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Director's Influence on a Film's Success and Box Office Revenue

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 5000 words Published: 1st Sep 2021

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To what extent is a film’s director the most influential on the success and box office revenue of their films?

The film industry is arguably the highest budget, influential industries to exist. Film can create fantasy worlds, depict heart-warming love stories, re - tell history and capture the hearts and emotions of spectators. But this leads to the major question of how this happens and what makes some films so much better than others. Film is something I have always been interested in and after taking film studies it made me even more interested in the production of a film and who is the most influential. Therefore, I am going to research and explore the process a film goes through before it makes the big screen; whether the director is the biggest and most vocal influence on the film or whether other roles such as the editor or makeup artist have a more notable role when considering the reasoning behind the success of a film. I aim to compare roles on set and decide their importance in the outcome of critic reviews, profit and audience response.

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When thinking about influential roles in production, the first that springs to mind is of course the director. The clue is in the name – they direct the film, meaning they have a lot of control over the outcome. Their style and outcomes whether they be funny, violent or use a specific type of editing, become associated with their name and then eventually become a name you look out for when     deciding to watch a film because you particularly like their style. Whether it be Edgar Wright’s humorous twist on classic genres or Stephen Spielberg’s action-filled, other- worldly blockbusters, directors’ style is something that remains important to the success of a film. Quentin Tarantino is one of the most influential and iconic directors of all time. He became famous for not only his use of gory violence and humour in his films, but also him breaking of the boundaries of filmmaking. For example, in one of his most successful films, Pulp Fiction there is a scene when Mia and Vincent pull up to Jack rabbit slims and Mia tells Vincent “don’t be a square” whilst making a box gesture with her hands. A physical illustration of a square appears on the screen at the same time. This is very experimental and makes the viewer aware that this film has been edited. However, we do not seem to become detached from the story because of the subtle - humoured dialogue such as the conversation about the foot massage, Vincent trying to control his urge to romantically pursue Mia (the boss ‘wife) or the use of cinematography. For example, the low angle shot of Jules and Vincent opening a trunk. There are many other examples in Tarantino’s films such as his narrative structure in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the black and white bloodbath in Kill Bill Volume 1 or the intimate eye contact shots in Inglorious Basterds. Tarantino acts as a director that backs up the view that a director is the most important influence on the success and box office revenue of his films. He has, over the years, developed a reputation for brilliant, lengthy, violent films which usually appeal to both men and women. I created an online survey in which around 200 people took part in and it is something I will reference throughout my research because of the differing views and opinions. When asking them what made them go and see a Tarantino film, 49.7% said the director (which was the majority). This acts as evidence of the idea that the director does become the most important person, not only in terms of the actual direction of the film, but the reason that they go and see it in the first place. Considering the other options in the survey were the casting (e.g. Brad Pitt/Uma Thurman) and the violence/action, which are also important influences on the film, the results demonstrate in an even more evident way that Tarantino (the director) is deemed the most important role in the majority of cases. However, I also realised that this answer could be directly due to Tarantino’s reputation and not representative of the role of directors in general, and so I also asked which role they thought was most important in production/on set as a whole. The options were the director, the cast, the producers/editors and the makeup, costume and hair team. Again, the director overruled the other options by a high 48%. The fact that the general answer amongst spectators is the director is very telling of their significance and importance.  I think the director is an especially important role in the success of a film from all different perspectives. They are influential on the creative direction of the film and implant shot types, lighting, music etc which is never an accident and is always used to create an emotional response from the viewer. Therefore, they are responsible for audience reviews and consensus of how non-film experts respond. Directors are influential in some cases for box office revenue as the director’s reputation can often influence whether the audience go and see a film, or even buy it because they have trust in the director’s style and reputation. Lastly, they are particularly important in terms of critics’ views because most of the time, all credit or blame goes on the director because they have a lot of power over the outcome of the film. Therefore, critics will use their name to talk about the film’s success from a critical point of view and effect whether people go and see it in the future, and therefore damages of heightens the box office revenue of the film.

