I haven’t yet seen Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, and I can’t claim to know how it will do at the box office this weekend; predictions suggest that the director’s take on Noah’s Ark will do at least as well as, say, Evan Almighty. Even if it only does as well as Evan Almighty, though, the fact that we’re even discussing whether a Darren Aronofsky movie will make $25 million or $35 million on its first weekend, the same weekend that Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel takes his crazy-high per-screen-average show to wide release, indicates that something has changed, even as superheroes, animation, and YA franchises still top the charts.
Aronofsky and Anderson can be filed alongside Spike Jonze, David O. Russell, Alexander Payne, Michel Gondry, Paul Thomas Anderson, Sofia Coppola, and maybe even Christopher Nolan: the auteurs who followed the Spike Lee/Coen Brothers/Steven Soderbergh/Quentin Tarantino indie boom. Most of them made their first and/or breakthrough films in the back half of the 90s, though a few went a little earlier (Fincher) or later (Gondry). Only a few of them collaborate with each other, but they often seem to work oddly in sync: Jonze, Payne, Russell, Aronofsky, and PTA all took extended breaks for chunks of the aughts, often as they labored over dream projects like The Fountain or Where the Wild Things Are. But in the last few years, it seems like most of them are over their humps; slowly but surely, that crew has kinda-sorta taken over mainstream American movies.
There’s been Oscar evidence; Jonze won Best Original Screenplay earlier this month, while Russell and Payne have become routine nominees. Perhaps even more striking, though, is that many of these directors now boast decent box-office track records, belying the Hollywood maxim that making movies by and for adults isn’t worthwhile. Christopher Nolan and David Fincher lead this pack, but of course they’ve been on Hollywood studio tracks for most of their careers. They’re nothing to sneeze at, but it goes further. Hardcore fans might carp over the mainstreamization of David O. Russell, but his movies are still recognizably his, and he’s had an insane upward trajectory: from $93 million for The Fighter to $132 million for Silver Linings Playbook to the $150 million mark that American Hustle is about to cross. Add those to Three Kings and the grosses on I Heart Huckabees look more like the exception than the rule. Wes Anderson hadn’t made a movie that grossed over $25 million in over a decade when Moonrise Kingdom broke out in 2012; now, less than two years later, The Grand Budapest Hotel is on track to follow it past the $40 million mark, maybe higher. Both Gondry and Jonze have directed movies that made nearly $100 million in the US. Aronofsky got to make Noah in the first place because his last movie, Black Swan, made over $100 million domestic, and triple that worldwide. (It’s also the last movie Paramount is putting out until the summer, but that’s a separate bit of weirdness and, hey, Paramount puts out fewer movies than any other major studio in town and still saw fit to put out Noah! And, late last year, Nebraska!)
Of course, studios won’t often finance these movies themselves (which is probably why the AnnaPurna logo sits in front of so many high-quality high-profile movies each year), and when they do, they get antsy; Paramount and Aronofsky reportedly quarreled over the final cut of Noah before agreeing to either release Aronofsky’s preferred cut or have Aronofsky agree that the cut going out is his preferred cut. And it’s not an indie-takeover Midas effect: Her, Nebraska, and the collected works of Paul Thomas Anderson still pretty much stall out at a certain box office ceiling. But look: by most accounts Noah will make at least a certain amount of money, and by most other, unrelated accounts, it is a pretty strange and feverish (which is to say Aronofskish) movie. At very least, it’s probably not a worse investment for Paramount than Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Even on the less lucrative side of things, Nebraska not making it to $20 million doesn’t change that the combined production budgets of the last three Alexander Payne movies couldn’t be much more than $60 million, a mark that The Descendants, Sideways, and About Schmidt all handily passed. Nonetheless, studios, even the mini-major divisions like Searchlight and Focus, seem more reluctant than ever to forge long-lasting commitments and partnerships a la Eastwood and Warner Brothers. (How, after so many years, and even a run of hits in the past decade, do the Coen Brothers not have a go-to studio home?!) But Aronofsky, Anderson, Payne and company are showing just how surprisingly often those arrangements can pay off.