The Big Budgets and Bad Reviews of Alex Proyas

By  · Published on March 1st, 2016

This past Sunday, director Alex Proyas took to Facebook to share his not-so flattering feelings on film critics. This was the second such directorial rant on the week; a few days earlier, fan favorite Ben Wheatley turned a few heads by describing film criticism as a job where you talk about art but do not create it yourself. Had we been less distracted as an industry, you may have seen a multitude of pieces decrying Proyas’s body of work; instead, we were all too busy prepping for the Academy Awards to remember to be offended by Proyas’s remarks. Plus, we’d seen the tracking numbers for the box office of Gods of Egypt and knew that the utter collapse of his film at the box office was more painful than any pithy comments we might make.

In truth, there’s probably more than a little truth to what Proyas has to say about film critics and their consensus of opinion. The writers who did like Gods of Egypt, such as Forbes’s Scott Mendelson, did so with a tongue-in-cheek apology for stepping out of line. Even setting aside the whitewashing backlash that plagued the films’ release, it’s tough to defend against legitimate criticism of the film’s gibberish-laden plot when the best you can muster is that you were (like myself) slightly buzzed and enjoyed all the bright colors and British accents. A film like Gods of Egypt inspires a tepid defense at best, and most people would rather remain quiet than offer their own ambivalence as a factor in a film’s favor. “I didn’t mind Gods of Egypt” is about best I can do, and that doesn’t really make for an inspiring quote on the Blu-Ray cover.

Still, I am a bit surprised that Proyas chose critics to blame for his flagging box office reports. Over the past two decades, Proyas has seen his films collapse critically while still increasing their budgets. For many filmmakers, a nine-figure film like I, Robot that struggled to break even would sound a death knell for a director’s career. Instead, Proyas has managed to not only continue his career as a big budget filmmaker in Hollywood, he has even grown his budget; the $140 million spent on Gods of Egypt represents the highest number of the director’s career, despite four straight years of failing reviews.

To prove the oddity of Proyas’s growth, let’s compare his films to those of his contemporaries Timur Bekmambetov and Nimród Antal. All three are foreign-born directors who leveraged a relatively small hit into a career as a Hollywood metteur en scène; all three are also visually oriented directors who rarely (if ever) work on the screenplays for their own films. Perhaps most important for this piece, though, is the fact that all three filmmakers are accompanied by the faint whiff of disappointment. With the possible (albeit unlikely) exception of Bekmambetov’s Wanted, no director has an unqualified success at the box office or a critical hit within the last decade keeping his reputation afloat. None of the films listed below are bad, necessarily, but each of them does mark a career trending in the wrong direction.

What stands out almost immediately is the lack of obvious reasons for Proyas’s continued growth. While both Bekmambetov and Antal have never come to close to breaking nine figures with their film budgets, Proyas has exceeded that number twice; meanwhile, while the films of the former directors tend to bounce around critically ‐ remaining within shouting distance of average ‐ Proyas had trended consistently downwards, averaging a 15% drop in his Rotten Tomatoes score for each of his Hollywood releases. Even the director’s regional work ‐ the 2002 Australian film Garage Days that followed Dark City in Proyas’s filmograpy ‐ was made for an impressive six million dollars, showing that whatever his problems as a filmmaker may be, he is always able to find backers for his work.

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No one can take The Crow or Dark City away from Proyas, but budgets of that size are (in theory) earned and not given, and perhaps the time has come for the director to trim some of the fat on his blockbuster career. If film critics do have a weakness, it is for filmmakers who wear their efforts to make a film on the sleeve; people would likely have flocked to Proyas’s film if it cost $100 million less to make and featured a cast of relative Egyptian unknowns. If I’m Alex Proyas, I take my own criticisms to heart and try and make a movie that doesn’t encourage people to pass judgement from day one. When your last film almost single-handedly opened the door for Nicolas Cage to get sucked into religious films, people are going to come into the theater with baggage. It’s up to you to make something that shuts them up.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)