The second highest answer was the casting of a film with a high 29%. Tarantino has said in the past that “People come up to me and say, ‘you write great dialogue’ and I feel like a fraud for taking credit for it. It’s the characters who write the dialogue”. (Shone, 2019)[1]Here he recognises that spectators often credit him for the success of the film, its characters and the viewers emotional responses, but he credits the actors’ performances for a large part of that. Tarantino’s latest release Once upon a time in Hollywood is a love letter to Hollywood with two brilliant leading performances and characters, a great screenplay, and while it is self- indulgent and lacks in a complete narrative, it is still extremely entertaining and did very well in the box office. It made a worldwide total of $371,980,270 with a $90,000,000 budget. In my survey I asked why they thought Once upon a Time in Hollywood did well despite a lot of the responses saying it was confusing and a few people said that the cast created positive advertisement which led people to want to see their performance. This led me to further explore the influence of actors not only in the reason for watching a film, but their creative influence on the film too. The idea of actors being important to the success of a film started in the 1950s with the introduction of the Star System.  Under this system production companies, such as paramount pictures, scouted people (some not even actors) to star in their films and develop them as personalities that people became attached to and would therefore go and see the films they starred in. They would have complete control over what the actors said, who they dated, where they went and even their appearance. Some production companies would even make the actors live in a controlled and monitored space where they could give them curfews of what time to get back from nights out, so that they would appear innocent in the media. This is so that spectators would align with the actors, like their personalities, build a reputation for the sort of films they appear in and therefore make them an asset to the success of the film. This sort of idea has continued through to the modern day, although less extreme. The idea of actors building a reputation and therefore knowing what to expect from a film is still very much present. For example, Tom Cruise almost all of the time appears in action movies and is known for doing his own stunts. This sort of reputation means that spectators can expect an action – packed, tense movie. Similarly, if Hugh Grant appears in a movie, we can usually expect a heart – warming romance about a bumbling English man falling in love. When a film is advertised, we usually remember the names and faces we see on screen. In contrast to the previous results of the survey saying that the director is the most important person on set, out of about 200 people 79% said that when a film is advertised they look for actors names, rather than directors, suggesting that despite a director being very influential on the outcome of the film, they actually hold very little responsibility in the box office revenue because people look for actors names, rather than directors and therefore without the actors, the film will be less successful in terms of revenue. Actors are also majorly responsible for our emotional response to a film.  If we cannot become convinced and emersed in their performance, we usually come out of the film feeling disheartened. In this respect, actors become responsible for critic and audience reviews and responses to the film, and therefore influential on whether we go to watch it. For example, in 2019, we saw the new release ‘1917’ experiment with a new style of war film, following two British soldiers who complete a life – threating mission they had been assigned by their general. When looking at the reviews, a lot of critics commented on the experimental way of filming and how it appears to be filmed in one continuous shot, but majorly the role of the actors. One audience review amongst others from rotten tomatoes said, “what’s remarkable is the total immersion into the year 1917, particularly with the performance of the lead actors”. (M.W, 2020) [2] The fact that the reviews talk about how they felt immersed into the film by the actors suggests that they are integral to creating a story that the audience can lose themselves in and come out having an emotional response to. When asking my survey what their favourite film of 2019 was, 51.4% said that it was ‘The Joker’. Similarly, to ‘1917’, this film relies heavily on the performance of lead actors as it follows one man who is bullied and disregarded from society and consequently, he descends into madness. When asking what made them go and see it a huge amount of people said it was due to wanting to see Joaquin Phoenix’s performance and only one person said it was due to the director Todd Phillips. One person elaborated on this and said that “Joaquin’s performance made the film. He paid homage to the Batman franchise and was undoubtedly the reason the film did so well”. It is obvious that Joaquin’s performance was excellent, and this reflected in his Oscar win for ‘Best actor’. It is a fact that the actor’s performances are very influential in not only our emotional responses to the film, but also the reason we see it in the first place. For the most part, audiences gain trust in an actors ability and therefore can expect to see a good film if they feature in it. However, there were a lot of other wins that The Joker had that were not to do with performance, such as Best achievement in cinematography.[3] (Joker Awards , 2019)This leads me onto another influential roles in film production, the cinematographer.

