Both Luc Besson and James Wan have proven themselves to be more prolific than the average filmmaker within the Hollywood studio system, but what makes them so special? Is it luck, timing, an insane work ethic… or something else? We decided to investigate.
This week sees the wide release of Besson's lighthearted action flick The Family, starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer, and Wan's Insidious: Chapter 2, a sequel to his 2010 horror thriller, with Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne. They are the newest movies from directors who are, by Hollywood standards, unusually prolific.
Wan directed another horror film, The Conjuring, that came out just two months ago, and is already at work on his next, the big-budget action picture Fast & Furious 7, which is due out on July 11, 2014, giving him three major releases in less than a year. But he's practically a slacker compared to Besson, who has written or cowritten several dozen scripts in the past 30 years, not to mention some 20 movies that he's directed, plus more than 100 credits as a producer or executive producer.
The first point to establish is that neither Wan nor Besson have worked exclusively within the studio system. The distinction is important, because it can take many years for projects to work their work through the pipeline of the studio system. Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York took more than 20 years to make the transition from idea to screen; film rights to the graphic novel Watchmen were purchased in 1986, but a film version did not appear until 2009; and, hey, we're still waiting to see Ghostbusters III, Jurassic Park IV, Blade Runner 2 and even one live-action version of Akira.
Wan began as an independent filmmaker with the gritty horror flick Saw, which became a sensation when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2004 and then made a serious dent at the box office when it was released wide later that year, kicking off a franchise that spawned six additional installments. Wan made his next two films (creepy horror flick Dead Silence and revenge thriller Death Sentence) in the studio system; both ended up released in the same year (2007), and then it was three years before his indie horror Insidious made it to theaters. So the gaps of several years in the filmmaker's career do not reflect any lack of effort on his part; it just takes time to raise financing (for indies) and to work through the system (for studios). To top that off, studios that have made large investments in their movies may delay a movie's release to avoid competition from other, similar titles, explaining why Insidious: Chapter 2 is following so closely on the heels of The Conjuring. Clearly, Wan has proven his ability to deliver films on time and on budget, which is why he has been working with progressively larger budgets.
Besson, on the other hand, has become (practically) an industry unto himself. Early in his career, he began working with French film studio Gaumont, and after a string of popular successes (including The Fifth Element), he cofounded his own mini studio, EuropaCorp, which focused on genre films that largely reflected his own sensibilities for mainstream entertainment, specializing in fast-moving, lighthearted action. He's generated a steady stream of (relatively) modestly budgeted movies that may not always win critical acclaim, but almost always make money. That gives him the creative freedom and financing to make his (slightly) more personal films, i.e., the ones that he directs.
In combining personal passion project with those that are aimed at the mainstream market, Wan and Besson are following in the footsteps of filmmakers such as John Cassavetes and John Sayles. Cassavetes gained notice as an actor before making 1959's Shadows, which was financed independently. He made a couple of films in Hollywood before going outside the studio system for 1968's Faces and then making a series of intensely personal indie movies in the 1970s, financing them in part through his acting jobs in Hollywood.
Taking a slightly different approach, John Sayles broke into Hollwood as a writer for low-budget genre movies in the late '70s and early '80s (Piranha, The Lady in Red, Alligator, The Howling). As he became established and sought after as a (mostly uncredited) Hollywood script doctor, he self-financed many of his own films independently, and has now made some 18 movies, a little more than one every two years, a pace that outsteps many of his contemporaries in the indie-film biz.
The "one for them, one for me" approach has been followed with success by other exceptional talents like Clint Eastwood and Steven Soderbergh, though the latter had to go to HBO get the low-budget (and highly praised) Behind the Candelabra financed. Eastwood, known for his ruthless efficiency on the set, started getting a bit more personal in 1980 with Bronco Billy, alternating lower budgeted dramas and comedies with big-budget action pictures and Westerns. Nowadays, it seems he can make just about anything he wants.
Like Luc Besson, Tyler Perry is often derided by mainstream critics, yet he's found a large, profitable niche among African-American moviegoers who appreciate his positive, often spiritually minded works. In addition to more than a dozen feature films he's made over the past decade or so, he's directed a huge number of TV episodes of shows that he's also had a hand in creating. He's remained remarkably independent while running his production company out of Atlanta, Georgia.
Other filmmakers have been prolific while remaining strictly independent; perhaps the most notable example in recent years has been Joe Swanberg, who has completed some 20 shorts and features in barely eight years. (His latest, Drinking Buddies, may be his most acclaimed and most accessible to mainstream audiences.) Swanberg has benefited from his ability to make creative films on very small budgets, which is increasingly possible because of digital technology. Shooting digitally (as opposed to 35 mm or even 16 mm film) has reduced costs dramatically, and indie filmmakers don't necessarily need well-known actors to draw attention to their projects when festivals such as Sundance and SXSW have been happy to showcase quality independent movies.
Another great example is Austin-based filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, who has bounced between hard-core genre movies and, increasingly, family-friendly fare like his Spy Kids series. Asian filmmakers Takashi Miike and Johnnie To have kept busy for many years, often making two or three movies in a calendar year. They remain in demand because their films are made economically and "travel well," appealing to audiences outside their home territories of Japan and Hong Kong, respectively.
We began our research with the idea that relatively few filmmakers nowadays are as prolific as directors from the early years of the industry, when Hollywood studios released hundreds of shorts and features every year, and directors like Allan Dwan, D.W. Griffith and George Melies could rack up hundreds of credits during their careers. But what we found is that more directors than we anticipated are staying busy and, even more important, are staying true to their independent and/or very personal visions. Critics and audiences may not always love what these modern filmmakers are producing, but it's reason to be optimistic about the future.
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