Giants like Robert Altman and Woody Allen made more films than we can count that wound up in the red, but financers knew that was okay because every once in awhile they'd pump out a "Gosford Park" or a "Match Point" and all would be right with the world. But what about prestige directors who run on critical acclaim and cult followings yet have never made serious bank?
That's right, we're talking about money. Film criticism tends to ignore the business part of showbusiness, but cashflow is the lifeblood of the industry, and when certain idiosyncratic voices can thrive without earning sizable returns for their investors, that's something worth highlighting if not celebrating.
With non-liquid filmmaker Noah Baumbach releasing his latest bound-to-flop masterpiece "Frances Ha" (read our review), here are ten major talents who draw big names and occasionally big budgets despite the fact that most of them rarely-if-ever score eight figures at the box office.
Films Directed: 6
Total Box-Office: $15-Million
Baumbach made his debut "Kicking and Screaming" at the tender age of 24, then spent a decade floundering in the indie film wilderness before emerging as a major voice with "The Squid and the Whale." He's since attracted Nicole Kidman to "Margot at the Wedding" and Ben Stiller to "Greenberg," both caustic, divisive and unsuccessful at the box office. The erudite wonder has had a couple recent big developments come to nothing, including an unfinished pilot for an HBO miniseries of Jonathan Franzen's novel "The Corrections" and a big screen version of Claire Messud’s "The Emperor’s Children." Hopefully he'll get his perpetually re-casted "While We're Young" off the ground, well, while we're young. Luckily he's able to supplement his personal projects with screenplay duties on Wes Anderson movies ("The Life Aquatic," Fantastic Mr. Fox"), script doctoring and, yes, writing "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted." Hey, at the very least he probably got a free trip to Europe out of it, right? RIGHT?
Films Directed: 21
Total Box-Office: $41-Million (some early films not accounted for)
An understudy of Robert Altman who assistant directed on "Nashville" and other films, Rudolph broke out on his own making literate, sensual, often bizarre character studies like "Choose Me," "The Moderns" and "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle." Its no surprise that he embraces similar ensemble and stylistic tendencies as Altman, but it is odd that in more than twenty films he never struck gold. Rudolph's biggest moneymaker was the minor Demi Moore/Bruce Willis thriller "Mortal Thoughts," and he later teamed up with Willis again with the truly nutso "Breakfast of Champions," proving that adapting Kurt Vonnegut to the screen is no walk in the park.
That picture's failure (along with the failure of most of his others) thwarted him from making his dream project, a big-screen version of Gary Larson's popular comic strip "The Far Side," which frankly could have been astounding. So many anthropomorphic animal jokes! These days he's still actively pursuing various scripts, but seems to be focused more on impressionistic painting, exhibiting his work in West Coast galleries and wishing the kids who use Kickstarter knew who he was.
Films Directed: 6
Total Box-Office: $50-Million
Here's a tough hombre to be reckoned with, a West Point graduate who then became a cunning entertainment reporter for the likes of Premiere and Entertainment Weekly. Apparently he once got in hot water for referring to Danny DeVito as a "testicle with arms." With no shortage of daring, he transitioned into moviemaking specializing in highly charged dramas like "The Contender" about the appointment of a female Vice President (Joan Allen).
He ramped up with the big league Robert Redford action thriller "The Last Castle," but it fell into the box office moat. Since then he's dabbled in television ("Commander in Chief"), though his heart clearly lies in cinema, crafting a sharp twist on the Valerie Plame affair with "Nothing But the Truth." Due to Yari Film Group filing for bankruptcy, that worthy picture didn't get a release, and his remake of Peckinpaugh's "Straw Dogs" failed as well. He's currently in TV movie purgatory, which is no place for one of the last throwbacks to the Alan J. Pakula school of politically astute storytelling. Someone get him to make a movie with George Clooney STAT!
Films Directed: 3
Total Box-Office: $17-Million
The youngest and certainly least prolific entry on this list, Kelly was a USC hotshot who got the chance to make his dream project "Donnie Darko" through the aid of Drew Barrymore, not to mention a much-buzzed script that combined time travel, teen angst and horror. "Darko" developed a massive following on video, making a star out of Jake Gyllenhaal and leading to his follow-up "Southland Tales." Unfortunately its Philip K. Dick meets music video sensibility garnered poisonous word of mouth and a huge $40-million write-off. His screenplay for Tony Scott's all-over-the-place "Domino" fared little better, causing people to wonder if it was "emperor's new clothes" time.
"The Box" was Kelly's attempt to atone for his indulgent sins on "Southland" by crafting a more mainstream "Twilight Zone"-type thriller starring Cameron Diaz, but critics booed and it didn't even break-even on its $30-million budget. He's since tried to get the Iraq drama "Corpus Christi" off the ground to no avail, and was announced as helmer of a Nicolas Cage legal drama called "Amicus" but there's been zero movement since last year. It would be a shame to see Kelly permanently sidelined at such a young age, but perhaps a hiatus like the one Baumbach experienced will help him recharge creatively enough to churn out another "Darko"-esque mindbender.
Films Directed: 7
Total Box-Office: $61-Million
You could argue about which of these filmmakers has the most dramatic flair or eclectic style until you're blue in the face, but there's no contest about which is the funniest. Brooks started off as a legendary stand up who did deconstructionist gags like having a ventriloquist dummy drink water while Albert sang. He cut his filmmaking chops making the first SNL shorts, then independently financed his prescient first feature "Real Life," which satirized reality television before there was such a thing. It's a criminally underrated film, with Brooks playing a sociopath version of himself filming an average American family for a year.
