Revisiting the Collective: Movies That Sabotaged the Careers of Great Directors

(CS: In recent months, I have seen a few reappraisals of Michael Cimino's Heaven Gate with arguments that the infamous flop is an unheralded classic. Likewise, there has been several pieces singing the praises of the late Joel Schumacher with many defending his legacy as so much more than the director of two Batman movies. Based on that, I thought this piece that was originally posted on March 26, 2014, would be a good one to revisit now.)

It may not be entirely fair, but the success and failure of a motion picture is largely credited to the director. The reality is a picture becoming a hit hinges on many major players including the studios, producers, screenwriters, cinematographers, and actors. (CS: And editor! A job that I am learning more and more seems to make or break a movie.) In the end, while many of those contributors will get acknowledgement, the top accolades for a hit are often heaped upon the director. This also means that a critical and financial disaster tends to damage the reputation of a director. Many directors have been able to weather the storm resulting from a few misfires (even Steven Spielberg has 1941 and Always), but sometimes one movie can be a big enough catastrophe that it can sabotage a once great director’s career. Here are a few infamous pictures that damaged the career of the directors. 

Gigli (Martin Brest): Brest skyrocketed to the top of the Hollywood elite with the Eddie Murphy starring smash hit Beverly Hills Cop, which brought in over $300 million on a budget of $15 million. He followed it up with the critically acclaimed comedy Midnight Run that many consider one of the best comedies of the 1980s and was clearly the inspiration for last year’s box office hit Identity Thief. (CS: Midnight Run is the gold standard for mismatched buddy action comedy.) 

He really established himself as a director to watch by earning both a Best Picture and Best Director nomination for Scent of a Woman. Things started to get a little rocky with Meet Joe Black, as it only got moderate grosses at the box office and received a mixed critical reception. The death blow came in the form of the Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez (the tabloid’s hot couple at the time) starring vehicle, Gigli(CS: It is not good, but it never should have been considered career destroying bad. It is nowhere near worst movie ever like some claim.)  

The strong reputation built up by Brest was instantly crushed by the monumental box office bomb (earned $7 million on a budget of $75 million) and critical panning that had some reviewers label it one of the worst movies ever. The talk of it being an all-time stinker is hyperbole as it wasn’t even one of the worst movies of 2003, and even had a few clever scenes including a discussion between Affleck and Lopez about the strengths of the two genders’ anatomy. The few bright spots were blocked out by the heaping piles of garbage in the picture.

Brest ended up butting heads with Revolution Studios over both the script and the initial cut of the picture. The argument resulted in the final product being a drastically revised version from the director’s original vision. (CS: Once again, an example of how a movie gets made in the editing room. Release the Brest cut!) It is hard to tell if Brest’s original picture would have fared much better, but likely the little war with the studio is one of the reasons we haven’t heard from the director since. (CS: The disappearance of Brest is one of those Hollywood mysteries. I occasionally Google him to see if he has been mentioned recently, but there is no signs of any interviews or reports of his current status since the failure of Gigli. Crazy.)

Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino): The picture not only destroyed a then hot director’s career but it also bankrupted a studio and had a major part in killing one of the most popular eras in filmmaking. (CS: The end of the director-led movie era, with studios taking back power with the focus on big blockbusters in the 1980s and beyond.) Cimino became a hot commodity after the critically adored The Deer Hunter, which was nominated for 9 Academy Awards that ended up with 5 wins including Best Picture and Best Director. He made it as one of the elite directors and had the power to choose any project he wanted next. Unfortunately, it was the extremely bloated and massively over-budgeted Heaven’s Gates that became one of the all-time biggest box office bombs with a $3 million gross on a $44 million budget (an amount that would have been huge back in 1980). 

The film had a notorious reputation even before its release for going way over budget and constantly pushing back its finish date. (CS: It was famously reported that he was five days behind shooting on the sixth day of filming.) Cimino was a known perfectionist but went to ridiculous extremes such as waiting an extensive amount of time just so a cloud he liked could drift into the shot. Cimino’s deliberate approach to filming and his disregard to the budget not only brought down then major studio United Artists, but drastically changed the control directors would have on big studio productions. 

The 1970s was known as the New Hollywood, which ushered in hot young directors like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet, and Stanley Kubrick. The directors worked under the major studios, but were allowed an incredible amount of creative control and the ability to make the kind of pictures they felt passionate about. It brought forth major releases that were often counter-culture and thought-provoking, and many consider it one of the greatest periods for motion pictures. (CS: It is.) 

The monumental failure of Heaven’s Gate and the destruction it caused United Artists lead to the big studios taking away a great amount of the control that directors once had. From the 1980s right to the present the studios became much more involved in the filmmaking process and far less willing to take on “risky” projects but rather greenlight “safer” blockbusters and “mainstream” pictures. (CS: It is largely accepted that Star Wars being a global phenomenon played a massive part in the change of strategy as well. As for Heaven's Gate, it has gone from once deemed one of the worst movies ever to hidden gem. Recent articles believe it was a case of the reporting focusing on the production troubles and many going in expecting to see a disaster. Like many movie, time has been much kinder on it.)

