13 Newbie Directors Who Took On Major Franchises

Chris Pratt and Colin Trevorrow on the 'Jurassic World' set

It hasn’t gone unnoticed that the normally cautious studios have all started taking leaps of faith in the one area you would least expect — their big budget, four quadrant, blockbusters. Audiences are finding it less and less necessary to watch movies in theaters, so these event films with pricey tickets for 3D or IMAX or 4DX are where the studios haul in the money from the masses. But, lately, instead of entrusting these films that are so vital to their bottom lines to expert directors with years of experiences, they’ve been handing them over to newbies and crossing their fingers.

Perhaps the thought process harkens back to the idea that there are creative geniuses like George Lucas or Bryan Singer just breaking out in indie film who could knock it out of the park, given the chance. Or, it’s possible that even successful, experienced directors could have one too many flops on their resume, making it easier to sell someone fresh with no financial failures and loads of potential and “something special” to a boardroom. Either way, directors who have worked on only one or two independent films with moderate to non-existent box offices as well as directors who have never directed a feature film before are all tackling expensive, franchise opportunities — with some truly interesting results

Here are 13 Newbie Directors Who Took On Major Franchises.

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Director Gareth Edwards and Aaron Taylor Johnson shooting Godzilla
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Director Gareth Edwards and Aaron Taylor Johnson shooting Godzilla

One major benefit to working with independent directors: they know how to stretch a little bit of money a long way. Gareth Edwards’ first feature film entitled Monsters included giant aliens and a lot of action, all coming in for a reported price tag of $500,000. And while franchises often have massive budgets to match their box office expectations, a director who can do so much with so little would no doubt be very appealing to studios. Monsters ended up bringing in around four million dollars, but considering the tiny budget, that was still a solid profit.

Following Monsters warm indie reception, Edwards was offered a much larger-scale creature film — Godzilla. It had a budget 320 times larger, at $160 million, and a colossal legacy to live up to. Despite a Bryan-Cranston-based red herring marketing plan, Godzilla was well-received and brought in over $500 million worldwide. Not bad for a second feature film. And, for his encore, Edwards will follow up Godzilla with a potentially even larger box office hit— Rogue One. Edwards is a prime example of spotting untapped talent that really can go the distance in the big leagues.


Fantastic Four Director Josh Trank Explains Why He Left Star Wars Anthology Film

Josh Trank has sadly become the classic example of taking a director from relative obscurity, hiring them to direct a franchise, and then watching as it all implodes. In 2012, Trank was flying high coming off of an unexpected box office success, Chronicle. The superhero-story-gone-wrong was made for a medium-sized budget of $12 million; it went on to gross over $125 million. Twentieth Century Fox was the studio behind Chronicle and decided the sudden golden boy, Trank, should take on one of their biggest properties — The Fantastic Four.

But, even with a young cast chock-full of talent, it seemed the production was doomed from the start. Various accounts have been given about Trank’s strange on set behavior and the necessity for the studio to step in and film the third act, without Trank being able to contribute to the process. The tremendous flop, shot for $120 million and grossing less than half of that domestically, might not have been career-ending for Trank. The horrendous reviews could be credited to a failure on both Trank and the studio’s parts, not solely the beginner director. But, a tweet sent from Trank right before the release of the film, essentially disavowing the final product, may have closed the door on any big-budget directorial dreams Trank had. Disney is probably quite pleased that Trank didn’t end up directing the next Star Wars standalone after all.


Colin Trevorrow on Jurassic World set

One of the biggest risks a studio has taken in recent years was on Colin Trevorrow, director of Safety Not Guaranteed. The film was acquired at the Sundance Film Festival by FilmDistrict for a reported seven figures. It’s unlikely that FilmDistrict made much profit though, with the box office take home being just over $4 million. But, despite the film’s underwhelming performance in theaters, the positive critical buzz seemed to be enough to get Trevorrow his big shot — a seat in the director’s chair for Jurassic World.

A young director with limited clout or ego was probably a wise and very purposeful decision on the studio’s part, as the entire film would be overseen by the creator of the beloved original, Steven Spielberg. A more experienced director might reject the idea of giving Spielberg final cut of the film, but a newbie wouldn’t have much of a leg to stand on against one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Thankfully for Universal, the arrangement with Spielberg didn’t seem to bother Trevorrow in the least, and the two were able to make a final product that shocked everyone by hauling in over $1.6 billion around the globe. Making that kind of money doesn’t go unnoticed, and Trevorrow has been tapped to direct Star Wars: Episode IX.


