Studios handing big films to untested directors

Sun Feb 20, 2011 9:55pm EST

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LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Hollywood loves discovering new talent. But its passion for developing emerging filmmakers has lately strayed into large-scale, downright risky terrain.

Case in point: Universal is in the process of handing director Carl Rinsch a $170 million budget for "47 Ronin," a 3D samurai revenge story starring Keanu Reeves that will begin shooting March 14 in Budapest. Rinsch's resume includes a popular short film and a Heineken commercial -- but no features.

And he's far from the only fresh-faced director stepping into the big-budget fray. Disney gave commercials helmer Joseph Kosinski close to $200 million for "Tron: Legacy." Universal recently hired first-timer Rupert Sanders to helm the $100 million-plus "Snow White and the Huntsman." Relative newbies Marc Webb, who's shooting Sony's "The Amazing Spider-Man," and Daniel Espinosa, who's helming Universal's action thriller "Safe House," took on the potential blockbusters with little previous feature work.

It's not an entirely new phenomenon, but for several reasons the scale and justifications behind the hires have changed. During the 1990s, commercial and music video directors such as David Fincher ("Alien 3," 1992), Michael Bay ("Bad Boys," 1995), Gore Verbinski ("Mousehunt," 1997) and McG ("Charlie's Angels," 2000) made the jump to features, but most of them did so with comparatively modest budgets.

During the past five years, though, technology has enabled rookie directors to hone their skills via FinalCut Pro, digital-video cameras and other state-of-the-art effects tools from a young age, prompting budget-wary studios to salivate over what they can put on screen for a price. Gareth Edwards, for instance, made his indie sci-fi film "Monsters" for a few hundred thousand dollars, even though it looked much more expensive. He's now up to direct "Godzilla" for Warner Bros.

"It's a reflection on the innovation of emerging filmmakers," says Anonymous Content manager Michael Sugar, who represents Webb and Kosinski. "You're looking at people like Fede Alvarez, who made a short film ("Panic Attack!") for $300, put it on YouTube, and it looks like it was made for $20 million." Alvarez, an Anonymous client, was hired by Sam Raimi's Ghost House Pictures to develop a sci-fi feature.

More than ever before, the short-film and commercial environment has become a playground to use up-to-the-minute tech to create feature-film calling cards. Sanders, "District 9" co-writer-director Neill Blomkamp and Noam Murro -- recently hired by Fox to direct the fifth "Die Hard" -- all did spots for recent Halo video game campaigns, a gig that has become as coveted as any debut film job because it often becomes a higher-profile entry into features.

Ad-world veterans also tend to be more comfortable making presentations in front of dozens of studio execs, and to be handy with creating the rip reels, animatics and annotated screenplays that the studios now want to see. These days, when execs say yes to a spec package, they aren't saying yes to development but to a movie, with a budget, detailed vision and release date.

"If you look at the way movies are being sold into the studios, whether it's "Safe House" or "All You Need Is Kill" or "Snow and the Seven" -- those are spec screenplays that were either sold in with a director or developed to the point where they were movies," says Management 360 manager-producer Darin Friedman, who represents "Kill" writer D.W. Harper and director Adam Berg.

At the same time, the screenwriting community has largely abandoned the spec approach -- what was for a long time Hollywood's prime idea factory. In the last few years, studios have made brutal trims to slates and development overhead. Filmmakers are now bypassing writer-provided original material by building a creative pipeline to funnel their own spec packages directly to producers and execs.

Alvarez's short film got him noticed all over town. Berg's short "Carousel," made for Philips TV, had him up for the job of helming the big-budget "X-Men" spinoff "Deadpool" for Fox. James Mather and Stephen St. Leger's short "Prey Alone" led to their writing and directing the sci-fi actioner "Lockout" for Luc Besson's EuropaCorp and FilmDistrict.

Rather than scrape together financing for a small indie, a visionary director can simply send a link to his short to someone in the industry, and everyone's seen it within an hour. The heat generated from a viral explosion can put an auction-like target on a filmmaker.

"Carl Rinsch had been kicking around for years, but when he made (the 2010 short) "The Gift," it got sent around and it created a frenzy," Friedman says. "That doesn't happen without that perfect storm of the right idea executed well, with the technology to share it virally."

Studios want and need movies, but they have less and less interest in developing them internally. From multiple accounts, rookie filmmakers are put through their paces by nervous studios before a green light. But by choosing to hire unproven talent, studios are also getting less expensive filmmakers that are potentially easier to control and can be loyal to the studio if the film is a hit.

Blomkamp had only about $30 million but made "District 9" seem a lot bigger. When it grossed $211 million worldwide, the path widened for other first-time visionaries, and Blomkamp is now directing the $125 million "Elysium" for Sony.

But the strategy is not without risk. Sony distributed Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's Oscar-winning debut "The Lives of Others" via Sony Pictures Classics. But when the studio gave him $100 million to make "The Tourist" with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, it grossed only $67 million domestically amid critical pans (the film did better overseas, grossing $163 million).

And as Rinsch goes into production on "Ronin," he might want to take stock of first-timer Kinka Usher, a Directors Guild of America award-winning commercials veteran to whom Universal gave $70 million in 1999 to make "Mystery Men." The superhero spoof grossed just $33 million globally, and Usher has been making commercials ever since.

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