It’s a good time to be Fede Álvarez.
The Uruguayan director got his start in short films, releasing his debut on YouTube in 2009 before being snatched up by Ghost House Pictures to make his feature-length debut. That project ending up being a remake of the horror classic Evil Dead, which would be a daunting prospect for any film-maker. Fortunately, his efforts were successful and the film made close to $100m worldwide. Meetings with Marvel followed, but Álvarez opted to go the indie route and made his sophomore movie, Don't Breathe, for $9.9m, just over half the budget of Evil Dead. The film, another horror, smashed all expectations and grossed $157m, making it one of the late-summer surprise hits of 2016 for Sony Pictures. Keen to hold onto their latest star, Sony quickly signed him up to direct one of their most anticipated projects, the reboot of the Lisbeth Salander series, The Girl in the Spider’s Web. That's scheduled for an October 2018 release, but Álvarez is keeping busy, having recently been announced as the director of Tristar's Labyrinth sequel. It seems that one of the industry's rising talents has found a wildly successful niche in the growing reboot driven landscape, and it's paying off handsomely for him.
To understand Álvarez’s success, it is important to look at the current landscape of the industry. For all of the grumbling about the over-saturation of remakes, reboots, re-imaginings and attempted franchises that seem to fuel Hollywood, it’s undeniable that the biggest money-makers right now are in that wheelhouse, so it’s to be expected that all studios will follow suit. Not everyone has a cache of superheroes or starfleets in their arsenal, so back-catalogues are dug into and familiar names pulled out, all in an attempt to keep nostalgic audiences interested. It’s a disheartening prospect but it’s also one that film-makers have to work in. When even the greatest auteurs of our age must fight for a relatively small budget to make their passion projects, it’s no wonder that up and coming directors latch onto the remake of the week.
There’s a major lack of opportunities for mid-budget movies right now in Hollywood. Acclaimed director James Gray (The Lost City of Z) recently lamented the situation and admitted to the financial troubles it had left him in. The gap between blockbuster and indie fare has widened to ridiculous proportions, with $150m+ budgets now the norm for typical Summer season fare. The margin for failure is high, but it’s often the best option on the table. Álvarez is one of a dwindling number of directors in Hollywood being given major chances that don’t break the bank. The Lisbeth Salander reboot will probably have a much lower budget than the critically loved but commercially disappointing David Fincher version, and the same will apply to Labyrinth, a recognizable property but one with no track-record of repeated success at the box office. He keeps costs low, increasing the profit margin, and has a good track record with familiar material.
It's interesting that Álvarez cites himself as an example of a film-maker not playing the Hollywood game, when the past few months have shown him reaping the benefits from engaging in the old-school system, one that's disheartening in its limitations but offers immense rewards to those who succeed. The current model of career progression for directors is to build up a solid indie back-catalogue to act as your portfolio of sorts, then hope to be spotted by a big name franchise that sees your potential. Sometimes this only takes one film, as was famously the case for Jurassic World's Colin Trevorrow and Kong: Skull Island's Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Alvarez had the opportunity following Evil Dead, after taking meetings with Marvel but not wishing to work with such creative restrictions in place, but he returned to his low-budget indie roots, and now he's back on that path to major success. He may have said no to the biggest team in town, but the benefits of a smaller playing field are clearly to his advantage. As he noted in an interview with Forbes:
“You make more money on a smaller movie and you’ll have ownership of it plus, if the movie performs, you can see more money that way – if you make a big budget movie you tend to get paid what you agreed to direct it... Creatively, and that’s what is important to me, I know that I have more control when I stay within a certain budget, and I learned this from the Coen Brothers who I am a big fan of, so that if you fail you have a chance to try again."
Álvarez’s success has continued in the medium of television, where he has directed an episode of Robert Rodriguez’s series From Dusk Till Dawn in 2014, and he has discussed plans for three other TV projects at major cable networks. It's of note that these works are being sold as original properties, unconnected to any existing IP. The boom of creativity in TV has seen major auteurs turn to the small screen for freedom from the Hollywood system, and Álvarez is keen to follow in those footsteps, but keeps one foot in the door of film because, even as TV gains greater power and legitimacy, Hollywood still reigns supreme.
Álvarez isn't just a good deal for major studios: The opportunities they afford him have led to greater creative control outside of the assembly line of reboots and remakes. He recently announced a partnership with Good Universe to form Bad Hombre, a company dedicated to producing films across the sci-fi, thriller and horror genres. Horror remains a reliable nest-egg for the industry, with production costs kept low and effective marketing allowing for major profits. With Blumhouse currently showing Hollywood how it’s done thanks to the successes of Split and Get Out. Álvarez is canny to stay ahead of the game, even as he makes his name with more recognizable products.
Ultimately, Álvarez is a good deal. He’s proven himself capable with a familiar project and a manageable budget, so now he’s worth taking a risk on. Of course, Hollywood doesn’t truly take risks these days, so the most radical option available for someone like Álvarez is a reboot. That’s not a bad thing – as proven with films like Kong: Skull Island and Dredd, there is plenty of room to explore fresh ground in narrow parameters – but it’s indicative of the need to play the Hollywood game, something Álvarez arguably does better than anyone else on his level in the field right now.
All of that pessimistic industry chatter underplays a real truth of Álvarez – his talent. Evil Dead surpassed expectations and offered even the most hardened horror fans a visceral experience with real grime on display, while Don’t Breathe is the kind of intense horror rooted in the unflinching grotesque that Hollywood seldom makes these days. He plays with audiences’ hopes and creates experiences that are unapologetically for adults. He has a vision but is not against working within the borders of the industry, albeit less restricted than, say, your typical Marvel director. It’s a niche that suits him fine, and much to the delight of audiences, he has many opportunities in the future to show exactly what he’s made of. The reboot has paid off well for him, but fortunately, that’s only opened the doors wider for his original vision.