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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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How Hollywood's franchise sequels have become catnip for top directors

October 6, 2010 |  5:44 pm

Darren_aronosky According to a variety of Web reports, Darren Aronofsky, the gifted filmmaker behind such indie delights as "The Wrestler" and "Requiem for a Dream," has a tough career decision to make. For his next film, should he direct an original script, "The Gangster Squad," about a secret group of L.A. cops who cut all sorts of corners battling mobsters, or should he do the latest installment in Fox's "X-Men" franchise, "Wolverine 2"?

In the old days of Hollywood--meaning five or 10  years ago--Aronofsky's decision would be easy. He'd direct the original story, which would offer far more artistic heft and creative possibilities than a studio sequel. But in Hollywood circa 2010, the rules when it comes to carving out a filmmaking career have all changed. As it stands, Aronofsky is only circling "Wolverine" because he lost out to Zack Snyder in the director derby for Warners' upcoming franchise reboot, "Superman: Man of Steel." In fact, a surprising number of filmmakers who cut their teeth making personal movies are opting for the studio sequels.

Consider the following. In addition to Aronofsky, who so far is only leaning toward the "Wolverine" project: Brad Bird, who directed the sparklingly original Pixar films "Ratatouille" and "The Incredibles," is over at Paramount, trying to figure out how to make Tom Cruise cool again in "Mission: Impossible 4."

Marc Webb, who did the surprise indie delight "(500) Days of Summer," is at Sony, preparing to make the fourth installment in the studio's "Spider-Man" series.

Paul Weitz, who has directed such oddball, satiric films as "American Dreamz" and "In Good Company," is at Universal, readying the launch this Christmas of "Little Fockers," the third film in studio's long-running comedy franchise.  

And Tony Gilroy, who launched his directing career with the cerebral Oscar-nominated drama "Michael Clayton," is also at Universal, having signed on to ramp up "The Bourne Legacy," the fourth film in the studio's successful spy thriller series.

What's going on here? In short, two words: Christopher Nolan. It used to be that you had to choose between street cred or studio moola. But Nolan, thanks to the runaway critical and commercial success of "The Dark Knight" and "Batman Begins," has been able to have his cake and eat it too. If you talk to agents who represent top directors, they all say that Nolan has become the role model for most of their clients, having retained his artistic integrity while still reaping the benefits of seeing his films promoted by a huge studio marketing machine.

So, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. "If these guys think they can make a big studio film without looking like whores or compromising their vision, they are all pretty eager to jump at the chance," says one agent who reps a number of top filmmakers. "The sad truth is that there isn't much of an indie marketplace anymore, so it's not like they have a lot of other places to go. At a studio, you get all sorts of creative resources, you can attract a top cast and still have a surprising amount of freedom."

That's the biggest shift of all. Until recently, studios keep most of their franchises on a tight leash. If you were a filmmaker, you had to serve the material. But especially at Warners, which under Jeff Robinov has become a director-driven studio, and Sony, which has given its filmmakers a lot of artistic leeway, directors are thriving, enjoying little or no studio interference. Insiders assume that Bird only took the "Mission: Impossible 4" job at Paramount after getting assurances from producer J.J. Abrams that he wouldn't end up like John Woo, who got the bum's rush and was unceremoniously locked out of the editing room after shooting "Mission: Impossible II."      

It remains to be seen whether Fox, which has a reputation for preferring to work with more malleable filmmakers, will mesh with Aronofsky, who has a reputation for bringing his movies in on budget but fiercely protecting his independence. But everywhere you look, filmmakers have put all those original stories on hold while they see what they can do to breathe new life into aging studio franchises. Whether it's inspired by a new form of careerism or a lack of other compelling choices, a whole generation of gifted directors is now focusing on piloting the jumbo jets of the movie business. 

Photo: Darren Aronofsky at a news conference for the film "Black Swan" at the Toronto International Film Festival. Credit: Mike Cassese / Reuters

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