Whatever happened to the great American film director?

Once upon a time in Hollywood, the man behind the camera was king. Today, studios are more interested in blockbusting franchises and big bucks than in nurturing new voices and visionaries – and our screens are suffering as a result, says Kaleem Aftab

Friday 03 July 2009 00:00 BST

This summer, among all the anonymous blockbusters, remakes and sequels filling the multiplexes, only one American movie will open on the strength of its director – Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. Yet even as Tarantino continues to be feted – first at Cannes and soon in cinemas across the world – there's a creeping, worrisome sense that a dearth of young American directors have the necessary clout to open a movie. At this year's Tribeca film festival in New York, it was the endlessly prolific Woody Allen, Steven Soderbergh and Spike Lee who made the headlines as they each unveiled yet another film. Not one director was being pushed as their natural successor.

It's now been well over a decade since Tarantino became the last American director to be celebrated as an auteur, a director whose films had to be watched no matter what they were about or who was in them. Since the release of Pulp Fiction in 1994, several American directors have threatened to become box-office stars after the manner of Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen or Steven Spielberg, but while Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will be Blood), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) and Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums) have received plaudits (and occasional brickbats), none are household names, and none command guaranteed box-office.

At a time when talking robots and student wizards dominate the screens, it's apparent that directors, or more specifically auteurs, are becoming increasingly irrelevant when choices are made about which film audiences want to see. Studios have become more adept at marketing franchises (think of all the endless superheroes and High School Musicals), or rebooting old television shows and movies in a way that has ensured that the director of the films goes pretty much unnoticed.

That Sam Raimi directed the Spider-Man films was no doubt news to most of the audience who went to see the trilogy. The Harry Potter films are further proof of the irrelevance of the director: the vast success of the franchise meant the producers were happy ditching the "names" – Chris Columbus for the first two, followed by Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell – who directed the first four films in favour of a British TV director, David Yates, whose biggest hit so far has been the BBC drama series State of Play. And how many fans went to see the blockbusting Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen last month because Michael Bay was at the helm? Furthermore, super-producers such as Jerry Bruckheimer and Harvey Weinstein are now more famous than most of the directors who make the films they back. Now that Will Smith is the only actor that can guarantee box-office, special effects and comic-book characters have become the real attraction. The power of a director to pull in audiences has become almost non-existent. The auteur is a dying breed.

François Truffaut coined the term "auteur" in his 1954 essay, "A Certain Tendency in Cinema". Up until that moment, the director had been seen largely as a hired hand needed only to chivvy along the actors when they appeared on set. Truffaut and the American critic Andrew Sarris were the first to point out that directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk and John Ford had their own inimitable style, which in turn gave their movies a unique signature.

Suddenly, it was the director rather than the producer, the studio or the lead actor who became the star. Cinema movements such as the French New Wave in the Sixties, the New Hollywood movement of the Seventies and the Danish Dogme95 manifesto in the Nineties were all focused on the primacy of the directors making the movies – despite the latter's no-credit rule – rather than the actors who starred in them. Films directed by Truffaut himself, Jean-Luc Godard, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola became must-see events. At its height, the draw of the auteur was such that films by the Italian modernist Michelangelo Antonioni would regularly appear in the top 25 box-office hits of the year. The right director's name on a poster was enough to sell tickets and what the directors would do next was something to be genuinely excited about. Now barely any film is sold on the director's name alone.

American directors, in particular, became the biggest names in cinema. A new Stanley Kubrick was a must-see event. New Hollywood cinema made stars out of Robert Altman and Hal Ashby, while Terrence Malick became world famous on the back of just two movies, Badlands and Days of Heaven. Every genre was creating directing superstars: horror had John Carpenter and George A Romero; Sam Peckinpah's riffs on the Western and ultra-violence gained him a sizeable fan club; John Waters was adored for his ability to run roughshod over taboos; Spielberg became the king of the blockbuster; David Lynch created fantastical dramas in his own unique style; and David Mamet transferred his theatrical wisdom to the silver screen. Elsewhere, John Cassavetes and Woody Allen's brand of low-budget, quick-turnover film-making predated the American independent movement of the Eighties.

The B-movie king was Roger Corman, who directed and produced films with a signature style that ensured that even when he was producing it would be his name, rather than that of the director, which would define and sell the movie. Coppola, Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, John Sayles and James Cameron all worked for the producer in one capacity or another as they kick-started their careers. He was proof that in exceptional circumstances, writers or producers could earn the auteur accolade.

As Hollywood films became more event-orientated, auteurs found their voices making inexpensive films with an edgy sensibility. American indie cinema launched the careers of Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, Steven Soderbergh, Todd Haynes, Todd Solondz, the Coen brothers and Kevin Smith. Throw in the fantastical work of Tim Burton, the visual panache of Michael Mann, the masculine madness of Oliver Stone and the comedy horror of Sam Raimi, and it seemed that there was an American auteur coming out of every nook and cranny.

