Not so long ago, Hollywood studios were reluctant to look beyond a list of 20 high-profile directors to helm the big blockbusters. And when those veterans were busy, the majors had to put projects on hold until the directors freed up. That was hardly practical, so the studios began looking outside the Top 20. Now more than ever, the moguls are taking a chance on names so low profile that the Industry has barely heard of them. Today, there are two more examples. I’ve learned that New Line president Toby Emmerich is setting Bandslam director Todd Graff to helm Damn Yankees, a big-scale musical that has Jake Gyllenhaal and Jim Carrey attached. And Paramount’s Adam Goodman is giving screenwriter Etan Cohen the chance to make his feature directorial debut on Daddy’s Home, a comedy that will star Will Ferrell and Ed Helms.
So why would studios entrust their tentpoles to relative newcomers? Because of Zombieland‘s Ruben Fleischer, X-Men‘s Bryan Singer and even Charlie’s Angels‘ McG. All were instances of the majors taking a chance on emerging talent and enjoying big box office rewards because of it. McG, for instance, was plucked by Sony Pictures chief Amy Pascal from the music video biz. Now she’s gone obscure once again by tapping (500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb to reboot her Spider-Man franchise.
Plus, there are perks. Not only can the studios pay these ingenue directors far less than the veterans who demand first-dollar gross. But the moguls can also exercise more control over the product and the talent. It can dictate what length or rating the film has to come in at, as well as take back final cut. In addition, the studio can often grab a future option on directors before they get hot. Besides, a lot of very experienced helmers have had more than their fair share of flops.
Nor do the directors necessarily have to be young. Todd Graff is 50, but Damn Yankees is the biggest directing assignment he’s ever snagged. Graff entered the biz as an actor, part of The Electric Company troupe as well as films like Garry Marshall’s The Flamingo Kid and James Cameron’s The Abyss. But he also began his career as a Broadway stage thesp who received a Tony nomination for the musical Baby. Graff’s debut as a film director was the musical Camp. And he also helmed 13, a Jason Robert Brown stage musical that played at LA’s Mark Taper Forum. Still, big blockbuster musicals are hard to pull off, and Graff might seem a surprising choice given that his 2009 Bandslam grossed only $5.2 million. But that film received glowing reviews — and one insider infamously complained to Nikki Finke (Behind The Scenes Of ‘Bandslam’ & Summit) that Summit mistakenly marketed it as High School Musical when the pic was much edgier. I’m told Graff will rewrite a first draft of Damn Yankees by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel for New Line’s Hairspray-producing team of Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. What’s planned is a contemporary version of the 1955 Tony-winning musical’s story of a middle-aged fan who makes a Faustian bargain to sell his soul in order to become a slugger who’ll lead his hapless favorite team to the World Series. Though neither deal is set yet, Gyllenhaal is attached to play the slugger, Carrey to play the devil. There is also a plum role for a young actress to play Lola, the temptress sent by the devil to seduce the ballplayer.
On Daddy’s Home for Paramount, 35-year-old Etan Cohen gets his directing shot after riding a hot streak as a writer. He drafted a Men in Black 3 script that turned a long-gestating threequel into a priority at Sony’s Columbia Pictures. And his other script credits include Madagascar 2, Tropic Thunder, and a Sherlock Holmes comedy with Will Ferrell attached to play Watson and Sacha Baron Cohen to play Holmes. In Daddy’s Home, a script that was written by Brian Burns then polished by Adam McKay and Chris Henchy, a woman marries a wild guy (Ferrell), but tires of his man-child ways after they have kids, divorces him, and marries a bland but stable spouse (Helms). When Ferrell comes back into her life to bond with their kids, he turns the new household upside down. Producing will be Gary Sanchez Productions, which Ferrell runs with McKay and Henchy.