Lady In the Water (M. Night Shyamalan): The massive critical and financial success of The Sixth Sense turned Shyamalan into a superstar director that some called the next Spielberg. He ended up getting a great deal of creative control over his next few pictures and the posters often sold his name more than the title. Unbreakable and Signs weren’t as big of hits, but still were box office successes and were popular among most critics. (CS: Both movies now have a huge base of fans and defenders.)

He started getting a reputation for relying a little too heavily on the twist ending, but was getting praise for his skill at creating unique and engrossing atmospheres in his thrillers. The Village turned out to be an absurd movie with yet another ridiculous twist ending, but was yet another financial success. 

Things all changed with Lady in the Water, which was unmercifully panned for being contrived and silly while also failing to find an audience. It was Shyamalan’s first real bomb, and many of his critics started using it as proof that he’d been exposed as a hack filmmaker. He still was able to make a box office success with The Happening, but it suffered even harsher critical backlash. This is a case where Shyamalan may have still been able to make profitable movies (The Last Airbender grossed $320 million internationally), but his reputation was now extremely damaged and studios were far less willing to give him big projects. (CS: This one took a happier turn with the low budget The Visit being a decent hit that allowed him to make the even bigger hit Split. Now, he is back full-force as big studio director that makes movies that garner buzz before their release.)

The biggest example of how far his stock has fallen was during the marketing of After Earth where it seemingly tried to avoid acknowledging he was the picture’s director. Films are no longer being sold on his name, and it almost seems to be perceived as a detriment to have his name attached even if he only has a few actual box office bombs. Out of all the directors on this list, Shyamalan likely has the best chance to recover, but he won’t ever be able to recapture the great fame he achieved in the late 1990s. (CS: He has a much better reputation again, but movies like Old won't help him stay on top.) 

Batman & Robin (Joel Schumacher): Okay, okay, okay, I can hear you all from here shouting in protest over trying to fit Schumacher into the category of “great director.” He may have never made anything resembling a masterpiece, but he has several pictures that were box office and cult hits. St. Elmo’s Fire, The Lost Boys, Flatliners, Falling Down, The Client, Batman Forever, and A Time to Kill aren’t necessarily critical darlings, but they have some strong followings (and several are pretty underrated and entertaining pictures). (CS: I'll totally defend Schumacher as a great director for what he was trying to make, which were popcorn munching crowd pleasers.)  His pictures almost always made money, and the studios had a great deal of faith in him, as was proven when Warner Brothers passed him the mantel after Tim Burton left the Batman franchise. 

It would have been a safe bet that he’d get a steady line of big budget pictures to helm for many more years based off his strong track record. All that faith evaporated with the “Batsuit with nipples” disaster known as Batman & Robin. To be fair, it must be mentioned the picture kicked off with a marvelous (for the time) $42 million opening and ended up with a total gross of $107 million. The picture ended up not making anywhere near the very high expectations and didn’t even manage to get on the top ten highest grossers of the year (all previous Batman pictures had been in the top three for their respective year). 

On top of not matching expectations financially, critics ripped it to shreds and most of the die-hard fans were even quite disappointed with the final product. The picture was such a mess that Warner Brothers quickly scrapped plans for a fifth picture, the already in pre-development stage Batman Triumphant. It takes a major apocalypse for a studio to actually put a major franchise on a back burner. (CS: Actually, big studio movies being delayed, pushed, or scrapped is about as common as a cough.) The picture scared the studio from continuing the franchise and it remained on the shelf for almost a decade before Christopher Nolan revived it with Batman Begins

As for Schumacher, he still has directed some major studio pictures like 8MM, Bad Company, Phone Booth, and The Number 23. His name is no longer a major draw and he hasn’t ever been given a chance to direct a major big budget picture like the Batman franchise since. If he can make a few modest hits then there is always a chance for a return to the spotlight. He has at least since apologized for Batman & Robin. (CS: Sadly, Schumacher has since passed away, but it seems like critics and fans are finally moving past Batman & Robin, and acknowledging him for the many fun movies he crafted and is now held in much higher esteem.)  

It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra): No, this is not some massive typo. Yes, I am talking about the Christmas classic that millions probably watch every single year. As I’ve noted before in this column, It’s a Wonderful Life was actually a box office flop and panned by critics when it first came out. 

Prior to this picture, Capra was one of the major directors that every studio wanted. It was believed he created must-see events that were always destined to be box office smashes. The initial failure of It’s a Wonderful Life not only forced him to sell off his independent studio, Liberty Films, but no other major studio wanted to work with him anymore. It was believed he had lost his touch, and so studios weren’t willing to take the “gamble”. Capra was forced to create movies and programming for television, which would have been a massive step down when the medium was still in its infancy. (CS: Now, every major director wants to make a series.) 

The picture was considered too corny and unrealistic when it first came out. Most critics felt it was several steps below his previous highly acclaimed pictures. Several decades later, it is now considered a heart-warming classic, and is probably Capra’s most well-remember and popular picture. It will always be the movie that essentially forced the end of his marvelous filmmaking career. (CS: It is pretty wild how many movies are now considered classics that were not well-received at the time, and how many movies that were huge hits when they were released that now are mostly forgotten.) 

What are some other directors that you really miss? Or do you think some of these directors will be given a chance to create another big hit? Let me know in the comments. (CS: Cimino also sadly passed away since this was initially posted. And Capra passed away in 1991, but made his last feature film in 1961.)