As Hollywood’s ‘visionaries’ struggle with studios, commercial directors are poised to make a comeback.
In a weekend where most Americans only had eyes for Pennywise the Dancing Clown, one other nightmarish film did seem to bubble up through the ether. You wouldn’t have seen this short on a movie screen, however: Mike Diva’s Eat the Ice Cream, a short film-slash-commercial created for low-calorie ice cream alternative Halo Top Creamery, was instead available online and shared rapidly through the ranks of entertainment websites. Nerdist picked it up. So did Mashable. So did the AV Club, IndieWire, and genre sites like Bloody Disgusting. At last count, Eat the Ice Cream had almost 400,000 views or 60,000 more views than the trailer for that terrible Charlie Sheen 9/11 tearjerker. Those are the kind of numbers that put someone like Mike Diva on a few Hollywood Rolodexes.
And seeing Eat the Ice Cream make the iRounds made me wonder: are we destined to see the Hollywood pendulum swing back to commercial directors at some point in the next few years? With all the controversy surrounding a few high-profile firings, it’s probably time for studios like Lucasfilm to admit what the rest of us already know: they’ll gladly exchange craftsmanship for organizational culture any day of the week. Why elevate an artist from the ranks of obscurity when you can elevate a tradesman for pretty much the same return?
For the most part, the commercial origins of Hollywood’s most famous directors are treated as the answer to a trivia question. “Did you know that Ridley Scott got his start making television commercials? Did you know that David Fincher wasn’t always the feature film director he is today?” In some instances, we even put value on the inverse approach; when the Coen Brothers decide to direct a Super Bowl commercial, for example, we dutifully watch, knowing that our individual click brings them that much closer to financial independence on their next feature. What we don’t see as much anymore are filmmakers getting plucked from the commercial world to direct films. It still happens occasionally – Simon McQuoid will make the jump from commercials to feature work on New Line’s Mortal Kombat remake at some point in the next few years – but these directors have become the except to the rule. Hollywood wants to sell audiences on the ideas of visionaries, and commercials just don’t convey that same sense of awe.
Despite this, commercial directors – and those who create that much-reviled monstrosity known as ‘branded content’ – demonstrate many of the same skills we look for in independent filmmakers, only with slightly different buzzwords attached. Consider this AdWeek list of the best commercials of 2016. While many of these filmmakers have some IMDb credits to their name, their work in Hollywood is often fairly spotty; Ringan Ledwidge, who directed the second-best advertisement of the year according to AdWeek, directed a single horror film in 2006 before moving primarily into commercial work for a variety of corporations. But his Audi commercial, which features a reverse throw-down between two valets, would’ve turned plenty of heads if it was a short film submitted to festivals. There’s no point in knocking him down a peg simply because he was smart enough to make a company pay for his cinematic experimentation.
And what is the alternative? The independent filmmaker who rises before they’ve truly had an opportunity to be tested? Take Annabelle: Creation‘s David F. Sandberg. Sandberg’s short Lights Out took the internet by storm a few years back, and this led Warner Bros. to give him his very own movie of the same name. From there, Sandberg directed Annabelle: Creation – a horror movie with two or three effective scares in its entire runtime – before being given the keys to his very own $100 million dollar superhero franchise. And despite the fact that any sane corporate manager would balk at the idea of watching a subordinate handle a nine-figure project in only his third year in the position, we kind of accept all of this at face value. Nothing in Sandberg’s oeuvre suggests that he’s ready to direct a blockbuster summer franchise – hell, I’m still not sure he’s ready to direct an interesting horror movie – but Warner Bros. has made a huge financial commitment to the notion that he’s their guy.
This all makes me think about Colin Trevorrow’s exit from Star Wars: Episode IX. In that now-infamous Vulture piece, Trevorrow was described by an anonymous studio executive as being part of a generation of filmmakers who “got very rich, very fast and believed a lot of their own hype,” which certainly didn’t fit in with the more top-down approach that Lucasfilm takes to their movie franchise. Disney has suffered a rash of these personality conflicts in recent years, leading some to argue that they’ve created a culture that stifles creativity and others to argue that emerging artists still need to understand the requirements of the studio system. I can’t help but wonder if Disney has simply made a mistake in the allocation of their resources. Unless you’re working with some truly idiosyncratic – the James Gunns and Taika Waititis of the world – it’s probably time to stop pretending that you’re emphasizing vision above the ability to play a good organizational soldier. If studios truly value the ability to work within a system above all else, then wouldn’t it be easier to spin audiences on the credentials of someone like Mike Diva now than have to fire someone like Colin Trevorrow later?
None of this is to suggest that commercial directors are some struggling cross-section of Hollywood inequality. For the most part, these guys are doing fine. But it is worth noting that major studios have now been burned multiple times on the visionary independent artist types, and it seems like only a matter of time before they choose people with branding experience over the auteurs who would rather sink your production than sacrifice their vision. As an audience member, I’m glad that visionary filmmakers continue to get the opportunity to make films at the highest levels of Hollywood, but if it were my money on the line? My first, second, and third calls would be to ever digital agency I know to see if their in-house filmmakers wanted to have a talk about third-tier Spider-Man characters. At least they know the value of bringing a project in on-time and under-budget.