This morning, the trailer for Rian Johnson’s new film, Knives Out, dropped via Entertainment Weekly. The thrilling whodunnit looks to pair Johnson’s trademark action savvy with vintage Agatha Christie mystery in a cast teeming with your favorite actors. Though the film won’t come out until Thanksgiving, we already know this is a special release by 2019 standards because it is an original film that also has a big studio budget (though the film is technically an indie with studio distribution).
For a director to get to make an original film that has a studio budget—say over $30 million—is rare. If you look at Rian Johnson’s career, as well as the paths of other directors, you see that in 2019, you need a nearly unvarnished track record of success and probably at least one IP blockbuster under your belt before you get to opportunity to make your own big budget film.
Official budget numbers for Knives Out have not yet been released, but IMDb estimates the film cost around $40 million. The cast—which features Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Lakeith Stanfield—signals that this number sounds about right.
The average studio film clocks in around $65 million, and most of them are based on existing intellectual property, such as a comic book, rebooted film franchise, or best selling novel. These days, the bulk of major releases that are not based on existing IP tend to be low budget independent films that are picked up for distribution by a company like A24 or Neon or horror films backed by Blumhouse. The average independent film is made for less than $1 million.
If you look at the top grossing films of 2018, you have to go all the way to No. 16 to find an original film that is not based on existing IP and is not a sequel: John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place. Next, at No. 22, you have The Meg, and then at No. 30, you have Clint Eastwood’s The Mule. Compare this to 1998, when eight of the top ten films and ⅔ of the top 30 films were not based on pre-existing IP.
There just aren’t many studio movies made from original concepts because those films do not perform as well in an era when international sales are so important and VOD streaming encourages people to stay home. This means that a director who wants to build a career making original content has to be very lucky and likely has to make an IP blockbuster or two on the way to the top.
Johnson’s debut feature Brick cost a paltry $450,000 and made $4 million. Then he was given the keys to two much larger independent films, one flop, The Brothers Bloom (made for $20 million), and a massive hit, Looper (made for $30 million). At this point in his career, Johnson had more successes than failures, and Looper made a whopping $175 million, returning its budget more than five times over.
Despite this strong record, Johnson would not release another feature for five years. In the meantime, like many film directors, he worked in television. Luckily, he landed two of Breaking Bad’s best-known episodes—“Fly” and “Ozymandias”—which allowed him to remind Hollywood that if you want elevated action, Johnson is the guy. Johnson was one of the few directors to do TV and improve his feature career. Notable TV directors like Cary Fukanaga of True Detective and Michelle MacLaren of Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, also turned virtuoso TV directing gigs into feature opportunities, but this is the exception, not the rule.
The strength of two box office successes and what is regarded as some of the best television directing in history put Johnson in position to be picked to helm Star Wars: The Last Jedi in 2014.
These days, you have to do work in massive IP before you get a chance to direct a big budget original, and you have to have numerous small scale successes before getting a shot at blockbuster IP. The Dark Knight films earned Christopher Nolan a new level of budgetary freedom. Wrong Answer, the forthcoming project from Ryan Coogler, will certainly have a larger budget than his $900,000 Fruitvale Station. This is thanks to his success rebooting Rocky into the Creed series and working for Marvel on 2018’s Black Panther, which brought in around $1.35 billion at the worldwide box office.
Even directors who avoid superhero films have to maintain a flawless record to get to the budgetary promised land. Jordan Peele was a cast member on MADtv and performer/writer/producer on Key and Peele before getting to make Get Out for $4.5 million. Only after that film proved a massive hit did he get $20 million to make Us. Peele is the exception to the rule: some of Hollywood’s quirkiest and most idiosyncratic directors like Taika Waititi and James Gunn have worked with existing IP.
Obviously, this system is flawed. Many fine directors aren’t built for the sci-fi, fantasy, or comic book realm. Where Johnson’s prestige action style is adaptable to a number of genres, not all directors should have to be so malleable. Ava DuVernay and audiences would have both been better off if she could have made another political melodrama instead of Wrinkle in Time. David F. Sandberg might have made a bigger cultural impact with a big budget horror film than he did with Shazam!. Perhaps Hollywood would be better off with Ava’s version of Enemy of the State (#15 film of 1998) or Sandberg’s The Sixth Sense (#2 film of 1999) than two more so-so blockbuster also-rans.
To succeed as a Hollywood director on your own terms in 2019, you have to be given numerous chances to succeed. You need a breakout indie or TV gig. Then you probably need another one. Then you have to direct a superhero or franchise film. And only then can you make a film with the combination of budget and control that might allow you to fulfill your creative vision.
We should look forward to Knives Out. We should celebrate the rare joy of an original film with a decent budget. But we should also appreciate just how difficult it is to get to where Rian Johnson is today, and how many potentially great directors are getting lost in this IP heavy system. For now, at least, we can hope the few filmmakers that do break through, like Nolan and Johnson, continue to get a chance to make truly original material with a bankroll to back their vision.