James Gunn and Michael Rooker filming Guardians of the Galaxy

It takes a certain kind of creative genius to make a movie work that features a talking raccoon and a kind-of talking tree as two of the main characters. On top of that, whoever took on Guardians of the Galaxy would need to bring an entirely new style and tone to the Marvel Cinematic Universe while seamlessly fitting in with the collection of movies Marvel had already built. James Gunn, whose first two feature films, Slither and Super, grossed a total of approximately $13 million in theaters combined, may not have had monetary success on his resume; but, he had the original and singular mind that Guardians of the Galaxy needed to be shaped and molded into a hit.

It’s unlikely that even Disney could have predicted just how well Gunn would take to the material, adding his unique and exciting voice that was fresh as well as somehow still cohesive with the other Marvel films. In addition to banking almost $800 million at the box office, Guardians minted Chris Pratt as an A-list star and ensured that the Marvel money train would continue down its expected path. Gunn will return for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and will likely have his pick of films to direct when he’s tired of living in comic book land.


Director Sam Taylor Johnson shooting 50 Shades of Grey

While many have noted that such franchise opportunities are rarely given to women, there are a couple of exceptions. Sam Taylor-Johnson took on the early life of a music legend in her first feature film, Nowhere Boy. It starred Aaron Taylor-Johnson, pre-Kick-Ass/Godzilla/Avengers fame, in a star-making performance as a young John Lennon. As you might surmise from their last names, it turned into a life-changing experience for them both, as they have since gotten married and watched both of their careers grow exponentially.

Sam Taylor-Johnson snagged the high-profile gig of adapting Fifty Shades of Grey for the screen, the first book in the racy, best-selling Fifty Shades series. And, despite last minute casting changes, the potentially problematic X-rated content, and the sensitivities that come with adapting a novel with such an avid fan base, the final product brought in $570 million with a restrained $40 million budget. Although Taylor-Johnson has chosen not to return to direct the sequels, she’s sure to be presented with a lot of other big budget directing opportunities in the near future now that she’s proven her money-making abilities.


Director Joseph Kosinski on the set of Tron Legacy

One of the highest budgeted and most anticipated films on this list is TRON: Legacy. Which makes it even more shocking to learn that the man hired to direct the long-awaited sequel was a feature film newbie. Joseph Kosinski had the expectations of eager fans and the head honchos at Disney weighing down on him as he spent $170 million to make his first (!) film. Many were optimistic because of the involvement of a strong writing team, original cast member Jeff Bridges, and producer Steven Lisberger, director of the original TRON.

Unfortunately, the audience, critic, and box office response were all less than one would hope. That $170 million production budget only saw a $400 million return worldwide. It resulted in all involved pumping the breaks on any hopes of TRON 3. There were some talks last year about giving a third installment a go, but it’s likely that the financial failure from 2010 still seems too fresh to want to journey back to The Grid so soon.


Director Cedric Nicolas Troyan and Chris Hemsworth on The Huntsman Winter's War set

In Hollywood, someone is always waiting in the wings to take your spot should you stumble. After a very public relationship involving Snow White and the Huntsman star, Kristen Stewart, and married director, Rupert Sanders, came to light, the studio was looking for some way to keep the franchise afloat. It had already proven a (relative) box office disappointment bringing in less than $400 million on a $170 million budget. But, there’s always another reimagining for a fairy tale, and Universal had already spent the money to establish the world of Ms. White.

So, second unit director on Snow White and the Huntsman, Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, was brought in to helm the rebooted spin on the fantasy, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, now featuring powerhouses Emily Blunt and Jessica Chastain in addition to Charlize Theron and Chris Hemsworth. The film, costing a less expensive $115 million, marked Nicolas-Troyan’s first feature. Unluckily for Universal and for Cedric-Troyan, so far it’s looking like another soft box office showing.


Director Elizabeth Banks shooting Pitch Perfect 2
Elizabeth Banks directing a scene for Pitch Perfect 2

Pitch Perfect was one of the surprise favorites of 2012, modestly made for $17 million and pulling in $115 million — it became a cultural phenomenon, even if the box office wasn’t the most explosive. The rabid fan response merited a sequel, with a familiar face gearing up behind the camera. Venturing into new territory, Elizabeth Banks, well known for her strong body of work as a performer, made Pitch Perfect 2 her feature directing debut.

Whenever an actor takes the leap to directing, their work is put under a microscope. And while Pitch Perfect 2 wasn’t as critically acclaimed as its predecessor, the sequel under Banks’ leadership saw the box office jump to more than double the previous film, over $287 million. Banks has signed on to the direct the next chapter in the college a capella saga, no doubt aiming to outdo the other films once again.


