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Han Solo movie split shows franchise directors face long odds

Posted June 26

Ambitious artists have long chafed at Hollywood's intrusions. Orson Welles' struggles with the studio system were legendary. Director Billy Wilder compared F. Scott Fitzgerald's adventures as a screenwriter to "a great sculptor who is hired to do a plumbing job."

Given that, the reaction to the directing team being jettisoned from the untitled Han Solo movie seems a bit hyperbolic. And while Phil Lord and Chris Miller aren't exactly auteurs on the order of Stanley Kubrick or Alfred Hitchcock -- their claims to fame include "The Lego Movie" and "21 Jump Street" -- it's safe to say that filmmakers with a particular style might be incompatible with certain quadrants of the intricate "cinematic universes" presided over by Marvel, Lucasfilm or most recently DC.

Companies like Marvel are attracted to prestige directors, hoping they will be bring something distinctive to projects. Yet they also feel -- with some justification -- that they know their franchises better than guns-for-hire that pass through their orbit, and despite hiring thoroughbreds, tend to hold the reins pretty tight.

Lord and Miller, notably, aren't the first to find that to be an uncomfortable marriage. Edgar Wright -- currently receiving rave reviews for the film "Baby Driver" -- exited Marvel's "Ant-Man" in 2014 over creative differences with the studio.

Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige objected to characterizations of the split as the "big evil studio" stepping on a director's "outside-the-box creative vision." Nevertheless, the company's success across multiple movies -- including, it should be noted, "Ant-Man" when it eventually came out, as well as the quirky "Guardians of the Galaxy" -- has reinforced a sense that Marvel has a solid grasp of what works within its formula.

This creative tension is hardly new. Studios have historically been notorious for their interference. In Welles' case, that included taking away "The Magnificent Ambersons" from the director and releasing it in an abridged form.

One can argue, though, that a higher level of studio involvement is more justified in regard to these modern blockbusters, which are not only hugely expensive to make but as much cogs in an elaborate global marketing apparatus as they are stand-alone films.

Both Marvel and Lucasfilm are now part of the vast Disney empire, which has made clear its intent to fully capitalize on those multi-billion-dollar acquisitions. Beyond stepping up the pace of movies, the studio wrings revenue from a vast assortment of businesses, including merchandising, toys and theme-park rides.

For filmmakers, servicing those priorities can be a discomfiting proposition. "Star Wars" creator George Lucas even likened selling out to Disney to handing his "kids" off to "white slavers," then subsequently apologized for that analogy.

Still, given the movie industry's evolving nature and shifting math on maximizing returns from major franchises, directors shouldn't be surprised when the message from studios is basically "We know our business better than you do."

That might not be a template for generating the riskiest or most exciting movies, and directors obviously won't like ceding control. At this point, however, the rules look pretty clear, and the odds of bucking them are about as good as successfully navigating an asteroid field.

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