In 1972, the wider, movie going public became aware of a young filmmaker that would change how movies are viewed and made from that time until now. The movie was Duel. Originally a made for TV movie, it was so well made and so immersive that it was released as a theatrical film in Europe and catapulted the then television director into international stardom and a career trajectory that would become nothing less than stratospheric. He would redefine what would start out being called the blockbuster film and known today as the tent pole movie. No one saw it coming. True, there was a certain zeitgeist that was building at the time but no one could predict what form it would take. Steven Spielberg, through sheer talent and extreme good fortune (as in “being in the right place at the right time”) defined that moment and changed film forever. No small feat for a nerdy kid from the suburbs of Arizona. He of course would get a nice assist from another up and comer who was then struggling to get “some space movie” made.
I won’t bore you with the rest. It’s a little something called “movie history”. There was Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters, Raiders…. All widely successful. The studios and the entire Hollywood industry started foaming at the mouth. Who had ever seen such consistent barrels of cash flowing in like an economic tsunami? The thing about Hollywood is, when they see profits like these there is one overriding thought: how do we replicate this success?
And therein lay the problem and the curse that all subsequent big budget filmmakers would have to wrestle with. At first, the focus wasn’t so much on other directors but the films themselves. A slew of Jaws and Star Wars imitators flooded the theaters in the 70’s. These were followed by Indian Jones knockoffs in the 80’s, which slowly gave way to the big special effects, science fiction film. All of the elements we were seeing in films like ET and Spielberg produced films like The Goonies and Back to the Future were there: The suburban family, divorce, latchkey kids, high tension mixed with humor, child actors, cute and benevolent aliens/robots, a third act filled with “mind blowing” special effects. It was all fairly recognizable.
But something was missing.
While the heavy influence of Spielberg elements were ever present, it just wasn’t quite on the same level no matter how well made or received the films themselves were. There was something organic and truthful about how Spielberg approached his own work. These other films felt like what they were: A response. A copy.
And here is where the problem with ALL of this began. Hollywood was desperate to find the next Jaws, Star Wars, ET. But no matter how hard they tried, they just couldn’t quite grab that brass ring. Money success? Sure. Sometimes. But the films they imitated were more than that. They were cultural milestones. They live on way past their birth date. They’ve been picked apart and analyzed more than the Zapruder film. And when you look at constant DVD sales, streaming rights, etc., they’re still making cash. That’s what you call the long game.
The disconnect comes from where it’s always came from. An attempt to take an organic, naturally occurring phenomenon and trying to replicate it through marketing, manufactured hyperbole and larger and larger budgets. In the 80’s, these films were still able to have something of a beating heart. The best you could say is that even though they were trying to replicate past success, their heart was usually in the right place. This seemed to count for something at least. Ideas were still king and there was a real interest in trying not to be too imitative but to mix these more familiar elements with elements that were new. It was the film as rock star in a way but in Hollywood’s ever-increasing search for blockbuster profit, the more cynical marketing and propaganda machine hit on the next level of an emerging business model and by the end of the 1980’s, we were introduced to a new paradigm shift.
The FILMMAKER as rock star.
From here, things start to get ugly.
In the unquenchable desire to up the stakes on high concept filmmaking, the industry’s marketing machine decided to apply the same formula to the directors of these movies that they had to movie stars since movies began. They would market them as they would the film. Forget trying to make the next ET or Jaws. They would make the next Spielberg. Unfortunately for the unlucky few, this would prove much harder to do than just trying to make a movie with “Spielbergian” elements and there’s a reason for that. Spielberg, his ideas and his success were a natural, organic progression of what came before. No marketing strategy thought it up. He was what the audience needed at the time and what he created was welcomed by the movie going world with open arms. It’s something that’s simply impossible to MAKE happen. It just does. It’s not a formula that can be plugged in and churned out at a boardroom’s whim. It’s the right idea at the right time and the greatest supercomputers and prophets in the world can never recreate the circumstances under which Spielberg happened.
Just try telling Hollywood that though and so it goes that in the summer of 1989, I first heard the phrase that would become the death knell for any director playing in the same wheelhouse as the wunderkind. The phrase that dare not speak its name: The Next Spielberg. If you’re a filmmaker and you hear this term, it’s time to pack it up and run for the hills for you have just met an unassailable wall of impossible to meet expectations from which there is no escape.
