10 Successful Filmmaker Transitions Between Independent and Blockbuster Filmmaking

5. Bryan Singer

By the late-1990s, the infamous twist supremacy commanded by Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects had reached legendary status amongst filmgoers, but Singer had already firmly established himself on the independent market with his debut feature Public Access in 1993, which was a hit at Sundance that year.

It was Suspects and the following Apt Pupil (itself a more studio-inclined picture) however, that paved the way for a more mainstream approval, with which a window was opened for Singer so that he was generously handed over the reins, the directing chair, on the popular comics property X-Men.

To the surprise of some, perhaps fearful of a convoluted cast, excessive preaching, or in absolute fear commanded by the questionable quality of most superhero adaptations of the past (the first two Superman films could have perhaps been considered the only two truly worthy superhero adaptations put to screen), Singer’s blockbuster debut was deemed a success critically, and made an impressive showing financially.

Not only were long-existing characters further drilled into the western pop culture consciousness, and not only was Hugh Jackman sooner solidified as a mainstream cinema icon, but the confidence studios then placed toward comic book superhero properties from that point onwards led directly to the cinematic introductions of Spiderman, the Hulk, and Daredevil, whilst encouraging fresh hands at older franchises such as Batman and Superman (and we’ll get here in a moment).

X2 similarly won over the love of fans and audiences worldwide, far more so, as a matter of fact, to the extent where it frequently still ranks as one of the finest comic-book adaptations yet produced.

And then, instead of a closing entry in the trilogy that satisfied many a fan and critic alike, blowing us out of the water in the same vein as X2 so famously had, we got Mr. Brett Ratner.

But not all was to be shameful, it seemed, for that very same summer Singer was to bring about a rebirth of the beloved American icon Superman, the likes of which would ideally never have been seen since 1980, Superman II gracing itself as the last quality picture involving the Man of Tomorrow.

Unfortunately, as of 2015, this is still the case.

Kevin Smith summed it up nicely, a plausible voice on the subject in perhaps the only topic he ever would be: superhero comics. “Ratner vs. Singer? Singer all the way! But I saw both movies that summer and I said ‘Brett Ratner’s a fucking genius, because Superman Returns was fucking boring’.”

Following the bullet he fired at Brandon Routh’s career, Singer helmed two critical disappointments in a row: the Tom Cruise vehicle Valkyrie, and the run-of-the-mill Jack the Giant Slayer, the latter of which also managed to be something of a financial catastrophe.

But not all hope was lost. Whilst Kal-El remained brutalised from the likes of Zach Snyder in 2013, the prodigal son has returned to the franchise that cemented him as a sought-after mainstream directorial superstar, and 2014’s Days of Future Past was at least the equal of X2 in terms of a warm reception, and has similarly quickly driven home its status amongst enthusiasts as one of the best comic adaptations ever conceived.

Continuing to drive this realm of revival for the beloved franchise, Singer sails on into a sunset hopefully blessed with more genuinely satisfying blockbuster fodder, as crafted or inspired from the likes of him: one of the most influential men in shaping the building blocks for the trends of contemporary mainstream cinema (for better or for worse is subjective, perhaps).


4. Sam Raimi

Mr. Raimi is not only one of the best examples of an independent filmmaker turned Hollywood (at least for the initial part of the latter career), but perhaps the one that most retained his directorial identity from a purely technical standpoint.

Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy remains among the most beloved in cinema history, each entry identifying itself as a specific bordering of cult film stereotype: the first a dark, atmospheric and bloody horror title, the second an excessive, vainglorious explosion of practical gore effects and side-splitting laughter, and the third an endlessly quotable, knowingly campy fantasy-action comedy.

Within the same trilogy, showcased were the apparent skills of an utter technical maestro. Raimi commanded his camera wrap its way, without cutting, through cabins, forests, corridors, and even cars, in order to show off the faceless entity that haunted the dreaded corners of the natural earth.

Also on display was his ability to firmly ground a film with the coating of a cartoonish, fanciful tone, which, considering this was a trilogy that wound up devoting its run-time to goofy slapstick, cackling un-dead, and a half-crazed protagonist featuring a chainsaw attached to the severed stump on his hand, was a skill necessary to prevent these films from becoming complete tonal messes (as his 1985 feature Crimewave has been often accused).