Cinematography is an integral part of the enjoyment of film. It creates meaning, visual excellence and helps to create genre, and emotional response. The cinematographer is essentially responsible for the film’s artistic decisions and does the lighting, colour and framing for every shot of the film. Cinematography is a huge part of the way we enjoy films. We rely on film to carry us to places we could not dream of, or to see things we could possibly never see ourselves, like space as an example. Often, when watching a trailer for a film, we are drawn in by not only the storyline, but by the way it looks. If a film looks pleasing on the eye, we are more inclined to watch it. Similarly, cinematography can help us gage the genre of a film and therefore either invites us to watch it or not. For example, a horror may have darker lighting and chaotic/distorted framing or a western may have saturated wide landscape shots. Although this may not be obvious to the everyday audience, sub- consciously we notice these indicators when watching trailers and know what the genre will be and therefore can make an informed decision as to whether we want to watch it. One Film 101 masterclass article suggests that cinematography is essential to creating a visual narrative. It says, “Each visual element that appears on screen, a.k.a. the mise-en-scene of a film, can serve and enhance the story—so it is the cinematographer’s responsibility to ensure that every element is cohesive and support the story.” [4](Film 101: What Is Cinematography and What Does a Cinematographer Do?, 2020) This quote alone comments on the importance of the cinematographer in terms of making the film easy to understand and cohesive. Without this, the film becomes chaotic and audiences will lose interest if they cannot remain engaged with the narrative. Although cinematographers are not largely credited for their work and are not usually names to search for when watching films, they still have a contribution to the film’s success in terms of the engagement from the audience and the overall appearance of a film. When it comes to the visual narrative of a film, there are many other roles that remain important as well as the cinematographer. Firstly, the makeup and hair team.

 For a lot of movies, the appearance of the characters helps not only to create a visual narrative, but also to create a complete immersion into that world. Examples such as Doug Jones’ fantastical work on Pan’s Labyrinth, Wes Craven’s classic horror makeup and Matt Rose’s iconic creations in Beetlejuice and How the grinch stole Christmas all required highly skilled teams to immerse the audience into those fantasy worlds. During lockdown, I started listening to the Makeup Artist Magazine Podcasts online which is largely interviews with industry professionals and people currently working in the field, recently I listened to makeup artist Vivian Baker’s podcast, ‘Non-sexual intimacy, Beards and the Yellow Brick Road’. Her approach to making her characters is ‘personal and intimate’[5] (Baker), finding a character through a process of experimentation rather than setting out with a character in mind, she fits the character to the film, actor and director. She is also known for her pioneering techniques in gelatine and silicone, which she mastered in order to be able to suit prosthetics to the female body type as opposed to dermaplast and foam traditionally used on men in what was, at the time, a male dominated field. From listening to Bakar, it is obvious that a lot of time, effort and creative skills are needed to create believable and ethereal characters, which for a lot of movies, is integral to the plot. For example, Pan’s Labyrinth’s Fauno and The Pale Man are both played by the same actor because of his height and ability to create expressions whilst wearing prosthetics. However, his roles rely largely on these animatronic prosthetics which take months to make. These come solely from makeup and hair teams who worked tirelessly to create these characters from scratch and emulate the director’s vision. However, as Vivian Baker says, a lot of it relies on creating a character through experimentation rather than strictly following the director’s vision. This means that makeup artists and their teams have a good deal of creative freedom when it comes to the outcome of the characters they are creating and consequently the visual narrative. Masterclass writes “Like many behind-the-scenes professionals in the entertainment industry, movie makeup artists know they’ve done a good job when their work goes unnoticed. The goal of the hair and makeup department is for moviegoers to see a terrifying army of undead zombies rather than an army of extras wearing pounds of makeup and prosthetics.”[6] (What Is a Film Makeup Artist? The Role of Makeup Artists on Film and Television Productions, 2020). This article which comes from industry professionals suggests that makeup is extremely important in creating a cohesive and immersive film. The importance of the hair and makeup teams on set is seen through many films which rely on creating fantasy characters or realistic wounds which allow the audience to become immersed in the storyline and forget that they are watching a film which has been edited, tweaked and in the making for months. Similarly, in Star Wars the characters created often look obviously prosthetic or animatronic. The first films start with these basic prosthetics because of the lack of resources at the time, but as the franchise developed and came into the modern world of computer special effects, it faced a decision as whether to stay with the original look and nostalgic feel of the films or to create more advanced characters. They chose however, to still create these plastic looking characters which ultimately, we know are not real, but they are very emulative of the franchise itself. From this, we can see that make up and prosthetics remains important when it comes to making films organic and, in some cases, capturing the essence of its beginning. Creative teams do not just stop there.  Costume design is also an important part in creating a visual narrative which does not break from the genre, setting, or time period. In order to allow the audience to recognise the time period and to immerse themselves within that story they must be convinced by every aspect of the film, starting with the costumes. For example, Les Misérables is set in 1832 after the start of the French Revolution. The film relies heavily on historical context and comments on events of the time and the actor’s costumes act as indicators of their roles. The poor characters like Gavroche and the young Cosette wear rags, the prostitutes wear corsets and the richer of the characters wear tailcoats. All these costumes dictate the characters positions in society in terms of their class, wealth and relation to other characters. For example, the rich like Marius should not be standing in revolution with poorer characters like Gavroche. Similarly, costume design can be used to indicate when action is about to occur in the plot for example Superman’s change into his super suit from his mundane clothes. The contrast between the dull colours of his everyday clothes to the vibrance of his suit allows the audience to recognise that the plot is about to become quite literally, more vibrant. Similarly, in James Bond and Men In Black suits are used throughout to create a sense of professional severity. Most of the action scenes are shot in suits and therefore, through the power of association, we align them with action and danger. Although costume design is a role that is rarely recognised, it is integral to creating a cohesive and understandable plot and, in some cases, makes it strongly obvious to the audience the characters roles, personalities and relationships to other characters etc. Due to all this evidence, I think that the creative team behind a film are very influential roles in terms of the audience’s response to the film and its success. The article ‘Clothes make the musical: The costumes that coloured Les Misérables’ summarises this idea perfectly. It states “A character’s life story can be relayed from their wardrobe, a secret betrayed in their pockets, their status confirmed by a pair of shoes. In the same way a glance can communicate a stream of dialogue, an image in film truly can portray the depth of a thousand words.”[7] (Zoppi, 2013)