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In the Nineties, following the success of Miramax, many studios opened up specialist divisions to cultivate and nurture American independent films and film-makers. In the past three years, every major studio has announced job losses or the closure of these speciality divisions. In the same period Woody Allen and Spike Lee have had to go to Europe to secure funding.

Tarantino is the last of these directors – and possibly the only American director working today – who can open a movie on name alone. Even his cachet has dropped a little with the failure of Grindhouse; no wonder Brad Pitt has been drafted in to get Inglourious Basterds off the ground. It's a back-up strategy that Scorsese has been using ever since he helped to establish Robert De Niro as box-office dynamite. More recently, Scorsese has called on Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio to get bums on seats. In the same way, Michael Mann cast Tom Cruise in Collateral and now Johnny Depp in Public Enemies, and when he adapted Miami Vice for the big screen, the Oscar- winning Jamie Foxx was called up to support Colin Farrell. It's a clear sign that across the industry, no studio believes that a director alone can open a movie. Producers are increasingly hedging their bets to minimise their exposure to risk and unsustainable financial losses.

And even using a star is no longer a guarantee of success. Last Friday, three days before shooting was supposed to commence, the head of Sony, Amy Pascal announced that she was pulling the plug on Moneyball, a Steven Soderbergh baseball movie starring Brad Pitt. Pascal felt that the final script was far too artistic to take a $57 million risk on in the current economic climate. The New York Times reports that $10 million had already been spent on pre-production.

Only David Fincher, following Se7en and the post-cinema DVD success of Fight Club, has come close to matching Tarantino. Yet when Zodiac was released in 2007 and marketed around the director's reputation, the thriller was a commercial failure. He has also shied away from the fast-cut MTV-style editing that was once his signature especially in his last film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Of the newer talents, Paul Thomas Anderson, seen by many as heir to Altman, and Wes Anderson, the quirky director of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited, have both been put forward as modern-day auteurs. Although both of these film-makers can happily lay claim to a signature style, neither director has shown the requisite personality to become a star in their own right. Sofia Coppola has the benefit of the family name (though her father, Francis, is on a woeful run of form) but while her first efforts, The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, were breathlessly received, Marie Antoinette was a flop. Spike Jonze, her ex-husband, was once a bright young hope but he has not managed to translate his success in commercial and music videos into a fully realised film career. Expectation around his next film, Where the Wild Things Are, an adaptation of Maurice Sendak's children's classic, has been lowered by rumours of production problems and re-cuts. The studio, Warner Brothers, flexed their muscles and Jonze, it seems, has backed down. Gone are the days when Michael Cimino could hold a studio to ransom.

Charlie Kaufman, who is unusual in that he is a screenwriter who has attained auteur status, wrote Spike Jonze's previous films, including Being John Malkovich, as well as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for Michel Gondry. But the following and acclaim he had built up as a screenwriter counted for nothing as his debut in the director's chair, Synecdoche, New York, flopped at the box office. Audiences are less willing to indulge directors when they fall below par.

Among all the almosts and not-quites, the one person who can claim to have truly bucked this recent trend is Judd Apatow, who has carefully and quietly built up a loyal audience for his signature comedies. The director of The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up has done so by producing comedies with a masculine slant and by developing his own stars, who include Seth Rogen and Steve Carell. This summer sees the release of his new film, Funny People, starring Adam Sandler. Set in the world of stand-up comics, it promises to offer something different from his usual formula.

It's unusual for a comedy director to gain auteur status but it's a sign of the times that Apatow has done so. These days, the most important figures for Hollywood studios are the opening-weekend box-office returns. Cinemas have grown incredibly ruthless at culling movies that don't perform well; the time when a film could slowly but surely find its audience is long gone. Word-of-mouth and critical acclaim has little chance against the relentless might of the biggest studios' huge marketing budgets. As a result, American independent films have been largely relegated to the film festival circuit.

Yet even on the festival circuit American auteurs seem to be struggling. At Cannes, much was made of the fact that the competition this year was dominated by the world's biggest auteurs, figures such as Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier and Jacques Audiard. The only American-born film-maker in competition was previous Palme d'Or winner Tarantino. James Gray, the director of Two Lovers and We Own the Night, was on the jury this year: he is a typical case of an American film-maker lauded in France – his work always screens at Cannes – and yet ignored and unknown in his home country.

There is simply less interest now in what a director has to say about his work. When it comes to talk shows in the States, it's the stars in front of the camera that the hosts want to talk to. The personality has become king. It's the triumph of beauty over brain.

The change in attitude to directors in America has also come about at the same time as the YouTube explosion. The public are now looking to their computer screens to find alternative voices and unique stories. Film-makers have as yet not found a way to exploit the medium in the same way as musicians and writers. There has been no directing equivalent of The Arctic Monkeys. Finding a way of making money online is the Holy Grail of independent film distribution.

