The First-Timer's Cut is the Cheapest

Hollywood used to want bright young directors because they were fresh and full of new ideas. Now Hollywood is using more first-time directors than ever -- because they're inexpensive and easier to control.


Several years ago when writer-producer Gerald Ayres noted apologetically that he was thinking of making the inevitable move into directing, he recalled a cartoon he had seen of two seals balancing balloons on their noses and clapping their flippers; the caption read, "What I'd really like to do is direct." In the last year or two, the seals have been multiplying at an alarming pace. An extraordinary number of films opening recently in this country have been made by first-time directors--as many as one-quarter of all new releases, according to Weekly Variety. Whether this fact has something to do with the dismal quality of the movies we've been seeing is a moot question--after all, Citizen Kane and Henry V (both the Olivier and the Branagh versions) were made by first-time directors--but it is a startling new phenomenon that points up some significant changes in the film business.

In a sense, the hunt for bright young directors has been ongoing for more than 20 years. In 1969 the unexpected success of Easy Rider set executives at every studio on a frantic search for other callow geniuses who had a pipeline to the coveted college-age audience. Most of the youngsters who got a chance to direct their first movie in the trail of Easy Rider quickly faded into obscurity again. Who remembers Stuart Hagmann (The Strawberry Statement), Paul Williams (The Revolutionary) or Jeffrey Young (Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me)? But the insatiable appetite for young directors paved the way for far more successful tyros like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and, more recently, Tim Burton and Chris Columbus.

Not since the late '60s, however, has there been such an explosion of first-time directors. Many, though not all of them, are young; some come fresh from film school, while others are moving from established careers in acting, writing, producing or cinematography. Independent companies have traditionally been receptive to newcomers (like 19-year-old Matty Rich, director of Straight Out of Brooklyn, or 21-year-old Jordan Alan, director of Terminal Bliss), but the surprising development of recent months is how many major studio films are also helmed by first-timers. Probably the most astonishing, symbolic example is Fox entrusting the costly Alien 3 to 28-year-old David Fincher, who had directed nothing but music videos and commercials before taking command of this sci-fi epic. Although Hollywood has worshipped at the fountain of youth for the last 20 years, the studios' motivation for seeking new directors today is radically different from the impulse that guided the talent hunt in the '60s and '70s. In that era, producers and executives were looking for directors with a personal vision, and that often meant untried talents who hadn't yet been corrupted by the studio assembly line.

In a few instances, studios are still hiring young directors who can bring their unique personal experience to mainstream films. John Singleton, 23, was given the chance to write and direct Boyz N the Hood right after graduating from USC's School of Cinema/Television because of his first-hand knowledge of South Central Los Angeles, a terrain few studio executives are likely to visit. But that is a special case not likely to be widely imitated. On the whole, the receptivity to first-time directors today represents a repudiation of that kind of personal filmmaking. The era of the auteurs is definitely over. Too many self-indulgent, over-budget movies made by directors who called all the shots have left the studios determined to retrieve control of their products. Today we're returning to the policy of studio-as-auteur that prevailed in the '40s, before actors and directors broke away and asserted their autonomy.

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