Amidst a global pandemic, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was the only blockbuster of calibre to be released it; was announced to be the film to save cinemas. It has currently made $332 millionworldwide, whether that is a success or failure is neither here nor there. The fact remains that a new Christopher Nolan film, not a Superhero film or a Disney live action remake, was the film to bring audiences back to the cinema.
Christopher Nolan is amongst the few film directors who have the power to entice casual cinema-goers by just using his name alone. The shortlist of directors who are guaranteed to make box office hits are maybe too short to even be called a shortlist, but still these select directors are arguably the new movie stars. The aforementioned time-bending Christopher Nolan, the controversial but slick Quentin Tarantino and the horror-comedy newcomer Jordan Peele. You could also argue that James Cameron, Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg should belong alongside these cinematic juggernauts who are often studio guaranteed profit makers. However, due to Cameron’s two feature film output in the last twenty three years, Eastwood’s most recent flop and Spielberg’s perhaps reliance on existing intellectual property, whether they’re box office guarantors, in the current cinematic climate, is up for debate.
The consistency of Nolan, Tarantino and Peele is why they have surpassed movie stars in consumers minds. There are plenty of prominent movie stars starring in blockbusters but the time where actors were the main selling point of big-budget movies is from a by-gone era. The difference between Will Smith and Tarantino, among many things, is the quality of their films. Tarantino fans know their admission price is worth it, as there is a stamp of quality on his films, with Smith you might get a rewarding surprise with Bad Boys for Life but more than likely you’ll be witnessing a dud with Collateral Beauty or After Earth. In a world where cinema tickets are forever rising to ridiculous prices, the occasional movie-goer requires the guarantee of quality to spend their hard earned money. Nolan, Tarantino and Peele are all master craftsmen and they are truly some of the best directors working today. When you combine the level of craft, the quality of film and the entertainment element it’s hard to resist.
When focusing on Nolan, Tarantino and Peele you can begin to see how these men have conjured up a following and how they’ve consistently produced box-office gold. The key to this exposure to a wide audience aka the big breakout hit. A film that connects with audiences on a wide scale that offers viewers something unexpected and fresh, upending their expectations. For Nolan it was the Dark Knight trilogy, specifically The Dark Knight, which offered a gritty take on Batman and it has left its imprint on action filmmaking ever since. For Tarantino his non-linear Pulp Fiction earned his reputation as the coolest director in Hollywood making $212 million worldwide. Peele’s first directorial effort brought Get Out to our screens in 2017 making $176 million in the US and reverberating around Hollywood and America with a reminder of America’s deep rooted racism and its rejection of Neo-liberalism and Obama era politics. Nolan, Tarantino and Peele’s chord-striking breakout films all shocked, surprised and perhaps most importantly satisfied audiences.
Being a thrilled and thoroughly shaken audience is one thing, being a satisfied audience is a wholly different thing – it is the reason why they return for more. These three directors all excel at pleasing and satisfying viewers. Nolan and Tarantino with their labyrinthine plots that all coalesce by the climax, Peele with his suspenseful horror set pieces and his ability to meld comedy, horror and social commentary. All these directors always have the regular cinema-goer on their minds, adding accessible elements even to their most inaccessible films. They are aware that their films have to be commercial but the question remains are they losing some artistic integrity while making these films?
There isn’t a simple answer to this multi-layered question as these men have for the most part complete creative control over their films, so it’s more of a question of are they willing to sacrifice making a less commercial film in order to be more artistically fulfilled? This is true for Nolan and Peele as with their most recent directorial outings, Tenet and Us they produced esoteric and perhaps arcane puzzles for audiences to unravel for themselves. Both films have enough crowd-pleasing elements to allow audience members to be entertained but the two films show Nolan and Peele pushing blockbuster boundaries and their artistic integrities are more than intact. Tarantino, on the other hand, is a different story while he is making great films, ones he truly wants to make, there was certainly an artistic shift after his laid-back character drama, Jackie Brown was released in 1997 to tepid reviews and diminishing box-office results compared to his smash-hit Pulp Fiction. Though he had just made his best and most humane film, the timid critical and public reaction led him to make the Kill Bill volumes, and while fun in their own way it can be seen as a regression from the tender, Jackie Brown and a return to his comfort zone. The question of Tarantino’s artistic integrity must be interrogated – as the middling response to Jackie Brownarguably led him down a more commercially minded path. Overall, these filmmakers do a remarkable job of retaining their artistic licence while making films that are branded for mass audiences. Their commitment to making original films can only be commended.
As shown above there are very few directors who have this privileged circumstance in which they have a blank cheque to create what they want and most likely audiences will travel in herds to experience the next film in their oeuvre. However, all these filmmakers are men without a woman in sight who comes close to the position of power that these men are in. To have this creative freedom and power, female directors have to be given the chance to make action, horror and ambitious projects. This is happening to an extent with mainly indie directors being hired to helm a Marvel behemoth, where their creativity gets lost in the midst of a corporate project. Female directors aren’t given the opportunity to craft something as bold as Nolan did with the Dark Knight trilogy, on a big budget level. Kathryn Bigelow was arguably the closest to this in the 90’s where she was able to direct Point Break and subsequently a sci-fi racially charged thriller in Strange Days (similar to Peele’s Get Out), which performed disappointingly financially and Bigelow was metaphorically put in Hollywood jail. There are other female directors who could join the prestigious list; maybe Patty Jenkins after her Wonder Woman acclaim can potentially attract an audience with just her name, maybe Greta Gerwig can make big hits on a smaller level or Gina Prince-Bythewood fans can rally after her Netflix success The Old Guard. It is all conjecture or maybe wishful thinking – the chances of a female director ever having a similar status as Nolan, Tarantino or Peele is sadly quite dire.
The fact that the successors of these men are unlikely to be women is incredibly disheartening, but they will need replacing one day. As these male directors fumigate Hollywood and multiplexes with some well needed fresh air, they are making original and compelling cinema which is needed now more than ever. With Tarantino supposedly retiring from film making after his next film and Cameron, Eastwood and Spielberg ageing who will step into their shoes now? Edgar Wright is certainly a candidate, he is an entertainer and has built a hefty following since Shaun of the Dead. M. Night Shyamalan can attract audiences and if he can stay on form after the box office successes of Split and Glass he could regain his title as the next Spielberg. After his Oscar triumph, with Parasite, Bong Joon-ho has made a name for himself and could become a new power player in the film industry. Guillermo del Toro, Rian Johnson and Taika Waititi all could manoeuvre themselves into this prestigious club and make creative and original films as long as they’re not lured in by the big cheques from Disney.
Nolan, Tarantino and Peele have managed to carve out careers for themselves that push creative norms and still create products for the studio to sell, market and make millions of dollars from. They make films that go against the grain, they make films that are the outliers when you look at the year’s blockbuster schedule. They are in some ways renegades of cinema, the outsiders, making their singular visions accessible to the masses. With Hollywood’s reliance on remakes, superhero films and franchise fodder these filmmakers push the envelope with their thought-provoking and stimulating mainstream cinema and that is always sorely needed.