The old adage “more money, more problems” can certainly be applied to filmmaking. When a director is making a project that is financed by a major studio, their movie is at the mercy of a corporation. To use modern examples, sometimes this makes for beloved entertainment like The Avengers and sometimes it makes for disasters like Battleship. Of course, there is a third option– circumventing the studio system altogether. Here are 15 filmmakers who have turned their back on conventional studio filmmaking in favor pursuing more controlled working environments.
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Rather than be at the mercy of corporate studio systems, Robert Rodriguez opted to found Troublemaker Studios. Located in Austin, Texas at the former site of the Rober Mueller Municipal Airport, the studio produces projects in-house and, quite literally, in Rodriguez’s back yard. The autonomy allows the filmmaker to make films with the cooperation of studios, rather than be under their guidance.
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Even before his retirement, George Lucas was moving around the typical studio method of movie making. He founded American Zoetrope with Francis Ford Coppola and, later, Lucasfilm Ltd. While Star Wars was financed by 20th Century Fox, Lucas smartly opted to take a lower pay check in exchange for merchandising and sequel rights. This led to veritable empire (pardon the pun) of products as well as full control over the sequels/prequels. Said films were independently produced by Lucasfilm Ltd and were sold to Disney last year along with the rest of the studio. Now, for the first time since 1977, Star Wars will be produced within a studio system, giving many fans both excitement and hesitancy for the future of the franchise.
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After tackling his remake of Halloween and its sequel within the confines of a studio, Rob Zombie decided to take up with Haunted Films for his next project. Said independent production company helped bring such hits as Paranormal Activity and Insidious to the big screen on low budgets without studio interference. Lords of Salem marks the third film for the company, who offered Zombie complete creative freedom over the project. The resulting movie is getting the rockstar/director the best reviews of his career and is set for release this April. While Zombie has not confirmed he is entirely shirking the studio system, one could see him persuaded that way if the film proves to be a hit.
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George Romero is the father of the modern zombie. With independent films Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead he set a blueprint for every zombie project made since. From The Walking Dead to Warm Bodies, if it’s zombie-related, it’s riffing on Romero’s gory, creatively controlled classics. Indeed, on the few occasions Romero has attempted to integrate his gory brand of filmmaking into a studio system it has yielded unimpressive results. See Land of the Dead for proof—the film, which was financed by Universal in 2005, was a financial success and garnered minor acclaim, but a bad experience dealing with studio execs forced Romero back into the independent circuit for his follow-ups, Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead.
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Tom Shadyac directed such hit blockbuster comedies as Bruce Almighty, The Nutty Professor (1998), and Liar Liar. Then, in 2007, a bicycle accident caused the director to receive post-concussive syndrome. The event would inspired Shadyac to give away all his worldly possession, including his mansion, and pursue a simpler life making independent documentaries. His film I Am questioned scientists, environmentalists, philosophers and religious leaders about the connectivity of the human race—a far cry from the formulaic comedies he once produced.
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Terry Gilliam, director of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Twelve Monkeys, is known for waging battles with studio executives. However, he has not made a major studio project since The Brothers Grimm, which was produced by Bob and Harvey Weinstein. Of the project, Gilliam said the sibling producers “took out the joy of filmmaking.” He subsequent efforts, Tideland and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, have been low budgeted efforts Gilliam has exerted much more control over.
Woody Allen is infamous for his anti-Hollywood film aesthetic, though in the past he has been a studio favorite. While many of his films have been financed and distributed by MGM, Dreamworks, or Sony, his most recent efforts have received backing from combinations of European sources. The reason, of course, is that Allen’s films perform incredibly internationally. This marks his most recent slate of films as truly anti-Hollywood, though studios have reaped the benefits of Euro-minded films like Midnight In Paris upon distributing them during Awards season.
Melvin Van Peebles
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In 1970, Melvin Van Peebles directed the racial comedy Watermelon Man for Columbia Pictures. The film told the story of a casually racist white man who woke up one day to find out he had been transformed into a black man. Van Peebles would reject the studio’s request to turn the protagonist back into a white man by the film’s end, as it suggested living as a black man should be construed as a nightmare for whites. He kept his own ending instead and, though the film was a success, the battle with the studio embittered him. Thankfully, Van Peebeles departed the system to self-finance, produce, write, direct and star in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song. It would be counted as the very first Blaxploitation films and is ranked among the most successful indies of all time.
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Mel Gibson founded Icon in 1990 when no studio would agree to produce Franco Zeferelli’s version of Hamlet. The studio financed the film independently and soon followed suit for further projects, both Gibson vehicles and not. 2004 was the studio’s peak, just before the Gibson let his scandalous personal demons out of the bottle (figuratively and literally). That year Gibson swept the box office with Passion of the Christ. The violently transgressive work was independently produced by Gibson’s Icon Productions and self-distributed by Newmarket Films. Regardless of how you feel about Gibson as person, his studio-less business plan yielded amazing results, turning a $30 million dollar Christian film into $600 million in profits.
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After years of directing independent films only to hand them over to studios for a small profit, Kevin Smith opted to finance and self-distribute his most recent film, Red State. He announced the plan after a screening at Sundance 2010, auctioning the film off to the highest bidder who just happened to be himself. While the theatrics of the move enraged many industry players, Smith followed through with his plan. Inspired by the success of Passion of the Christ, Smith took Gibson’s plan and tweaked it by touring the film around to theaters and providing Q&As afterwards. The film eventually earned a half-million over its budget, marking it a solid financial success.
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Roger Corman made a reputation for himself as the go-to B-movie producer of the 1950s through the 70s. Following a successful stint at the now-defunct American International Pictures, Corman would depart the studio to create his own. His company, New World Pictures, produced low-budget genre movies that granted its independent filmmakers’ freedom. In the process the producer ushered such directors as Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, and James Cameron on to the big screen. The studio was later nicknamed by these talents as “The Corman School of Filmmaking.” For his efforts, Roger was awarded an honorary Academy Award last year.
Hong Kong director John Woo brought his kinetic style of filmmaking to America with such films as Face/Off and Mission Impossible: 2. Following a tepid audience response to Wind Talkers and Paycheck, Woo would return to China to direct Red Cliff I & II. The epic, feudal China set war series brought Woo back to his roots and was a smash hit internationally. Since the films’ success, Woo has yet to be lured back to Hollywood studio filmmaking.
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After producing the Hollywood flop The Final Countdown, Lloyd Kaufman decided that studio filmmaking was not for him. In 1974, Kaufman began Troma, an independent studio that brought moviegoers such distinctive titles as The Toxic Avenger, Class of Nuke ‘Em High and Cannibal: The Musical. Remarkably, Kaufman’s leadership and knack for sensational exploitation has made Troma the longest running independent studio in cinema history.
John Carpenter’s studio collaborations have yielded such classics as The Thing (1982) and Escape From New York (pictured above). However, in the late 90s the filmmaker started showing signs of fatigue. Diminishing box office returns and poor reviews led Carpenter to hang up his studio hat after the disastrous Ghosts of Mars (2001). Though he would lend his name to big budget remakes like The Fog (2004), the director would not return to filmmaking until 2010 with the low-budget thriller The Ward.
Matt Stone & Trey Parker
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The duo that has brought us South Park, Team America: World Police and the Tony Award Winning Book of Mormon has waged many studio battles due to their controversial brand of humor. After years of struggling with censorship, the duo has declared enough is enough. Inspired by studios like Lucasfilm Ltd., Stone and Parker announced they were putting their South Park profits into their own company, Important Studios. The company will self-finance their own projects without major studio interference.