Another particularly important and growing role when it comes to creating a film is the computer. The evolution of the computer and special effects has created an industry which is starting to rely heavily on a computer's ability. Many films nowadays are filmed in a large studio with green screens and then edited with visual effects to create breath-taking battles or awe-striking worlds e.g. Avatar’s Pandora. Visual effects are becoming a prominent necessity when creating a film and although it is often dictated by the director as to whether these visual effects should be included, it raises the question as to whether the director is needed at all. It allows the audience to question whether the director is as influential to a film success as perhaps they used to be, or whether visual effects are what draws the audience in. In continuation with the results from my survey, when asking why they thought that Avengers endgame was the most successful/highest grossing film of all time the answers had a clear consensus – the visual effects. To summarise the answers amongst a lot of the participators, they said that the end of the franchise was anticipated to be epic in both tying loose ends and the visual effects used. None of the people said that the director was the reason they went to see the film or the reason it did so well. In fact, one person said, “the large budget sets it up as a film with crazy special effects”, disregarding the directors’ role in the film at all. The article “Auter vs computer: The complexity of Visual effects” says “as technology has progressed, VFX has only become more profitable, complex and difficult for directors to control.” [8](Teich, 2020) Suggesting that directors are starting to have less of an influence over the outcome of these high budget films as the Visual effects are starting to dominate. Sonya Teich also says that “The financial success of films like Star Wars turned studios towards a strategy of event films. These productions didn’t rely on specific directors, but on spectacle and the worldwide distribution only a prominent studio could mount.” (Teich, 2020) This article essentially suggests that the Hollywood Auter was no longer needed and that a trend of financial success amongst spectacle films became prominent and therefore visual effects have become more common. The hard-hitting fact is that directors are not as integral as they used to once be when people trusted the works of reliable directors such as Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick. Now, people tend to be drawn in by visual spectacles and immersing themselves in a world quite opposite to theirs. There is still a variety of genres which still rely on a director’s vision such as romances, coming of age stories or dramas. These rely on direction in terms of actors, cinematography and sound, but I think it is important to recognise that some of the biggest grossing profit films are one which are visual effect spectacles.

