In moviemaking there is one god — and for most of Hollywood history it has been blasphemous to suggest otherwise. That deity is the director, from whom all creation springs. But the balance of power can shift, and right now, producers are increasingly seizing it.
Lucasfilm’s abrupt removal of directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The LEGO Movie) from the Han Solo film currently shooting in England calls to mind other filmmakers who have either quit or been forced out of major studio films: Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) departed Marvel’s Ant-Man after eight years of development; Patty Jenkins left Thor: The Dark World during script development, instead taking on Wonder Woman after Michelle MacLaren (Game of Thrones) left over her own creative differences. And after the chaotic production of Fantastic Four, Josh Trank dropped out, under pressure, of a planned Boba Fett movie.
In animation, Pixar replaced directors on Brave, The Good Dinosaur, and Ratatouille; and DC’s upcoming movie version of The Flash has already lost two directors and one directing team. (In an ironic twist, that project may now go to Lord and Miller. Ron Howard, meanwhile, will take over the Han Solo film.)
If all of this upheaval seems unusual, it is. Ever since 1960s Hollywood, the “auteur theory” has held that the director is the author of a film, its single voice. That’s still true for indie and mid-budget movies, of course, but those films are no longer the core box office drivers. Of the 20 highest-grossing films last year, more than half were franchise installments and/or based on comic-book characters. Those 12 films alone accounted for almost one-third of the total tickets sold in 2016. And almost all of them were overseen by powerful producers.
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Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy and Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige, among others, have elevated the role of producer into an artistic one, mapping out overarching and interconnected story lines not just for one film but for entire extended universes. They have often come to supplant the director as the dominant force in the filmmaking process, telling the stories while the directors execute them.
In a way, movies are adapting a model pioneered in TV. Think of the creative ambition of executive producers Shonda Rhimes on Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder, or Ryan Murphy bringing his twisted sensibility to American Horror Story, American Crime Story, and Feud. Rhimes and Murphy are brands, and few would disagree that they’re artists.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the result of many stars and storytellers, but would it exist without Feige? Would Star Wars have rebounded (after the moribund prequels ended in 2005) without Kennedy? To crib a line from Steve Jobs, these producers don’t play the instruments, they play the orchestra. That may be ego-bruising for directors, but it’s hard to argue with results.
Audiences are happy. Box office has been strong. Critics have been generally positive. The exception had been the DC films, but last year, after poor reaction to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the studio brought in comics veteran Geoff Johns and producer Jon Berg to provide guidance and unity. If Wonder Woman is any indication, they’re back on track.
So where does this leave directors? Those who succeed in this new model can adapt to a franchise’s existing tone and still maintain their creative freedom. James Gunn, for example, did just that with the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. It’s also why J.J. Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and Rian Johnson (Looper), writer-director of the next Star Wars film, The Last Jedi, have had little trouble thriving in the Lucasfilm atmosphere.
Sources close to Lord and Miller tell EW that the duo came aboard the Solo movie expecting to make “a Phil and Chris film.” But when it comes to the Star Wars universe, the one who wields the Force is Kathleen Kennedy.