Making money full-stop is a problem for auteurs. Once upon a time, the Sundance festival would be the occasion of several multi-million dollar deals every January. No longer. The market for American independent films has collapsed, and gathering funds to get movies off the ground has become increasingly difficult for directors with unique voices to share. Financiers have lost faith that they'll get a return on their investment: with the prospect of making money all but diminished, they're unwilling to take a punt on nurturing break-out talents.

A success on the festival circui is no longer an indicator of commercial success. This year, Lynn Shelton's Humpday, about two straight men who decide to make a porno with each other as a dare, and the brothers Ben and Joshua Safdie's Go Get Some Rosemary, an amusing, New York broken-family tale, were the break-out, word-of-mouth successes, lauded by critics, tipped by hacks and industry insiders. Humpday was made as part of the burgeoning "mumblecore" movement, in which directors make their work on digital cameras for super-low budgets as a reaction against genre movies or blockbusters.

Yet despite these directors being young and attractive, and having new stories to tell, they seem destined to remain in a niche. Respect for their voices has diminished, and the auteur as an all-powerful figure in American cinema is on the way to becoming the stuff of legend. Now, once again, it's the studios rather than directors who are calling the shots.

Pictures of promise: 10 young American moviemakers to watch

Lynn Shelton

The Seattle-based director is a leading exponent from the mumblecore, movement, a group of film-makers who make tiny-budget movies that focus on personal relationships. Her third film, Humpday, about two male friends who decide to make a porn film after a dare on a drunken night out, won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance. The 37-year-old also writes, edits and acts.

Ben and Joshua Safdie

Go Get Some Rosemary is the first film that the Safdie brothers, Ben (27) and Joshua (25), do not appear in themselves, though it is an autobiographical tale about two young boys trying to cope with their parents' divorce. Joshua, also a successful stand-up comedian, features in several of their films, including the award-winning The Pleasure of Being Robbed, which is about a quirky young kleptomaniac called Eléonore making her way around New York, stealing grapes, cars and kittens along the way.

Ryan Fleck

Raised in California, Fleck moved to Brooklyn following his graduation from NYU. His critically acclaimed debut feature, Half Nelson, about a crack-addicted teacher going off the rails, earned its star, Ryan Gosling, an Oscar nomination. Fleck, who works with his long-term partner, producer-director Anna Boden, followed its success with the baseball drama Sugar, about a rookie player from the Dominican Republic trying to make it in the big league.

Emily Abt

Abt came to prominence with her documentary Take it from Me in 2001. Her work, including 2008's All of Us, about the high number of black women in the South Bronx with HIV/Aids, examines social issues. Her fictional feature debut, Toe to Toe, focuses on a young black high-school student embarrassed by her poor background after she wins a scholarship to a prep school.

Miranda July

The 35-year-old artist Miranda July (main picture, above) picked up awards from Cannes to Sundance for her critically-acclaimed debut, Me and You and Everyone We Know. A writer, director, musician and actress, she's appeared in videos for bands, written books and curated exhibitions. Her visually-playful style gave Me and You a unique look. She's working on her second feature, Satisfaction, in which she stars.

Ramin Bahrani

The eminent critic Roger Ebert declared Ramin Bahrani "the new great American film director" on the strength of the 34-year-old's films about the downside of the American dream: Man Push Cart, about a Pakistani rock star who is frustrated in his work as a New York coffee vendor; Chop Shop, set in Queens' Latino community; and Goodbye Solo, which focuses on a Senegalese cab driver's relationship with a white Southerner in North Carolina.

David Gordon Green

Martin Scorsese often says that he needs to make one for the studio and one for himself. Still, it was something of a surprise when David Gordon Green, the cerebral 34-year-old director of George Washington and Undertow, agreed to helm Pineapple Express, Judd Apatow's 2008 stoner comedy starring Seth Rogen. In doing so, though, he defied pigeonholing and proved that he's every bit as comfortable grappling with big-budget genre comedies as he is making movies set in depressed small-town America.

Barry Jenkins

His compelling 2008 debut, Medicine for Melancholy, a love story set in the 24 hours after a one-night-stand, had hints of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It about it. The San Francisco-based film-maker, originally from Miami, is now hotly tipped as a director to watch out for.

Alex Holdridge

Born in the South's film-making mecca of Austin, Texas, the 34-year-old Alex Holdridge had to wait until his third offering, In Search of a Midnight Kiss, a quirky black-and-white romance set in LA, before he was embraced outside of the festival circuit. Holdridge spent four years working on his debut film, Wrong Numbers, released in 2001, and followed it with another low-budget feature, Sexless, after he struggling to finance a big-budget remake of Wrong Numbers. He now lives in LA.

Matt Bissonnette

Almost American: born in Toronto, Bissonnette now lives and makes movies out of his adopted home in Los Angeles. His latest offering, Passenger Side (which stars his brother Joel), a black comedy featuring two siblings on a road trip in LA, confirms the promise of his two previous efforts, Looking for Leonard and Who Loves the Sun. While his first works were compared to early Hal Hartley, his most recent effort was likened to a highbrow Judd Apatow movie following its generally well-received premiere at the LA Film Festival last month.

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