For more than half a century, a coterie of critics and filmmakers have championed what’s known as auteur theory: the idea that great directors are the central creative forces behind their films, shaping them all. as authors shape their books.
But outside of a relatively small pantheon of great filmmakers, most directors continued to be overshadowed, at least in the public eye, by their movie stars.
The Hollywood strikes are a game changer.
With striking actors barred by their union from promoting studio films, directors suddenly have the spotlight, largely for themselves, if somewhat reluctantly. They have been the main attractions at recent film festivals in Venice, Telluride and Toronto, as well as press tours once organized around A-list movie stars.
Even star vehicles must be promoted without their stars. With Denzel Washington, one of Hollywood’s most recognizable names, and his co-star, Dakota Fanning, unable to promote the third installment of the “Equalizer” series, it fell to director, Antoine Fuqua, to take on a unique adventure. men’s press tour.
“It’s a strange time,” Fuqua told a television reporter before the film’s Sept. 1 premiere. “I would love to have them here.”
At the Toronto International Film Festival, question-and-answer sessions after screenings usually involve actors and filmmakers, but this year many directors — including Ava DuVernay and Richard Linklater — answered questions on their own. The behind-the-scenes characters suddenly found themselves in front of the cameras: as the festival’s red carpet opened, a staff member warned press and spectators not to be surprised if they didn’t recognize some of the people posing for photos, assuring them that they were associated with the films.
Atom Egoyan, a Canadian filmmaker whose relationship with the Toronto festival dates back 40 years, said the focus on cinema rather than celebrity at this year’s event reminded him of the festival’s early years, before the growing presence of studio films further attracted A-list Hollywood actors. from a central point there.
“Certainly for art-house filmmakers, it’s been a breath of fresh air,” said Egoyan, whose latest film, “Seven Veils,” starring Amanda Seyfried, debuted in Toronto last week. “The industry is going through monumental transitions and so this is a nice little oasis. »
And as the Venice International Film Festival wrapped up earlier this month, director Yorgos Lanthimos accepted the competition’s top prize for his surreal comedy “The Poor Things,” without any of the film’s stars behind him.
“Celebrities will always outsell a director,” said David Gerstner, a professor of film studies at the City University of New York. “But this is a moment where directors have the opportunity to shine, to be the centerpiece. It’s just a shame that it’s under these circumstances.
That’s not necessarily a comfortable position for some directors, amid broad social pressure to stand in solidarity with union writers and actors against major entertainment studios with whom they are at odds.
And tensions are already boiling: when the union that represents Hollywood directors, the Directors Guild of America, reached a deal with the studios in June, keeping them out of labor disputes, it drew some criticism from screenwriters on strike.
Caught between the studios that finance their ambitions and the actors and writers who help them realize them, directors tend to tread carefully when discussing the strike.
“I can understand both sides,” director David Fincher said earlier this month at a news conference for the Venice premiere of his film “The Killer,” from which star Michael Fassbender was absent. “I think all we can do is encourage them to talk.”
This is a particularly complicated moment for directors who are also actors or writers and who are multi-unionized.
Bradley Cooper, who directs and stars in “Maestro,” about conductor Leonard Bernstein, has decided not to attend the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival.
And Kenneth Branagh – who both directs the new Agatha Christie crime film “A Haunting in Venice,” which debuted in theaters last weekend, and plays detective Hercule Poirot – has decided to leave the interviews about the film behind the film. -stage personalities such as a great producer, decorator and composer.
Between the multiple roles held by many artists and the fact that some actors have been allowed by their union, SAG-AFTRA, to promote independent films, the landscape is a bit confusing.
“It’s kind of like the Wild West,” said Peter Principato, chief executive of a Hollywood production company that represents directors, actors and writers.
People make their own calculations, he said: Some simply follow the letter of the rules, which allow multi-hyphenates to promote films as directors, while others are more hesitant to play a active role. In some cases, he explained, directors are required by their contracts to promote their films.
Of course, some directors are as attractive as their stars. Few directors generate as much natural interest as Martin Scorsese, whose highly anticipated Apple-backed film “Killers of the Flower Moon” is set to hit theaters next month, even though the film’s stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, are not able to do so. to act as magnets for the press as they usually are.
And Fuqua, the director of “The Equalizer 3,” has the kind of notoriety — thanks to a varied career creating music videos for stars like Prince and Stevie Wonder, directing blockbuster Hollywood thrillers and directing documentaries — which can make him a successful actor. emissary of the film, noted Alan Nierob, publicist for the director. Fuqua promoted the film by speaking with “Good Morning America” about his career; with movie blogs about the trilogy; and with a myriad of other publications.
The strike also challenges conventional wisdom about film marketing. Nierob noted that the limitations regarding promotion did not appear to affect the film’s release; it dominated the US box office in its first weekend, earning just under $35 million. (Of course, Washington’s name on a movie poster or his face in a trailer can do the promotional job as well as any interview.)
But it’s unusual to see directors carry so much promotional weight on their shoulders. While this summer’s Disney horror comedy “Haunted Mansion” can’t count on its A-list actors — among them LaKeith Stanfield, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito and Jamie Lee Curtis — its director, Justin Simien, who is also a member from the Screenwriters Guild group, went to the interviews alone. “I felt torn,” he said in an interview with the New York Times.
And to promote the superhero film “Blue Beetle,” which dominated the box office last month, Warner Bros. sent director Ángel Manuel Soto to England, Mexico and the United States, including Puerto Rico, to organize screenings and direct around 100 films. interviews.
At festivals, directors were faced with questions that, in previous years, they would have been content to let the actors answer.
Lanthimos, whose film “Poor Things” generated buzz in Venice both for its Oscar potential and its many boundary-pushing sex scenes, was the only person at the festival press conference who could talk about the graphic nature of the film and the way its lead actress, Emma Stone, handled it.
“It’s a shame that Emma can’t be here to talk more about it, because it’s all going to come from me,” Lanthimos said at the press conference, where he was flanked by his cinematographer and one of its decorators. He later noted, according to Variety: “We had to make sure that Emma had to have no shame about her body, about her nudity, about her participation in these scenes, and she understood that right away. »
And at the Telluride Film Festival last month, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, the directors of “Nyad,” the Netflix film about marathon swimmer Diana Nyad, were not only without their stars, Annette Bening and Jodie Foster, but also of the main character. subject of the film, who also happens to be a member of SAG-AFTRA.
After the film’s first screening, the makers said they wished Nyad and the film’s stars were there to see it and share their own views with the audience.
“It’s difficult trying to speak for them,” Chin said.
Mekado Murphy contributed reporting from Toronto and Nicole Sperling from Telluride, Colorado.