From what I can recall, there have been three filmmakers over the last few decades that have been the unfortunate victims of this horrible publicity machine. There may be more but these three stand out in my mind. As I’ve said, the first conceptual abomination was given birth in the summer of 1989. His name? Tim Burton and the film was Batman.
Let me just start out by saying, this list is no reflection on the quality of the filmmaker’s work themselves, other than they’re not Steven Spielberg but unfortunately that’s the baggage that the title of “The Next Spielberg” immediately brings. Fortunately for Burton, his career was the trial run for this really bad idea and as a consequence; I would say his name and reputation has suffered the least.
I’ve always been somewhat mixed on Burton films myself but the ones I like, I truly enjoy. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow are just great fun. The rest I could do without. But back in 1988, there was only Pee Wee, Beetlejuice and a wonderful short film called Frankenweenie that existed. Warner Brothers looked at his work and decided to roll the dice and give this low budget filmmaker some real money to play with and a film icon to direct a performance out of. Batman made a ton of money, audiences went gaga for it and with that, the former Disney Art Director with quirky taste was now in Spielberg territory.
I don’t remember specifically where or when I first heard Burton called The Next Spielberg but it was somewhere in the wake of Batman’s massive success. As with most propaganda statements, the first time I heard this, I bought it. “Okay”, I thought. “This proclamation must’ve been made by people in the know who are aware of facts that I’m not, so I guess it must be true. I mean, who would make such an outrageous claim if they didn’t truly believe it?” The success of Batman certainly held the promise of future large-scale storytelling that would be met with the same reaction as this one, just like what Spielberg had experienced throughout the 70’s and 80’s. It made sense. There was just one difference for me. A feeling that would become very familiar as the years and summers wore on into the present but this was the first time I felt it. Walking out of the theater after seeing Batman that summer, I had the same reactions as most. I loved it, was awed by it and felt like I had seen something great but when I woke up the next day, I questioned everything I had experienced the day before. Suddenly in retrospect, I questioned my initial assumptions. It just didn’t hold up. What was going on? Was I being too judgmental? Was I a victim of mass hype? Was I out of step with everyone else? The only way I could process this was by contrasting it in my mind to how I felt about Close Encounters or Stat Wars or Raiders. That’s when I saw the disparity. I had seen those films hundreds of times on TV and on VHS since my first theater viewing and my love for those films hadn’t diminished in the slightest. If anything, repeated viewings only strengthened my original reaction to those works. This was different. Seeing Batman for me was more akin to getting really drunk the night before and feeling great in the moment but then waking up the next day to realize most of what I felt was based on impaired judgment due to high levels of intoxication. It was fleeting and I can’t say to this day that I can sit through Batman if I come across it on cable.
And this was The Next Spielberg? It felt more like Cinderella at the ball and the carriage had just turned back into a pumpkin. Within 24 hours, the spell had worn off.
Burton must’ve resented his new title as well or just ignored it because instead of going bigger for his next outing, he went smaller and more personal with Edward Scissorhands. He gave Batman one more try at bat but the morning after hangover I had seemed to have sunk in with others as well because Batman Returns was greeted by both critics and audiences with a much more tempered response than the first.
Mercifully, the publicity machine that had declared Burton The Next Spielberg had long since forgotten their earlier claims (or were hoping we would) and let this guy go back to doing what he did best, making smaller films with offbeat stories and characters. He would of course, try his hands in later years; at the whole tentpole thing again but with weaker results each time. Does anyone want to see Planet of the Apes (2001) or Alice In Wonderland ever again?
Looking back, you can see where this level of success and the Spielberg moniker caused a few bumps in the road for this guy but that would be nothing compared to the next contender who is still in recovery mode to this day.
In 1999, another valiant knight would step up and attempt to pull the sword from the stone and the same industry that introduced those three dangerous words through magazine interviews and random blurbs would take their experiment to the next level. This time, the sacrificial lamb would be a young filmmaker from Pennsylvania with the improbable name of M. Night Shamaylan.
After making two previous feature films, Shamaylan found major box office and critical success with his third film, The Sixth Sense. Essentially a two-hour Twilight Zone episode (An Occurrence At Owl Creek if you want to get technical and not that that’s a bad thing), audiences were riveted by the performances and what would become M. Knight’s calling card: the twist ending. With this film and a filmmaker who appeared to come out of nowhere and take audiences by storm, the publicity saw it’s next opening and a pattern began to emerge.
