

A vivid example of their clout was the way that Nolan cast Inception, key sources say. The director offered the script to Brad Pitt but requested a response within 48 hours. When the star didn't commit, Nolan moved on to Will Smith. It's not hard to understand why the two biggest movie stars in the world might hesitate to commit to any major project, much less one as un-obvious as Inception. But when they didn't leap, Nolan moved on to Leonardo DiCaprio.

"It's never couched as, 'Hey, I'm more important than you, therefore just say yes,' " says an executive with knowledge of the matter. "They invent kabuki reasons for why they need an answer, but [the stars] are getting jammed." Stars like Smith and Pitt "are used to having people wait a year or more" before they commit to a project, he continues. "They don't usually have to board a moving train."

With The Dark Knight and Inception under his belt, Nolan's at the top of the power grid. "In light of his last two movies, I'd probably greenlight anything of his," a former studio chief says.