Monday, July 08, 2013

FAQ: Who is the best director today

This is a response to a message board question that asked who the best director was today. It's by no means the best sample of my work but I thought it was interesting enough to post here:

The original question:
"Who is the best director today in commercial terms?

Spielberg and Cameron obviously. Then probably Nolan. It's hard to tell exactly how big he will be without Batman but if Inception is any indicator he is pretty huge. Tarantino has had two big hits in a row. I think he might be top 5."

Who else?"

My response:

Tarantino is by no means Top 5. He had two critical hits, and I might even go so far as to say they created a lot of water cooler buzz and that they both rocked the cultural ether but that doesn't mean he was high in the box office. Django Unchained grossed $161 million which is comparable to a high-performing sports film (Remember the Titans and both versions of The Longest Yard were roughly comparable), an Adam Sandler film (which have consistently been between $110-$170 million dating from the Waterboy) or an animated film that isn't made by Pixar (Kung Fu Panda, Over the Hedge and the Ice Age series are all between $150 and $200 million).

Nonetheless, for someone like Tarantino, whose films don't have wide appeal to the kinds of people who don't frequent this message board, $161 million is pretty impressive.

Films with nuanced dialogue dont do well over seas, but then again the world is a little smaller since then, and I'm convinced that if anyone has a chance of selling their films to a distant market like Southeast Asia or Europe, Tarantino might be able to do it. But, a straight-up action director like Roland Emmerich, Wolfgang Petersen, or Michael Bay doesn't have the disadvantage of being overly steeped in film history and therefore already has a head start.

The top commercial directors isn't something that's as debatable as one might think because numbers don't lie. The ones who draw the biggest are, off the top of my head, Spielberg, Michael Bay, McG, Roland Emmerich, Ron Howard, Gore Verbinski, Jon Favreau, Wolfgang Petersen (although some of his films like Troy and Poseidon did fall short of $200 million which is what I would define as a bonafide hit). Some of the names on this list like Michael Bay and McG aren't particularly well-liked by the masses but they continue to be successful which just indicates that being successful on a commercial spectrum isn't something to brag about.

On the other end of the spectrum, Spielberg is critically acclaimed and successful and is pretty much the Michael Jordan of dominance in the box office. Don't forget that Lincoln grossed $155 million and it's not full of actions or explosions, but rather a thinky piece about whether to ask congress to back the 13th Amendment. It's essentially a 19th Century version of C-Span with the world's greatest method actor that would be

If I'm not mistaken, I think the two people who stand behind him on the all-time list last I checked were Ron Howard and Rob Zemeckis. Zemeckis is a protege of Spielberg and has aimed some films like the Polar Express or Christmas Carroll directly to the children's demographic while two of his most famous films Roger Rabbit and Back to the Future are films that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike which is a great recipe for success. No one is going to say that Howard is one of the greatest auteurs but he balances quality with commercial success very well.

I would agree that Nolan is doing very well for himself. I think the biggest measure of his success is when venturing outside of the Batman franchise because it's relatively easy to make a Batman film gross high. Inception had $292 million which is pretty solid. It's somewhat a marvel that it got that high because it's such a confusing film. I think he's riding the coattails off his batman reputation and when that wears off, I think he'll still be a genius, but not sure if he'll have populist appeal.

I think that if you're going to go with the most prominent and bankable director who's name isn't Spielberg, it might be J.J. Abrams. He made Star Trek a success, Super 8 did pretty well and was well-received and I think Star Trek 2 is gonna gross a lot. He also just took over Star Wars. Similarly, Joss Weedon has followed a similar path and Avengers had a spectacularly high gross but it's hard to say whether that's the film or him. He wasn't able to get eyeballs on his TV shows.

James Cameron is a crap shoot because he goes long breaks without making a film. For all we know, in ten years, the public appetite might have changed completely. If you don't make films frequently, it's hard to keep the public appetite up for your next film.

To some degree, it's the properties and not the directors that make big hits. Verbinski lucked out by getting the reigns to Pirates of the Caribbean which increases his average significantly. On the other hand, Favreau grossed $300 million plus with Iron Man but considering he was able to make money off films as disparate as Elf and Cowboys and Aliens, I have some confidence in him.

Lastly, Ben Stiller (a sometimes director of his own material) also has some good commercial instincts. Series of his such as Night at the Museum and Meet the Fockers are seemingly ordinary but they both had incredibly high grosses.

No comments: