Monday, 31 October 2011

The Midrange Men

There are times when certain thoughts concerning the world of cinema pique one's interest, such as the maligned career trajectory of Joel Schumacher, a guy who directed some seriously good movies like Lost Boys, Falling Down, A Time to Kill, along with not so good films like Batman & Robin, The Number 23 and Town Creek.

This month saw the release of Schumacher's latest film Trespass starring Nicholas Cage and Nicole Kidman. The reviews have been awful and box-office was even worse (it made $18,200 from ten theatres), all this despite a powerhouse cast and director. What's more surprising is that Schumacher released the decent gritty teen drama Twelve last year, from which it seemed the 72-year old director was still capable of making thoroughly cracking films about American adolescence.

Schumacher is simply one of countless midrange directors working in Hollywood. Midrange filmmakers are a uniquely Hollywood phenomena in that they are nothing more than jobbing movie directors who go from project to project without an overriding sense of authorship or signature to any of the work they put out. They are, essentially, a safe pair of hands to shepherd a scripted movie to completion.

The film industry is replete with midrange filmmakers. Some of them like Ron Howard even won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind. Others like Richard Donner have made totally satisfying films like The Goonies and The Omen. There's an ever growing number of midrange directors like Shawn Leavy (Real Steel) and Rob Marshall (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) whom represent the new breed of functional - if uninspired - filmmakers making no frill features that appeal to the masses.

Midrange filmmakers are essential to the Hollywood machine because they know how to create corporate-friendly movies that demand little intelligence from the audience, yet, in their own right, these guys are actually very smart people who are more than capable of imbuing their movies with greater intelligence if their taskmasters demand it from them. (Roland Emmerich's prestigious Shakespearean conspiracy drama Anonymous is the antithesis of his past 'event' flicks like 2012, Independence Day and Godzilla.)

Midrange filmmakers know exactly what the studio requires and will make the film according to their bespoke specifications. If the studio tells them to lose a scene or post-convert their finished product into a 3D mess, they won't put up much of a fight and will do exactly what the shareholders require.

What's more, midrange filmmakers aren't as expensive as say an A-list director like David Fincher who asked Twentieth Century Fox for $10 million just to sign on to helm its pricy adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (this despite the project's original midrange director McG agreeing to slash his $8 million quote to a palatably $4 million), nor are midrange directors a risky bet as say someone like Spike Jonze, whose auteur crafting of Where the Wild Things Are resulted in an expensively esoteric kids film that left a big hole in Warner Bros. pockets.

Midrange directors constantly fall in and out of favour with studio executives. For example, Martin Brest was the toast of Hollywood when he made stuff like Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run and Scent of a Woman. His reliable direction meant that Universal allowed him to make the $90 million bloated melodrama Meet Joe Black and assured him they would consent to his 3 hour cut of the film being the definitive version. The movie was a spectacular flop, grossing less than half its budget on release. (The studio later re-cut the film to ribbons but it was still unsuccessful.)

Brest made a comeback in 2003 and directed the $75 million J-Lo and Ben Affleck starrer Gigli. The film killed the careers of everyone involved, with J-Lo and Affleck only now being given a second chance in different guises. Brest, on the other hand, was never to be allowed to make another movie again.

Midrange directors are also good if you're thinking of launching a lucrative film franchise. That's why Warner Bros. hired Chris Columbus to helm the first few Harry Potter flicks. They knew that Columbus' track record with family films was accredited by past successes like Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire. The studio knew he was the person to lay the efficient, if hardly daring, foundation on which more leftfield directors could come along and experiment with. Even if the choice of appointing a risky director resulted in a less profitable instalments (aka: Prisoner of Azkaban), the studio could always return to the franchise's reliable core and start afresh.

It was because of Columbus' midrange reliability that Fox went to him to launch its Percy Jackson franchise. Last week the studio announced it has greenlit the film's sequel Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Sea of Monsters, though there is no indication if Columbus will return to direct. I suppose now that the groundwork has been capably established by Columbus, a more interesting and less expensive director can immediately come on board and carry on with the franchise.

The key thing to remember as a movie buff is that you cannot trust a midrange director. They are like the husband you figured was reliable and then you catch him going back to his philandering ways. That's why a director like Brad Silberling, who started out making crap like Casper, seemed to have changed his frivolous habits by helming more introspective projects Like City of Angels and Moonlight Mile, only to then start making inane rubbish like Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Land of Lost Things. Even Ron Howard went from the critically acclaimed Frost/ Nixon to the insipid pile of junk called The Dilemma.