Another visual role which is rarely given recognition is the role of the editor who takes all the footage from the movie, cuts it down, makes sure that the film is continuous and cohesive, but also that it fits to the creative needs of the director. For example, Edgar Wright’s films are filled with quick jump cuts and montage sequences to show the passing of time and add a comedic element to the editing which adds to the overall chaos his films project. Editing, in some cases, is a key part to the director’s style or adds to the plot in some way. In Shaun of the dead (Wright, 2004), there is a montage sequence at the beginning of the film where is getting ready for work by brushing his teeth putting his tie and name tag on and drinking his coffee etc. This sequence, with the addition of crash zooms and diegetic sound effects, emphasises how stuck in routine Shaun is. The exciting form in contrast with Shaun's mundane life draws attention to it. These quick editing techniques are important in setting the scene and characterising leading roles in the films. Furthermore, editing is used to replicate earlier sequences to show repetition and difference. Again, using Shaun of the dead as an example, we see two repeated sequences one at the very beginning and one at the very end. The first shows a slobbish household where the mise – en – scene is cluttered, and rubbish lies all over the floor. There is also an opening shot where Shaun’s bare feet are seen to be walking like a zombie. The second shows a clean, organised household where the mise-en-scene is vibrant, fresh and relaxing. There is also the closing shot where Shaun’s feet are wearing socks this time, as he continues to walk like a zombie. The similarity in editing from the first to last sequence allows us to recognise change. We can see through these sequences that Sean has matured and his propian quest has allowed him to get what he wanted. Another famous example of editing is in The Godfather baptism sequence. (Coppola, 1972) We see Michael (Al Pachino) being baptised as the new godfather, intercut with the harrowing assassination of his enemies. Through the power of Association, the audience is allowed a cathartic response through this traumatic and haunting juxtaposition of the evil killings intercut with Michael’s vow to renounce the powers of evil. Editing in this film is crucial to the audiences lasting emotion after they film has ended and therefore the success of the film in terms of the audience’s response. As well as editing sometimes having a significant meaning and contribution to the plot, it is also essential for continuity. Without the editor, every film would lack narrative and be chaotic in form. The idea of continuity editing is to make the film seamless, so it does not feel like we are watching an edited piece of video. For example, a character looking towards another character and the angle changing. The transition must be seamless, and the character must move from one shot to the next without a pause or repetition. If this were to happen, it would jolt the audience into being released from that immersive world and recognising that they are watching a film when the main aim of cinema is to connect. I think an editor is an important role in creating a seamless easy- viewing film and create meaning which effects the success of the film in terms of the audience’s response. In terms of financial success, an editor is probably the least important role because although it helps to connect when watching the film, editing is not something you pick up on when watching trailers or deciding whether to go and see a film because, most of the time it is seamless and cannot be recognised by the naked eye.

The last hugely important role when it comes to the creation of a film is the producer. They essentially oversee the film from concept to distribution in cinemas or theatres. They manage the film and makes sure they stay within budget, depending on the directors demands. Firstly, the producer finds a story worth producing whether it be a real- life event, history or fictional, and then negotiates with the owner of that source to ask for permission to create a film about it. Next, once the film’s rights have been bought, producers pitch their ideas to either a studio or employer in the hopes of being given a budget. (Zeke, 2015)[9] It is then up to the producers to manage this budget and make sure that none of the roles mentioned previously in the essay and others are overspending. The producer, for the most part, hires the staff. It is their choice of director and screenwriter which ultimately influence the films creative direction. This is perhaps one of the most integral roles to the financial success of a film as it makes sure that there will be a guaranteed profit from it. This means that producers are at the heart of each film, and despite getting little attention, are especially important.  In addition to the fact that they manage the budget and staff, they are also essential to distributing the film, getting it press attention and making sure they reach the intended profit margins. For example, the producer may team up with distributor companies such as Netflix or Amazon to release their film for a percentage of the profit. The producer is responsible for getting distributors and audiences interested through advertisement, streaming and Q&A’s and therefore should be held accountable for the financial success of a movie, but not the audience’s response.

[1] Tarantino a retrospective – Tom Shone.

[2] Rotten Tomatoes, Audience reviews for 1917.

[3] IMDB Joker Awards

[4] Film 101: What Is Cinematography and What Does a Cinematographer Do? Article by Masterclass, 2020.

[5] Non-sexual intimacy, Beards and the Yellow Brick Road Podcast

[6] What Is a Film Makeup Artist? The Role of Makeup Artists on Film and Television Productions Article By Masterclass, 2020

[7] Clothes make the musical: The costumes that coloured Les Misérables, 2013, Lois Zoppi

[8] Auter vs Computer: The frightening complexity of visual effects, 2020, Sonya Teich.

[9] So What Exactly IS A Film Producer? Article, Zeke, 2015


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