SCREEN: Branded

In these days of franchise-mania, Smith and Shyamalan have a rare name value

Josh Bell

Joss Whedon, creator of TV shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly, has an original script called Goners in development at Universal, a project shrouded in mystery whose plot details are nearly impossible to come by, and about which Whedon has said little. Although the Internet Movie Database lists its release date as 2007, preproduction hasn't started, so it's impossible to say when (or if) the movie will open.

And what's keeping the prolific Whedon from committing himself to Goners? He's writing and directing Wonder Woman, based on the classic DC Comics character, a film that is likely to be a huge summer tentpole for Warner Bros. once it gets a release date. Whedon's huge cult will no doubt line up for Whedon's Wonder Woman, but he isn't the primary selling point. Having made his name on original creations, Whedon is now hitching his star to a studio-generated franchise.

DC's other big superhero franchises also have directors who came to prominence with striking, original works and are now working on other people's creations. Christopher Nolan went from Memento to Batman Begins, and Bryan Singer went from The Usual Suspects to Superman Returns by way of the X-Men films. Many of Hollywood's most creative and dynamic filmmakers are now kings of the franchise: Peter Jackson, who started with manic low-budget genre films and the haunting drama Heavenly Creatures, on King Kong and Lord of the Rings; Sam Raimi, whose Evil Dead trilogy was a landmark in indie horror, on the Spider-Man films; J.J. Abrams, creator of innovative TV shows Felicity, Alias and Lost, on Mission: Impossible III. Even Ang Lee made his Hulk movie before tackling Brokeback Mountain.

These directors have attached themselves to brand-name properties, but whatever happened to the director himself as a brand? Hitchcock and Ford didn't have to adapt comic strips or radio serials to bring in audiences; Spielberg and Lucas weren't making sequels to other people's movies when they broke box-office records. Even if they didn't write their own screenplays, those directing titans always brought original ideas to the screen and theirs were the names that drew people to theaters, not Superman or Spider-Man or Frodo.

Today, directors who make big splashes with original projects immediately make themselves available for franchise duty. Sam Raimi hasn't made a non-Spider-Man film since 2000's The Gift. At least Christopher Nolan is squeezing in the drama The Prestige before making his next Batman movie. And, sure, Bryan Singer and Peter Jackson have been dreaming since they were kids of making Superman and King Kong movies, but that only indicates how endemic this problem really is: In Hollywood, the dream project for most directors is the chance to remake someone else's movie.

So it's refreshing this week to see new movies from two of the few directors who've managed to make their own brands nearly as powerful as Hitchcock and Lucas (if not Superman and Batman). M. Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water and Kevin Smith's Clerks II (a sequel, but to his own film) are being greeted with the same anticipation and dread that hard-core fans reserve for their favorite characters hitting the big screen. In this case, though, it's not about worrying whether filmmakers will live up to the source material, but whether Shyamalan and Smith will live up to their own work. The No. 1 reason people are going to see those movies is their director.

Whether they turn out to be great movies is almost beside the point. Many of the franchise films made by top directors are excellent; that's why the studios hire them. But this is only partly an issue of quality. It's easy to blame a system that punishes innovation for the paucity of original creations from top directors. But the filmmakers deserve part of the blame. After making New Line half the money in the entire world with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson could have made any movie he wanted. He chose King Kong. While he surely had a blast making it, it was a waste of his prodigious talent and influence. How wonderful would it be for such a popular director to strike a blow for creativity by insisting on a $200 million budget for an original idea? Very few people can command that, but Jackson had his chance and blew it.

Lady in the Water and Clerks II don't have budgets even close to $200 million, but they are both getting big marketing pushes from major studios, with their directors' actual names (not just "From the director of ...") featured prominently. Shyamalan and Smith are coming off relative failures—Shyamalan's The Village was hounded by critics and did mediocre box office business, and Smith's Jersey Girl flopped—but both are intensely dedicated to their personal visions. Shyamalan parted bitterly with longtime supporters Disney over Lady in the Water (the film is being released by Warner Bros.), and Smith declined a chance to start a franchise of his own (with the Green Hornet) to make a sequel to the 1994 film that catapulted him to stardom.

Even if both directors fail at the box office this time, their names will still carry the kind of cachet that can only come from an expertly cultivated, brand-conscious fan base. Just like Batman fans didn't stop liking him after Batman & Robin, Smith and Shyamalan's fans will stick with them when they fail, because they have become more than simple craftsmen; they're micro-industries. Not only have they stood up for their own ideas and creations, they've also crafted appealing personas through the press and fan interactions—they're often more famous than the stars of their films.

Of course, there's no guarantee that either won't sell out in the future—in addition to his flirtation with the Green Hornet, Smith wrote one of many unused Superman scripts, and rumors have been flying that Shyamalan will direct the sixth Harry Potter movie—but for now they are welcome counterpoints to the top-name directors eager to abandon originality. Memo to Joss Whedon: In 50 years, Wonder Woman will still be remembered for being Wonder Woman, but you'll only be remembered if you stick to the bold course you started with.

  • Get More Stories from Thu, Jul 20, 2006
Top of Story