These marketing guys aren’t stupid. No one gets thrown this title without certain prerequisites attached. One of these is a link to the Master himself. With Burton, the link was an episode of Amazing Stories directed by Burton in 1985, which allowed the industry to look upon him as a “protégé”, one who was ready to take on the mantle of successor in their minds. With Shamaylan, this link would come sometime around the release of the Sixth Sense but revealed later in 2000 when Shamaylan said he had met with Steven Spielberg about writing the fourth Indiana Jones film. The link was now established and the other shoe dropped in 2002 with the pre publicity surrounding his next work, Signs. With that, the second prerequisite was met: a story that seemed to have parallels with an earlier Spielberg film, in this case Close Encounters. The elements to make comparisons were right there: a father figure dealing with alien contact. With that, Hollywood picked up the ball and ran with it. It was time to amp up The Next Spielberg title. There would be no casual proclamations of this term hidden in magazine articles and critical reviews for Shamaylan. Instead of burying the lead in hopes of convincing the audience of their claims, publicists would TELL you this was The Next Spielberg right up front. And with that, one of the greatest movie publicity blunders ever conceived splashed its’ way across the cover of Newsweek that year:
It was all downhill from there. Unlike Burton, the title of The Next Spielberg seemed to stroke Shamaylan’s ego and he rolled with it. Expectations went through the roof of course and if you look at the steady downward spiral inherent in his work, you can actually see Shamaylan now trapped to deliver bigger and better in a desperate attempt to turn his work from more than just box office and critical success into cultural milestones, the main factor that separates Spielberg from the rest.
Instead of achieving this lofty goal, Shamaylan began treading water, captured by the impossible to meet expectations that come with literally having this damaging title put to your name in print for the entire world to reference.
From what started as a promising career has been reduced to ridiculous melodrama in a poor attempt to emulate the deep emotional resonance and awe of Spielberg’s best work. To this day, Shamaylan hasn’t entirely recovered from this post-modern, Faustian bargain. Only recently does he seem to be carefully regaining his past promise by doing what Burton did at his first opportunity and stripping down his concepts to return to the lower budget, less ambitious stories of his earliest work with The Visit and Split. I wouldn’t know though. I stopped watching his movies with Lady In The Water with the exception of catching After Earth on cable one night, which I can proclaim as one of the best comedies of 2013, truly a Rifftrax waiting to happen.
Undoubtedly, the Hollywood publicity machine went full retard with that abomination of a Newsweek cover so the next time, they would employ all of their best tricks and be met with the most success yet with this new “The Emperor Has No Clothes” model. A multi-tiered strategy would come into play this time. The links would be the strongest yet and a slow, careful buildup would be employed to try to mimic an organic occurrence. And strangely enough, Spielberg would head up the process this time. For the third attempt Spielberg himself would choose The Next Spielberg.
Of course, I’m talking about JJ Abrams. This time the link was as strong as it could possibly be. Spielberg has known Abrams since he was a teenager when he was hired along with Matt Reeves, to clean up Spielberg’s old Super 8 films. And this is a background detail that publicists would never let us forget since it seems to be the foundation on which they would foist a mediocre filmmaker onto the big budget arena. The media machine then started to subtly place Abrams in the same circles as the master filmmaker almost like inserting a new element into an existing photograph with a Photoshop program.
This would be a “visual cue” to cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike that the Next Spielberg has been found. Some of these photographs attempted to capture a more “art photograph” feel to them as if saying, “No one set this up. This isn’t a marketing scheme. It’s NATURAL.” This was, of course taking it’s cue from things like Annie Lebowitz photographs shot during the Star Wars prequels and the reproduction of some black and white on-set photographs taken during Jaws and Star Wars that have since been compiled into lavish coffee table books as an important artifact of film history (which they are). But the difference between those photographs and the new Abrams ones are that the former photographs were circulated because of the reputation of those films. These new photos were meant to convince the public that the films behind this guy are on the same tier. A bit of pushing the cart before the horse, which is what hyperbole is really all about. Once again, it’s the un-manufactured moment next to the manufactured one. These “artistic photographs of iconic filmmaking moments” would take on a fever pitch with the Force Awakens cast photo, putting the old guard and the new cast members in the same space.
But even before the “Star Wars” push, there was a slow and fairly subtle build up to Abrams taking control of Lucas’ creation. Already the box for Spielberg protégé was ticked but this doesn’t mean anything without the box office profits to back it up. To Hollywood, Spielberg means MONEY. A LOT of money.
