Indie Meets Big Budget: A Blockbuster Renaissance?

An exciting new trend in Hollywood has emerged. Large franchise movies are gradually being given to auteurist directors with histories in independent film. Some recent examples of this delightful happening include: Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) is taking on Star Wars; Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners) is in charge of the Blade Runner reboot; and the Fantastic Four movie coming this August was directed by Josh Trank (Chronicle).

We’ve already seen good results from these types of films. The collaboration between Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins on Skyfall produced everything a James Bond movie should be, with stunning cinematography; Spike Jonze did great things visually with adapting Where the Wild Things Are; Marc Webb followed 500 Days of Summer with a Spiderman remake that reinvigorated our love for Peter Parker; and Colin Trevorrow’s (Safety Not Guaranteed) Jurassic World garnered good reviews overall.

Jurassic World Park 2015

Not all of these assignments have hit the mark. Bryan Singer’s X-men movies from the early 2000’s fell short, whilst Matthew Vaughn’s (Kick-Ass) prequel reboot was better received. Michel Gondry and Columbia Pictures weren’t able to negotiate The Green Hornet into a cohesive film, and Darren Aronofsky didn’t fare quite so well with the budget jump from Black Swan to Noah.

But these worse examples, excepting Noah, are each close to ten years old and the newer projects seem much more promising. There doesn’t seem to be anyone better for the Blade Runner movie than Denis Villeneuve, and Rian Johnson’s work on Looper and several episodes of Breaking Bad show his how his great talent can be suited for action.

Oftentimes the ‘smaller’ directors withdraw from such big projects. Colin Trevorrow announced his departure from Jurassic Park sequels in order to do more independent film. Josh Trank left Star Wars citing similar reasons. These instances perpetuate the ongoing power struggle between studios and directors, and suggest that the style and size of blockbuster franchise prove too much for directors who are possibly better suited for other projects.

Since the beginning of the blockbuster in the late ‘70s, there has been a split between movies intended to make money and movies meant to engage artistically with the audience. Unlike smaller films, blockbusters can rely on ancillary markets to make money to the point where economically it doesn’t really matter if the movie is good. Both The Hulk and The Incredible Hulk were flops but still profited from action figures and related merchandise.

However, movies like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and Jon Favreau’s first Iron Man reminded us what the potential of blockbusters could be after disasters like Batman and Robin or Catwoman. There have been plenty of formally ‘bad’ newer blockbusters too, as there will always be, but with the most recent tent poles of meeting good critical reception as well as audience reaction, studios are realizing it’s in their best interest to put these big projects in the hands of people who are passionate about film.

There tends to be a certain level of support that goes along with superhero or other large science fiction movies which are rarely associated with great filmmaking, but some directors find good balance. Some comic book franchises like DC went for the gritty route, whereas others embraced inanity. Guardians of the Galaxy was extremely well received, despite the plot involving a talking raccoon and tree that saves the galaxy through friendship.

The excitement of the possibilities of CGI has worn off. Filmmakers like JJ Abrams and George Miller decided to do as many special effects as possible through traditional methods, only using CGI to sharpen the edges. This treatment of special effects harks back to the magical styles of George Méliès and Buster Keaton, and reminds us of why it’s so fun to go to the movie theater.

The last time major studios gave smaller directors a chance on a large scale it resulted in some of the greatest American films, and launched monumental careers (Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Mike Nichols, Bob Rafelson, Peter Fonda, and many more). Even if few films did amazingly well, they influenced filmmakers for generations to come, solidifying their importance in film history.

It’s too soon to tell what the long term effects of this auteur-meets-blockbuster trend will be, but I look forward to the prospect of more independent directors having creative influence on tentpole features. Imagine a Black Panther directed by Ava Duvernay, a Spiderman by Ryan Coogler, a Captain Marvel by Sarah Polley, or a Terminator by Shane Carruth?

The possibilities are endless and exciting. The addition of artistry to the existing exploitation thereof is slowly reforming the blockbuster.

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