Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Does Lucasfilm Have a Management Problem?

Last week news broke that Phil Lord and Chris Miller were fired from the upcoming Star Wars spinoff movie and director Ron Howard had been hired as a replacement. The termination was unusual, as the Han Solo movie had been in production since February. Allegedly, Lord and Miller conflicted with Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who had writing credits on The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and The Force Awakens. As seen in their 21 Jump Street films and The LEGO Movie, Lord and Miller have a light, funny, and whimsical style that was not in keeping with the established tone of the Star Wars film series.
The firing of Lord and Miller is the latest in a series of tumultuous relationships between Lucasfilm and its directors. Josh Trank had originally been hired to direct a Star Wars film but he was fired after posting Tweets that disparaged 20th Century Fox following the disastrous reboot of Fantastic Four. The making of Rogue One was also subject to behind the scenes drama. The movie was taken away from filmmaker Gareth Edwards (although he retained director credit) and the movie underwent a massive reshoot that retooled the picture under the supervision of Tony Gilroy.

What’s happening at Lucasfilm parallels similar stories coming out of Marvel, both of which are owned by Disney. Edgar Wright left Ant-Man after years of development because Marvel insisted that Wright (who is one of the most interesting filmmakers working in Hollywood today) suppress his distinct cinematic style. Before that, Patty Jenkins (who helmed Wonder Woman for DC) quit Thor: The Dark World because she could not make the movie she wanted. Similar drama played out behind the scenes of Avengers: Age of Ultron and Iron Man 2. In fact, the first half of Jon Favreau’s Chef plays like a confessional about his experience making the Iron Man sequel.

Collaborative ventures always involve some conflict but what we are seeing at Lucasfilm, Marvel, and elsewhere is a shift in creative power prompted by the financial realities of the movie business. As studios become ever more invested in long term franchises in which each installment costs hundreds of millions of dollars to make and its success or failure has consequences for the continued viability of the series, it becomes difficult or impossible to allow filmmakers to innovate. Instead, people like Kathleen Kennedy at Lucasfilm and Kevin Feige at Marvel are most interested in establishing, maintaining and protecting the identity of their brands. That makes sense but it comes at the cost of suppressing creativity and innovation.

This begs the question: why hire filmmakers like Phil Lord and Chris Miller who have a distinct directorial voice? In an excellent piece at Variety, Peter Debruge provides an explanation:
On paper, Lord and Miller’s irreverent sensibility seemed like a perfect match for Han Solo, the franchise’s most sardonic character. One has to assume that it was precisely that take Kathy Kennedy and the Star Wars producers wanted when they hired the duo. But this is where modern critics, columnists and the fan community at large fail to understand a fundamental change that is happening at the blockbuster level in Hollywood: These directors are not being chosen to put their personal stamp on these movies. They are being hired to do the opposite, to suppress their identity and act grateful while the producers make all the key creative decisions.

Want to know why [Colin] Trevorrow was picked to direct Jurassic World when his only previous credit was a nifty little sci-fi indie called Safety Not Guaranteed? It’s because he plays well with others, willing to follow exec producer Steven Spielberg’s lead when necessary. Going in to the assignment, Trevorrow had no experience directing complicated action sequences or overseeing massive-budget special effects. He didn’t need it, because those aspects of the movie were delegated to seasoned heads of department, while Trevorrow focused on what he does best: handling the interpersonal chemistry between the lead characters.
Franchise filmmaking is moving toward a management structure that is more like dramatic television shows. On The Sopranos or Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, the producer or showrunner oversees the creative and narrative direction of the series. Directors of individual episodes may have their own input but they are primarily hired as journeymen, a skilled craftsman who will complete a project devised by someone else. And television is thriving under this organizational style so clearly it can work.
In the case of Star Wars, it’s worth noting that the producer-led power structure is exactly how films were made under George Lucas. The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were officially directed by Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand, respectively, but Lucas devised the story and exerted creative control over the productions. Kershner and Marquand were hired to work with the actors, which Lucas famously had little interest in doing.

This puts an interesting wrinkle on the hiring of Ron Howard to complete the Han Solo movie. Howard has admitted to turning down the offer to direct the Star Wars prequels, saying that his 1988 feature Willow was his “least personal” film, as he was expected to execute Lucas’ vision in the same way Kershner and Marquand did for Empire and Jedi. Why he said no to the prequels but yes to the spinoff clearly is not an artistic decision on Howard’s part. Howard is a self-described Star Wars fan and making a film in the series may be less daunting since the bar was lowered by The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. It could also be that Howard needs a hit which a Star Wars film is almost assured to be. Rush and Frost/Nixon were terrific but they didn’t make money and Howard hasn’t had a smash since 2006’s The Da Vinci Code.
Although the producer-based power structure has been successful in television, it does not bode well for Star Wars or for Hollywood filmmaking in general. Vince Gilligan and David Chase are creative people whose primary job is telling stories. These show runners were part of the writing staff and they directed episodes. Kathleen Kennedy and others of the Hollywood executive class are not creative people. They don’t write, act, or direct. They are primarily skilled at making deals and managing budgets and schedules. They are necessary for the machinery of Hollywood but their skill sets are not interchangeable with those of creatives.

A few years ago, David Cronenberg caused a minor dustup when he suggested that comic book films were not art. At that time, Cronenberg’s comments were taken as a slam against Christopher Nolan but he was really criticizing the studio power structure. He said:
Anybody who works in the studio system has got twenty studio people sitting on his head at every moment, and they have no respect, and there's no…it doesn't matter how successful you've been. And obviously Nolan has been very successful. He's got a lot of power, relatively speaking. But he doesn't really have power.
Hollywood moviemaking is a synthesis of art and industrial production. But without the artistry these movies just become fast food. I’m not suggesting that the studios should give filmmakers hundreds of millions of dollars and carte blanche to do whatever they want. Good management requires supervision but it also requires trust. At present it appears that Lucasfilm and others have too much of the former and not enough of the latter.

The firing of Lord and Miller, the displacement of Gareth Edwards, and the many creative fallouts at Marvel point to a corporate culture within Disney and its subsidiaries that is hostile to creativity and innovation. And if you think Pixar is going to save them, remember that the animation studio just released Cars 3, following Finding Dory, with The Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4 on the way. But Disney is not alone. The whole studio system is enraptured by tent pole filmmaking and franchise building whether it is Harry Potter and the DC Extended Universe at Warner Bros., Transformers and Star Trek at Paramount, the Fast and the Furious and the Dark Universe at Universal, or Planet of the Apes and X-Men at Fox.

It may seem strange raising alarm about a company and a franchise that has had two billion dollar movies in as many years. My primary concern here is of artistry and entertainment not commerce. The Force Awakens and Rogue One were acceptable fan service but little else. If Lucasfilm remains stuck in its own nostalgia, retelling the same stories of the same characters in the same style, that’s inevitably going to lead to a creative dead end. And although they are making money now, how long will fans keep shelling out ten dollars for a movie ticket or twenty dollars for a Blu-ray disc of the same old thing? Innovation is risky but it is also the only way to keep Star Wars vital and fresh, inspire the next generation of filmmakers and fans, and create the basis for future remakes.

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