Thank God For Niches: 15 Directors Who Tried To Branch Out Of Their Genres (And Failed)

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Many moviegoers may not realize that filmmakers can be typecast just as easily as Hollywood stars. Getting out of a behind-the-camera niche can prove difficult for filmmakers regardless of age or experience. It is generally audiences and critics who hold the keys to a filmmaker’s genre liberation. Pleasing both can prove to be a tall order indeed. Don’t believe me? Here are 15 directors who tried to branch out of their niche genres who didn’t quite make the jump.

James Wan

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In 2007, Saw director James Wan attempted to break out of the horror genre with Death Sentence. The vigilante action thriller had Kevin Bacon as a father out to avenge the gangland slaying of his son. The film was met with largely negative reviews and performed poorly at the box office. Wan bounced back in 2011 with his haunted house horror movie Insidious, which went on to become the most profitable film of the year.

M. Night Shyamalan

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After The Happening failed to revive the popularity of his Twilight Zone style of filmmaking, M. Night Shyamalan opted to adapt the popular anime series Avatar: The Last Airbender as a feature film. The Last Airbender received scathing reviews by both critics and franchise fans alike. It also garnered controversy for casting Caucasian actors in the roles of several non-white characters. Despite a very successful box office take internationally, the film was dismissed by North American theatergoers and is considered a failure domestically.

Wes Craven

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Hot on the heels of his blockbuster Scream films, Wes Craven was given carte blanche to make a film of his choosing. What followed was Music of the Heart, an inspirational inner-city drama starring Meryl Streep and Angela Bassett. The film received mostly positive reviews, though its low box-office take would put Craven back within the horror/thriller genre to make Scream 3 the following year.

Joe Wright

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Joe Wright, the Academy Award magnet known for teary-eyed period dramas like Atonement, shook things up in 2011 with Hanna. The action-thriller reunited the director with child actress Saoirse Ronan, who plays the film’s assassin protagonist. Though the film received mostly positive reviews, it would make just a little over its modest budget domestically. Wright has since returned to the world of dramas with this year’s Anna Karenina.

Ang Lee

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In 2003 Universal chose Ang Lee as the director of Hulk. The decision came hot off the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which married the director’s penchant for melodrama with fantastically realized Hong Kong fight sequences. The studio did not bank on Lee’s version of Hulk emphasizing melodrama over superhero theatrics, making for a film that alienated audiences and divided critics. The film failed to make its budget back domestically, causing Lee to retreat back into the world of intimate dramas with Brokeback Mountain and Marvel to reboot the series entirely.

Jim Sheridan


In 2011, six-time Academy Award nominated director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, The Field) made his first foray into psychological horror with Dream House. The film, which featured Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, and Naomi Watts, was apparently seized and reshaped by studio Morgan Creek. Sheridan tried to get his name taken off of it, the principal actors refused to do press for the film, and the resulting Dream House failed to scare up a profit or good reviews.

Francis Ford Coppola

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Francis Ford Coppola has juggled a wide variety of genres throughout his career, but it was his Jack that proved he couldn’t always keep everything in the air. The film, a family fantasy comedy in the vein of Big, featured an ensemble cast headlined by Robin Williams in the title role. Though it would prove to be a minor box office success, Jack’s inability to mine laughs from a tragic concept (that of a child with a disease that accelerates his aging) sparked a major critical backlash. Coppola would attempt to bounce back from the disappointment with The Rainmaker, but it would also disappoint. He wouldn’t make another film for nearly ten years.

Zack Snyder

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The 300 and The Watchman director stepped away from his signature comic book action style of filmmaking to take on Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole. The animated family fantasy diverged from most films about talking anthropomorphic animals by sporting a dark, serious tone. Despite this innovation, the film would receive mixed reviews due to its predictable screenplay. To make matters worse, the large budgeted film underperformed in the box office, becoming one of Warner Bros. biggest 2010 disappointments.

Sam Raimi

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Before he was directing big-budget superhero flicks like Spider-Man, Sam Raimi made a name for himself by melding action, suspense, and comedy in films like The Evil Dead and A Simple Plan. This made For Love of the Game an unlikely choice for the director in 1998. The Kevin Costner baseball drama may have proved too much of a departure for Raimi, as it became a critical and box office bomb (signaling the decline of Costner’s box office streak). The director would return to horror-thrillers with The Gift before gaining control of the tent pole Spider-Man franchise.

David Lynch

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After receiving success for his surrealistic Eraserhead and The Elephant Man, David Lynch was enlisted to bring Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel Dune to the big screen. The film was hyped as the next Star Wars and was meant to start up a franchise in the same vein. Dune ended up being one of the biggest critical and box office bombs of 1984. In later interviews, Lynch would report the film marked him “selling out” and lamented it within his filmography.

Steven Spielberg

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While it may seem like Steven Spielberg can handle any genre, the director has long had a hard time making successful comedies. 1941 began this streak. The film, a World War II movie spoof starring Saturday Night Live-luminaries John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, failed to bring in the critical praise and huge box office of the director’s previous films (Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind). It stands as one of the few disappointments of the director’s career and Spielberg hasn’t returned to broad comedy since.

Rolland Emmerich

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From the director of Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012 comes Shakespeare like you’ve never seen him before… in a political thriller? Yes, Anonymous was director Roland Emmerich’s period piece pet project a film that posited the tagline “Was Shakespeare a fraud?” Audiences, however, were not interested in the disaster film director tackling such a premise. Despite mixed reviews, the film barely made half its budget back.

Kenneth Branagh

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In 1994, Kenneth Branagh took a departure from his usual comedy/drama fare to direct Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The horror film was intended to follow on the success of Francis Ford Coppola’s similar Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The resulting film was an all-too-ambitious, mega-budgeted attempt at delivering a faithful version of the horror novel to the big screen. In the process, Branagh would come under fire from critics for his inability to manage the scope of his film. Though Robert De Niro’s performance as The Monster was praised, the rest of the film was mostly panned and died a fast death in the U.S. box office.

Spike Lee

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Spike Lee would branch out from dramas and satire in 2008 with his first war film, Miracle at St. Anna. While Lee would garner praise for his attempt to tell a World War II tale through from the perspective of an African American platoon, the film itself would be weighed down by controversy over its historical inaccuracies and the director’s public feud with Flags of Our Fathers director Clink Eastwood. Miracle at St. Anna would take in only a fraction of its budget domestically and received predominately negative reviews from critics.

Barry Levinson


Earlier this year Rain Man director Barry Levinson took a major turn away from his usual output of comedies and dramas. The Bay is a found footage horror film about a plague of mutant parasites that infects a small coastal town. Despite largely favorable reviews, The Bay’s limited theatrical opening failed to bring in enough cash to spread to a nationwide release. As such, it has largely been lost to mainstream audiences among a dirge of similar “found footage” straight-to-video horror films.

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