These two specific skills worked to Raimi’s benefit further when put in use for his Spiderman trilogy. Whoever nominated Bloody Sam for the job picked supremely wisely, as the curling, motion-addicted lens served as the perfect means with which a web-swinger could be highlighted as he zipped through the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

Alternatively, his dabbling in the cartoonish and zany must have gifted him with the ability to not fool himself into grounding a comic story within our reality: perhaps the greatest trait of the Raimi Spiderman films is their clear existence in the realm of a comic book universe, as though torn from the pages of colourful, speech-bubble laden panels.

One particular Evil Dead-inspired sequence within Spiderman 2, the most celebrated of the trilogy, contained Doctor Octopus awakening in a hospital room to enact a bloody massacre of surgeons. This scene has been noted amongst grown-ups who viewed the film as a child as a horrific, albeit memorable, sequence, one that surely must have had a difficult means getting through the censors. Regardless, it was the strongest proof available that Raimi had failed to lose his ability to construct a horror set piece.

Of course, whilst in discussion of Raimi’s early independent career, who would deny the influence of 1990’s Darkman when it came to crafting a narrative centred around a sympathetic vigilante, one also benefitting from its relishing its existence in an early teenager’s fantasy, on the subsequent superhero trilogy?

Unfortunately, the third entry of the Raimi Spiderman trilogy has been subject to much, mostly deserved, scrutiny, though this has been largely centred upon Raimi’s willingness to bend to studio pressure, rather than any fault of Sam as a filmmaker, including three villains in a picture that wound up confused, convoluted and .

His return to the horror genre, 2009’s Drag Me to Hell, was duly celebrated, but 2013’s blockbuster Oz, the Great and Powerful has been deemed a film which contained little-to-no of Raimi’s auteur identity, in spite of it being foretold by hopefuls as a big-budget successor to the much-praised Army of Darkness. It may have only been temporary, but Raimi for a time could be lauded as a filmmaker who had a firm grasp of his artistic identity even underneath the harrowing shadow of Hollywood studio pressure.


3. Christopher Nolan

If 1998’s Following does not convince the most ardent detractor that Christopher Nolan can commit himself to a quality picture in a non-blockbuster environment, 2000’s Memento certainly should present them with an undeniable piece of clever screenwriting ability, and the skills to present such a screenplay into a comprehendible finished product.

Yes, before he was accused every other year of merely throwing out high-budgeted popcorn films deluded with visions of false grandeur and intellectual depth or complexity, Nolan knew how the make a good small, memorable movie.

His 2002 venture Insomnia saw him allow a major studio to finance and monitor his creativity, but it was 2005’s Batman Begins, a smash critical and commercial success, that saw his first foray into the blockbuster filmmaking that would define both the object of praise amongst his overly-enthusiastic fanatics, and the point of derision amongst those who hold the English directorial icon in a more negative light.

The following year’s The Prestige is, to date, the last ‘smaller’ film helmed by Christopher, one that has received a mixed response amongst non-fans, but has been warmly welcomed in the realm of the die-hards.

What followed, in 2008, helped determine mainstream cinematic high-budget outings for the remainder of the century thus far. What followed was The Dark Knight, a critically acclaimed title that has been widely placed amongst the hall of greatest film sequels, comic book adaptations, villain-oriented narratives, and even among the best of the medium’s history, period.

Say what one will about the arguable flaws and drawbacks of 2010’s Inception and 2014’s Interstellar, but Nolan has been heavily responsible for the tolerance of Hollywood studio executives for original ideas, concepts and premises to command and dominate a wave of summer or end-of-year releases.

One must undeniably place praise and worth upon Christopher Nolan for his film’s ability to widen the perspectives of blockbuster releases. If any one independent filmmaker breaking out into the realm of Hollywood giants has proven himself influential to fellow independent maestros being given room for consideration and subsequent potential success, it is probably Nolan.


2. Peter Jackson

The year is 1987. You are told that the craftsman of the New Zealand-in-origin bloody, zany horror-comedy Bad Taste, aptly named, would not only helm the long-awaited adaption of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy, but lead it to become one of the most acknowledged cinematic milestones of the 21st century. Would you believe it?

The further existence of Meet the Feebles and Braindead, the latter still, to this day, considered perhaps the goriest film ever made, made the prospect seem crazier and crazier.

But then he came out with the acclaimed, smaller, drama Heavenly Creatures in 1994. Certainly, his range was proven, but his ability in tackling epic, fantastical cinema, with the quality to match being the greatest fantasy writer of the twentieth century?

As it happened, Peter’s taste for excess, brevity, innovative camera work and a love for make-up and other loaded assortments of practical special effects wound up contributing to the reasoning’s behind the widespread, unanimous acclaim bestowed upon the celluloid giants birthed of Middle-Earth.