His follow-up movies "Modern Romance" and "Lost in America" attempted to tap into the yuppie zeitgeist with scathing precision, but his masterpiece might just be "Defending Your Life," which has Brooks' neurotic dead everyman being cross examined for all the lame crap he did during his time on Earth while falling in love with a dead Meryl Streep. None of these films broke the bank, and with diminishing returns he seems to have turned his attention away from making films towards literature with the dystopian bestseller "2030"… and voicing fish in certain Pixar movies.
Films Directed: 17
Total Box-Office: $47-Million
All you have to do is look at those numbers and realize a list like this was tailor made for an individualist like Sayles, who somehow scrapes together financing through moxie, big-name stars and the occasional big studio script polish gig like "Apollo 13." Granted, a few of these films have made a small profit, like "Lone Star" or "Passion Fish," but the vast majority of his work centers on subject matter (latent lesbianism, the 1919 Black Sox scandal, the birth of electric blues in the 1950's) that defy commercial expectations. Translation: they're not easy sells, nor high concept.
Sayles is fiercely independent, repeatedly writes lead roles for solid character actors like Chris Cooper or David Strathairn, and transforms challenging/esoteric material such as Irish selkie folklore into art house surprise "The Secret of Roan Inish," or a sci-fi twist on the immigrant experience in "The Brother from Another Planet." Whether you can connect to his body of work is immaterial, since you can't help but be inspired by the guy who somehow gets that boulder up the hill each time without it rolling over back onto him.
Films Directed: 10
Total Box-Office: $60-Million
Before his recent descent into right-wing nutjobbery, Mamet was a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright ("Glengarry Glen Ross") who, like John Sayles, took bigtime screenwriting gigs ("The Untouchables," "Hannibal") in order to fund his own personal films. These include early efforts like the long con mindf**k "House of Games" or touching character piece "Things Change," featuring his repertory company of Joe Mantegna, William H. Macy and magician Ricky Jay. Always made with a sparse/no-nonsense style, direct and to the point, utterly devoid of fat.
Later films usually have a high profile part for his wife Rebecca Pidgeon, and involve tough guy action scenarios: "Spartan," "Redbelt" and "Heist," the latter of which is by far his biggest grosser at a measly $28-million. He recently helmed the peculiar-looking HBO film about murderous "Phil Spector" and his freaky fake hair, starring Al Pacino. It's yet to be seen whether his conservative outspokenness will alienate him from liberal Hollywood or simply take him into weirder, crazier directions as a filmmaker.
Films Directed: 5
Total Box-Office: $3-Million
Originally an actor in '80s greats like "Christine," Gordon was also a protégé of Brian De Palma on films like "Home Movies" and "Dressed to Kill." His prep school-set debut film "The Chocolate War" struck a tone not too far from what "Rushmore" did a decade later. The stark, snowbound World War II pic "A Midnight Clear" displayed a dramatic flair and an eye for talent (Ethan Hawke, Gary Sinise, Peter Berg), but a film version of "Mother Night" with Nick Nolte faltered… what is it about Vonnegut? He also helped revive his old "Back to School" co-star Robert Downey Jr.'s career by giving him the lead role in "The Singing Detective" in 2003. This acclaimed helmer hasn't gotten a feature off the ground since, finding success in acclaimed television like "Dexter" and "The Killing." Mayhaps Downey Jr. could play a part in revitalizing Gordon's career, get him up for a Marvel movie or something… he'd probably make a helluva "Doctor Strange" flick.
Films Directed: 9
Total Box-Office: $74-Million
Here's one smart cookie. A Harvard grad who cut her teeth on documentaries, Nair's 1988 debut film "Salaam Bombay!" shed light on the street life of Mumbai children two decades before "Slumdog" was a household word. It was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film, and made the Hindi a hot commodity in Hollywood. As the Ugandan Indian family in "Mississippi Masala" deals with the racial politics of an African American dating their daughter, Nair worked with her first major star in the form of Denzel Washington. "The Perez Family" found her crafting memorable characters for more Oscar-winners like Marisa Tomei and Anjelica Huston, then returning to her roots with the banned-in-India "Kama Sutra" and delightful art house fave "Monsoon Wedding."
The latter did very well, but like "Muriel's Wedding" well as opposed to "Four Weddings and a Funeral" well. More mainstream female star vehicles like "Vanity Fair" and "Amelia" have crashed and burned, while smaller scale Indian fare "The Namesake" flourished in limited markets. Her most recent project, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," proved to be her most challenging subject matter yet, hence the unlikelihood for it to crack a million stateside. Nair seems poised to one day land a project that will exponentially expand on the discerning audience she has cultivated over the years.
Films Directed: 17
Total Box-Office: $17-Million
In the prolific Brit Winterbottom we find an acclaimed filmmaker with chops to spare who cannot for the life of him make a dime. Is it a case of spreading himself too thin over too many projects, or is it simply someone with the means to operate within the European market despite obscure subject matter? In any case, his chronicle of the Manchester music scene in "24 Hour Party People" has a rabid cult following and helped turn Americans on to the subtle humor of Steve Coogan. His gritty portrayal of reporters in war-torn Bosnia and Herzegovina for "Welcome to Sarajevo" earned oodles of praise… and little else, despite stars like Woody Harrelson.
Somewhere in between those two watersheds he s**t the bed with the $20-million disaster "The Claim," but in 2007 won back some favor with the modest Daniel Pearl beheading movie "A Mighty Heart" starring Angelina Jolie, then made another step back with "The Killer Inside Me." Winterbottom's BBC series "The Trip" (again starring Coogan, playing himself) made some waves edited down to a feature here in the States, with a second season/sequel on the way. There's no stopping this guy, that's for sure, but when does the party end?