Director Wes Ball and Dylan O'Brien on The Maze Runner set
Director Wes Ball and Dylan O'Brien on The Maze Runner set

In an age where filmmaking technology is freely available, short films are often used as new directors’ auditions tapes and calling cards in a crowded industry. In 2012, Wes Ball directed a short film called Ruin that featured a rebellious protagonist in a post-apocalyptic world. Soon after, he was brought on to direct the film adaptation of The Maze Runner, the first in a series of New York Times best-selling post-apocalyptic Young Adult adventure books. Many of the visuals that can be seen in The Maze Runner and Ball’s follow-up The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials seem very reminiscent of the world he created in that attention-grabbing short.

Even though Ball had somewhat limited experience before taking on Maze Runner, his direction and the books’ international popularity led to a take-home of just under $350 million on a tight budget of $34 million. It’s no wonder the studio felt comfortable with him tackling the sequel, which brought home a slightly less impressive box office return. But, apparently it was enough for them to greenlight the third film, The Maze Runner: The Death Cure, which Ball will also be helming — assuming star Dylan O'Brien is healthy enough to return following an on-set accident.


Director Marc Webb and Andrew Garfield shooting the Amazing Spider-Man

(500) Days of Summer has joined the ranks of cult romantic comedy must-watch movies. The charming performances from Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel as well as the role reversal of gender dynamics from a typical on-screen relationship both made the film stand out against the many tired studio competitors. So, when rebooting Spider-Man after the problematic end of the last series with Spider-Man 3, it’s no wonder Sony went knocking on Webb’s door.

Despite his success in indie territory and the plentiful material, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 received mixed reviews from critics and fans alike, as well as overall underwhelming box office receipts. Spider-Man will now be re-envisioned once again by a new director in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Webb will be heading back to his indie roots with Fox Searchlight’s Gifted, starring Captain America himself, Chris Evans.


Shane Black and Robert Downey Jr. on the Iron Man 3 set

Although many directors seem to appear out of nowhere, some work successfully for years waiting for the projects worth directing. Shane Black had a well-respected career as a screenwriter, gaining praise for actioners like the Lethal Weapon series. He directed a small project called Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in 2005 that cost and grossed almost exactly the same — but gained him a flock of fans. Then, after an almost ten year hiatus from directing, Black took on one of Marvel’s most valuable characters in Iron Man 3.

While it’s not everyone’s favorite turn for the sarcastic hero, the studios couldn’t ignore the over $1 billion that it raked in. Black was able to get the sought-after duo of Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe to star in his latest film, The Nice Guys, much faster than the ten year wait between his first and second movies. Whether The Nice Guys is a box office smash or not, Black has been signed on to do a sequel Predator film that will keep him on his directing roll.


Director Robert Stromberg and Elle Fanning shooting Maleficent

A lack of directorial experience does not necessarily mean someone is stepping on set without an understanding of the filmmaking process. Robert Stromberg had two Oscars for Art Direction (Avatar and Alice in Wonderland) and five Emmys for various Visual Effects work under his belt before he took the reigns of the fairy tale retelling, Maleficent. Despite Stromberg’s many accolades, Disney was still taking a chance on a neophyte director, who would need to work with a top actor and director in her own right, Angelina Jolie.

The final result was a film that grossed over $750 million globally and featured some truly incredible visuals. Disney seems interested in making the same kind of money with a sequel, but it’s still to be determined if Stromberg and Jolie are on board. In the meantime, Stromberg looks to be honing his craft with the latest technology by working on projects such as The Martian VR Experience.


Gambit Movie Loses Director Rupert Wyatt

Rupert Wyatt, an English director known only for The Escapist, a film that grossed less than half a million dollars, likely seemed a strange choice even to him to reboot The Planet of the Apes. But, reboot it he did, with drama and action and James Franco. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was met with largely positive reviews and a very solid $480 million back from its $93 million budget. It was just the encouragement Fox needed to push for another round from Wyatt.

But, once the film had become successful, it seemed that Wyatt found himself with less control and less interest in working on the franchise. He bounced around as potential director for several films, finally landing on a losing bet with The Gambler. Despite having been tapped for the Gambit film at one point, Wyatt has yet to fill his calendar with a new film to direct. Although, happily for him, it seems that the offers are coming in, he’s just taking his time to be a bit more selective.


Who do you think will be the next indie director to hit it big? Who do you think the next Josh Trank might be? Tell us in the comments!

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