This was probably the easiest thing to take care of since, as we all know pretty well; there are a few franchises out there that are going to make easy profit no matter what. All you have to do is shoot it and release it. With that in mind, Abrams was given the franchise known for its’ “built in audience”: Star Trek. With a giant publicity push, Abrams was given the reigns of a guaranteed moneymaker and in came the easy profits.
Next, the Spielberg link would be forged in stone with Super 8. With this film, JJ would attempt to create his own “new product” for the movie market. With an established pattern of carefully aping Spielberg’s career trajectory, this was to be his Close Encounters. But the most important element of this film that Hollywood wanted to make sure the audience understood was that the story here was conceived by Abrams and Spielberg. I mean, how could you not trust this guy? Spielberg does. And now they’ve created a story TOGETHER. You know, just like Lucas and Spielberg did once upon a time. See what they did there? And if you’ve seen the film, you know it’s nothing more than a mash up of CE3K and the Goonies with an incredibly muddled third act that had me counting the minutes to the end credits roll. In stark contrast to the Indiana Jones films, Super 8 demonstrates the difference between inspiration and imitation.
So what was next? How about that other property that already proved through three lackluster prequels, that it’s fans will pay for anything with its’ logo slapped on it? Let’s be honest. ANYONE could’ve directed a new Star Wars film with appearances from the original cast to record sweeping box office numbers, although the film didn’t break quite as many records as envisioned. A failure by no means but having a Star Wars film not exceed every single economic expectation was…unusual.
And that’s what’s interesting about the newest of the Bearded One’s contenders. Even with automatic, economic success built in, there appears to be a barely detectable chink in the armor that has only grown larger the farther we get from the hype surrounding his film’s openings. Unlike Spielberg’s work, Abrams’ stock has only gone down. You can go on Youtube right now and find many, many very insightful critiques of The Force Awakens and why it doesn’t work. The scary thing is, most are more entertaining to watch than the movie itself. Heck, even Lucas can be seen in an interview cautiously calling out the film for “being retro” and not the direction he would have gone in.
It’s become clear from the films themselves that the premise for Abram’s films sometimes peak the interest but they always begin to feel tedious by the second act and by the last 30 minutes or so, I’m checking my watch. Compare this to Spielberg whose films build to a crescendo…Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T. ….
What’s really interesting and different here as compared to Burton and Shyamalan is that we are, right now in the midst of Abram’s crash and burn as The Next Spielberg and the process differs from those before him in the fact that, it’s not the lack of success of his films that are showing audience’s that the Emperor has no clothes, it’s what others after him do with the same material which provides the public with an unfavorable contrast. Ironically, by taking on these two giant franchise machines, Abrams has left himself vulnerable by letting other filmmakers come in after him to prove that the same toy box he’s playing in is better left in more capable hands. Combine that with the phenomenon where audiences bring a mediocre franchise film to box office gold but will then skip the sequel, thereby retroactively voting with their wallet by skipping the next entry after being disappointed with the previous one.
Case in point or Exhibit A: Star Trek Into Darkness. Highly regarded by many as a massive misstep of entertainment and narrative, the sequel nevertheless made a healthy profit mostly by riding on the goodwill of the 2009 reboot. However, it still saw a slump in box office and today, you would be hard pressed to find many who count it as one of their favorite films. It ‘s even made many reevaluate their impressions of the first film. The true failure of that film though, would be felt with the third movie, Beyond. Burned by Into Darkness, moviegoers stayed away and most likely doomed the reboot franchise to an early grave. So much for “saving Star Trek”. Despite the bad box office, there seems to be one running consensus over the film: Justin Lin coarse corrected many of Abram’s bad decisions from the previous two and delivered a better film.
I contend this is the beginning of a pattern. The Force Awakens is already on shaky ground, pop culture-wise but does anyone doubt that Rian Johnson will make a better Star Wars film? No matter how you feel about these new films (I’m not a fan), it’s kind of a no-brainer, isn’t it? I’ve seen Abram’s work and I’ve seen most of Johnson’s including the Breaking Bad episodes he’s done and it’s more than obvious to me that he’s working on a higher level than JJ. Overall, people already seem to consent to Rogue One being a superior entry to The Force Awakens so how will Episode 7 then be viewed after Rian Johnson delivers his chapter?
