See Any Similarities in These Directors?
IF you are splashing around with a bunch of guys who are 93 percent white, an average of 45.62 years old and look as if they’ve done this before, you must be swimming in the studio directors’ pool.
Such is the profile of studio filmmakers, based on a survey of those who directed the 85 or so live action movies that have been released, or will be, in 2009 by the six biggest film companies — Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment, 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Studios and Warner Brothers.
My tally does not count animated films, which are born by a different, more collaborative process, or the independent-style movies released by specialty divisions like Fox Searchlight Pictures or Focus Features.
Rather, it is a scan of what is on the big studio schedules: comedies like “The Hangover” from Todd Phillips and “I Love You, Man” from John Hamburg; action films like “Fast & Furious” from Justin Lin and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” from Michael Bay; and the increasingly rare drama, like “Shutter Island,” which was on tap for October from Martin Scorsese (but has just been moved into 2010).
What the count shows is that Hollywood directors are pretty much what they have always been: a small brotherhood of highly skilled craftsmen — more than 90 percent this year are men — who could hit or miss with any given film, but who tend to have solid experience. This year’s directors appear to have made 6.1 movies, on average — and probably have more in common with one another than with the increasingly diverse population around them.
There’s no single process or pattern for deciding who will direct any given picture. The choices are born of an often awkward consensus among executives and producers, with plenty of lobbying from agents and occasional input from the movie’s stars. A filmmaker might write an attractive script and then insist on directing it as a condition of sale, or could simply be hired based on a great track record.
Though Hollywood’s power structure remains heavily white, it has opened the ranks to far more women in recent years. But that shift does not yet appear to have changed the makeup of the studio directing pool.
In one respect, homogeneity among its film directors might actually help Hollywood in a business sense. Studio films, year in and year out, continue to pull in crowds worldwide at least in part because they look, sound and feel like what has gone before. Consider Clint Eastwood, this year’s oldest studio director at 79 (with “Invictus,” a drama for Warner), and Chris Columbus, younger at 50 (with “I Love You, Beth Cooper” for Fox). They and others share impulses and storytelling techniques with the old bulls — Frank Capra, George Stevens, William Wyler — whose photos line the walls in the Sunset Boulevard headquarters of the Directors Guild of America.
Box-office revenue has been growing, and theater attendance has held steady for years in the face of extreme competition from other media. Revenue from DVD sales has been drifting, but there is no evidence that Hollywood has lost its grip on the audience.
But there is an obvious minus. Directors who are overwhelmingly of the same sex and ethnicity can hardly be expected to tap all of the cinematic potential in a rich and roiling humanity. Some 93 percent of studio directors were male this year — Nora Ephron with her “Julie & Julia” and a handful of other women notwithstanding. Damien Dante Wayans, with “Dance Flick,” joined Olatunde Osunsanmi of “The Fourth Kind” as black directors with studio releases, while a few directors were Asian or part Asian.
Uniformity would seem to shut out potential viewers and revenue. But there is really no way to be sure whether sales would go up or down if the studio directing pool were more diverse.
In some ways, studio directors are looking even more uniform than in the past. In 1999, a report on diversity from the Directors Guild of America, whose statistics include nonstudio films, found African-American directors to have worked 5.4 percent of total days covered by the guild’s film contract, while women logged 7.4 percent , Asian-Americans 1.5 percent and Latinos 1.1 percent.
Race and gender are not the only ties binding the studio directors. Of those who have agents, 74 percent are represented either by the Creative Artists Agency or by William Morris Endeavor Entertainment. By my count, Creative Artists outpaces William Morris Endeavor, 35 to 26.
Exactly how each of those lucky studio directors got into the club is anybody’s guess, though some patterns are clear. Perhaps a third, including Judd Apatow (“Funny People”) and Marc Lawrence (“Did You Hear About the Morgans?”), also write for a living. Many, like J. J. Abrams (“Star Trek”) and Betty Thomas (“Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel”) have deep roots in television.
AND a few, like Karyn Kusama, come from independent films. She directed “Jennifer’s Body,” a sexy comic chiller for Fox, after having established her reputation with “Girlfight” in 2000.
“In so many parts of the business, the numbers have changed,” said Ms. Kusama, who is part Japanese and is now in the pool with all those white guys.
A lot of them are good company. But, Ms. Kusama said, it is impossible not to ask about filmmakers who have so much in common: “What do we stand to lose by accepting that homogeneity of vision?”