At the trilogy’s conclusion, Peter Jackson was a beloved icon amongst cinephiles, geeks and mainstream audiences everywhere. The lover of guts, carnage and mayhem had crafted Oscar-winning masterpieces, and perhaps the most beloved blockbusters of its decade.

2005’s King Kong didn’t make quite the same impact, unfortunately. Whilst it retains a minor fan base for its status as a quality adventure narrative, many deemed Peter Jackson of dabbling in the kind of excess that was appropriate perhaps for Middle-Earth, but not for what had originated as a 90 minute flick about a giant mammal falling in love with a blonde bombshell.

Truly though, his taste of excess began long, long before he had ever considered Tolkien appropriate for expanding his filmmaking career, as his earlier, grotesque, outings have proven.

Now, his adaptation of The Hobbit, bizarrely extended into a trilogy, has received the most complaints in his career thus far, transforming the once-saviour of fantasy cinema into a George Lucas-esque pariah, guilty of dabbling in CGI excess, an overload of unnecessary scenes and characters, not to mention an abundance of bafflingly unnecessary subplots.

Is this a pattern worth sensing, then? All independent turned blockbuster filmmakers are doomed to failure and studio greed eventually? Are the likes of James Gunn and Gareth Edwards, newbies to the game of cinematic dollars, destined for a branding as sell-out hacks?

Let’s ignore Jackson’s hit-and-miss adaptation of the 1930’s fairy tale, and revel in his accomplishing the impossible: driving his initial cinematic Tolkien vehicle to a satisfactory degree, and then some. Oh, and then some, to the extent where the only single cinematic individual to possibly top the Kiwi movie magician on this list must be an impressive, influential individual indeed.


1. Steven Spielberg

Now, who else could it have possibly been?

There is no other way one could have possibly ended this list, topped the ranking, without devoting it to the man who birthed the blockbuster in 1975, with Jaws. His legacy was then a notch above his other New Wave peers, although George Lucas can be considered a similarly important and influential icon of crafting the Blockbuster, though his career in independent filmmaking wasn’t as distinct as Spielberg’s (Lucas’s first two features found distribution by Warner Bros. and Universal respectively).

Although the 1971 TV film for ABC, Duel, is widely considered the directorial debut of the late twentieth century’s most well known filmmaker, it technically all began in 1964, with a locally released picture, shown in one theatre only, known as Firelight. Firelight was a science fiction-adventure film, and its soon-to-be famed was only 17 at the time, made on a $500 budget. Playing at the Phoenix Little Theatre in Arizona, Spielberg managed to sell exactly 500 tickets at $1 each.

To his surprise, he made a profit. His first ever profit, at that. In the words of the man himself: “I counted the receipts that night…and we charged a dollar a ticket. Five hundred people came to the movie and I think somebody probably paid two dollars, because we made one dollar profit that night, and that was it.”

Now, that being said, this isn’t to say that Spielberg’s brief, but memorable, stint in independent cinema was what put him on the map for studio attention and pampering, that would be his television work, directing the aforementioned Duel but also other notable productions, like the premiere episode of NBC’s classic detective series Columbo.

By 1974, Spielberg had managed to persuade the studios for creative control over his debut feature, which likely could have only occurred in such a time wherein the young filmmakers were producing such profitable works so as to allow faith in their abilities. The resultant The Sugarland Express didn’t exactly bust any blocks, so to speak, but it did win the award for Best Screenplay at Cannes that year, foreshadowing the critical fervour that Spielberg would entrap throughout his long, illustrious career.

But how could anyone have known, then, in 1975, a young filmmaker releasing his second feature film, a monster flick about a killer shark that had been beset with one of the most memorably troubled productions in cinema history, would not only become widely considered a milestone and masterpiece, but change the medium’s marketing permanently?

The rest is history, of course, and the sheer influence and power commanded by Jaws, and Spielberg himself over the course of his extensive filmography, leaves little alternative to place him at the head of this countdown: the title of most prominent independent filmmaker to blockbuster-helming transition could have only been awarded to the man who gave birth to the concept of summer droves flocking to cinema seats at the behest of extensive advertising and hype.

Author Bio: Bio: Charles Barnes graduated highschool determined to leave the world of faux-intellectuals behind him, absorbing himself into an excessive gorging of cinema, determined to develop an individual, distinctive, voice in the world of film analysis and criticism. Working at a video shop, watching and writing about film in his spare time, the Australian teen is determined to put his name firmly in the history of Australian film criticism and theory.