That’s the thing about playing in the franchise field. Your film will always be judged by what others before and after you have done with the same material and your level of talent is placed accordingly. It’s no longer just “you’re only as good as your last film” but now “you’re only as good, as compared to someone else’s”. We’ll just see how The New Spielberg’s rep holds up after another director comes in behind him to better success with the same toolkit….for the SECOND time. It seems in trying create his own successor, Spielberg forgot an important fact about his own career: He’s seen as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time because the AUDIENCE decided he was, not because they were told so by those who make films. His reputation exists based on how the public has responded to his work and Hollywood will never be able force thier hand no matter how hard they try.
So as we watch the latest try at replicating The Spielman failing in real time, the question one has to ask is, can one have the same amount of success as Spielberg has, playing in the same genre with hit after hit and NOT have the media machine condemn that filmmaker to this shadowy curse? Well, why not ask this guy:
If there’s one guy who has definitely earned the mantle of the Next Steven Spielberg, it’s Big Jim. I’m not talking about how you and I would define that either but how the media machine that has tried to fit those other guys into that box would define it. Look at the evidence. He makes big, high-concept science fiction films, he’s done historical epics and they’ve all made a mountain of money. Like The Beard, his name alone on a poster or in a trailer; is enough to draw in an audience. Not only that but he started his rise to pop culture fame not long after Spielberg and Lucas which all makes you wonder why that mantle was never applied to him. Well, there are two reasons that I can see. One is that even though he’s definitely playing in the same wheelhouse as Stevo, his films also have their own unique signature. He’s not simply imitating the Spielberg formula but adding his own spin to it. There’s the same spectacle to his work that you find in the master’s but his films have also always been more “adult’. I can’t imagine early Spielberg making a movie with an assassin who resembles a gleaming skeleton under human skin. I also can’t picture the Spielberg of the 70’s and 80’s populating his film with f bombs like we hear in Aliens and the Terminator films. Cameron made his own mark with those films instead of simply trying to clone Spielberg’s work like Abrams does.
But I don’t think that’s the only reason he’s never had to deal with the burden of “The Next Steven Spielberg”. I think he actively discouraged it. Now, I have no proof of that but it seems obvious to me. Jim is undoubtedly, a really smart guy and very career savvy which is why I think he understood, from the very beginning; everything I’ve mentioned here. If I was James Cameron say around 1989 and some reporter said that phrase to me; I would have ended the interview and walked right out of the room. I wonder if Cameron ever had to do that? Makes you wonder. It’s also because he’s a real filmmaker truly in love with story which is why publicity and how you’re perceived marketing-wise becomes secondary to guys like him. I think this applies to Iron Jim and the newest player to actively avoid the death curse. This gentleman:
Christopher Nolan is undoubtedly the newest contender for the Spielberg Curse and so far, has done an exemplary job of avoiding that mantle despite the fact that he could easily let the press pigeon hole him into that category. Again, like Cameron; there are many qualifiers. First, he has found enormous success with high concept, tentpole films like Spielberg; hitting the bulls eye time and time again. And if you’re looking for a strong Spielberg connection, what about the fact that Interstellar was originally going to be a Spielberg film before he passed on it? And it seems the next best person to bring that story to fruition was this guy. Not Abrams, but the man who redefined comic book films and is still clearly the high water mark for that entire genre in the modern age of film. This would be his Close Encounters and sure succeeds a lot better than Super 8. Just like Cameron, his career trajectory seems to follow roughly the same path as Jim and Steven. After making highly entertaining big budget movies with fantastical elements, he too is now taking on a historical epic like those two before him with his next film Dunkirk. He too has taken that same bag of tools and made it his own with a more intellectual approach but never losing sight of the spectacle and character work. Here is another master storyteller, uninterested in a title that would feed his ego but firmly focused on telling an engrossing story, which in the end; is Spielberg’s strongest trait. I’ll bet anything that Nolan as well, was under the publicity microscope to take on the Spielberg Curse and fought it tooth and nail just like Cameron. That’s why these guys are who they are and why they’re still going strong, in no danger of flaming out anytime soon.
The Spielberg Curse I think is like becoming the target of a vampire. It can only hurt you if you invite it in. But if you stand firm and stay focused, it has no power over you. Some have fallen into it through not being able to control their ego and the promise of power and others have successfully avoided it by the tenacity of their own unique vision and realizing something that Spielberg seems to have always known: The only ego that should be allowed on set is the movie itself. And whether you’re Steven Spielberg or Ed Wood, you’re in service to IT, never the other way around. So don’t try to become The Next Spielberg. Just be The First You. You hear me Abrams? JJ?….. Never mind.