There is also the strange case of dynamic new directors who come on to the filmmaking scene with startlingly original voices, only to somehow lose their way in the system and become directors for hire.

Take for instance John Singelton whose debut feature Boyz N the Hood clinched him a best director Oscar nomination and enabled him to go on to make personal movies like Poetic Justice and Higher Learning. Something has definitely gone wrong in his career because his last few movies have been things like 2 Fast 2 Furious and Taylor Lautner's latest abs-bearing vehicle Abduction.

There are even high-minded arthouse filmmakers like David Gordon Green who began his career making poetically cinematic films like George Washington and Undertow, but has now metamorphosed into a midrange blunder. Green made the decision to migrate from Little Rock to Hollywood and, rather bizarrely, his last few films have been inane comedies like Pineapple Express, Your Highness and the upcoming Jonah Hill comedy The Sitter.

Even promising European directors are not immune to midrange banality once they relocate to Hollywood. German-Swiss filmmaker Marc Forster exploded on the directing scene a decade ago with the emotionally raw drama Monster's Ball. After a couple of interesting films, he has made nothing but average filler, including a poorly received Bond film. Forster's next movie will be the very expensive Brad Pitt zombie invasion epic World War Z, which is about a million miles away from where he started.

As you may be able to gather, it's not so much commercial American movies that are interesting; it's the peculiar processes upholding the system that fascinate me. Jobbing directors and the studios that hire them are reading from the same hymn sheet, both more committed to pandering to formula as opposed to shaking things up. Both seek stability and fortune, committed to reproducing the wheel rather than reinventing it.

It's a flawed system that seems to reward stupidity. Hollywood is so desperate for generic ideas that Warner Bros. paid social networker James Erwin good money to option his high-concept pitch Rome, Sweet Rome after he posted a thread on saying: "What if a unit of current U.S. Marines are suddenly transported back to ancient Rome and forced to do battle with the Roman legions?"

Erwin (aka: Prufrock451) is now an overnight millionaire thanks to a stroke befuddling fortitude and creatively bereft studio thinking, but do you expect anything more from Hollywood movies? Should you?

Joel Schumacher may be on a mission to only manufacture soulless Hollywood products (I can imagine he's busy negotiating a deal to come on board Rome, Sweet Rome), but Schumacher is a seasoned professional who can, sporadically, make really impressive films. He'll do whatever keeps him in a job, and in these vocationally volatile days, everyone can relate to that type of thinking.


  1. Nicolas Cage and Nicole Kidman are match made in heaven, both being so weird and deeply unappealing and yet still having careers :)

  2. My comment was pretty much gonna be what you summed it up. People want this stuff, and these guys need to survive. They're making a bit more than they need, sure, but they need to keep active or it'll shrivel away to nothingness.

    Also, this was ridiculously well written. I'm jealous.

  3. I'm with D4 ridiculously well written and provoking.

  4. Like the review!
    Great blog! Following! :)

  5. Very thought-provoking assessment of the Hollywood machine. Studios need to make oodles of money to pay the bloated salaries of certain stars and directors so they take bland ideas, jobbing directors along with huge chunks of CGI for color and churn out a vanilla mess with bits of candy that appeals to the masses.

  6. I never knew about midrange men. this was really interesting. I see movie making in a whole new way.

  7. You've made me look at movies in a whole new way!

    Thanks for dropping by my blog, feel free to come by again.


  8. great post. i learnt something new today.

  9. I just watched Drive, great movie

  10. Thanks for stopping by my blog~ Interesting commentary here...I'm sure I'll be back.

  11. I've come to the point where I know that any movie with Nic Cage in it is going to be bad. It's just a given. As for Joel, he's a strange one. He's directed so many bad movies of which Batman and Robin was clearly the worst of his crimes. But then he has made a few diamonds in the rough and my husband's guilty pleasure, The Lost Boys.

    I don't know what happened to Singleton. I don't know how you go from being the director of Boyz n the Hood to Abduction. No clue.

  12. I think the difference between Ron Howard and all those other mid-range directors, is that Ron Howard can direct any movie he wants. He co-owns Imagine, right? That's huge. I think he's just bored, which is why he directs half-ass comedy crap after putting out Oscar-worthy films.

  13. I'll avoid Trespass.

    I never heard of midrange filmmakers before, but you educated me about them.

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