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10 Directors Who Went from Indie Film to Studio Blockbuster (Part 1)

10 Directors Who Went from Indie Film to Studio Blockbuster (Part 1)

With big-budget studio films like “Ride Along” and “Divergent” starting the year off with a bang, one might be surprised to learn that the directors behind these films started out in the independent film world. But aspiring filmmakers striving to become the next Spielberg can take comfort in the fact that this is a much more common trend than one might expect. We’ve decided to a compile a list of studio films coming out in 2014 with large budgets and larger-than-life movie stars to fulfill their respective filmmakers’ dreams — ones they may not have ever imagined when climbing their way up from their indie film roots.

A notable aspect of the list is the unfortunate lack of diversity, particularly when it comes to female directors (“Monster” director Patty Jenkins was supposed to direct “Thor 2,” but it looks like it’ll be a while before we see anything of the sort).

Check out the first of three lists below. (Check back later in the week for the remaining lists.)

Director: Noam Murro
Studio Project That Came Out In 2014: “300: Rise of an Empire”
Indie Background: “Smart People”
About The Director:  Murro’s sole feature film directing credit came from Miramax’s box-office and critical flop “Smart People,” which flaunted a slew of notable actors including Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker and Ellen Page (coming off her Oscar nomination for “Juno”) in 2008. But aside from that and a TV short for HBO, the director hasn’t had much to slap onto his resume before managing to get a hold of the coveted “300” sequel for Warner Bros. It must’ve been quite a TV short, because the first film, directed by Zack Snyder, racked up a domestic gross of over $200 million dollars, making him a go-to studio director.

Director: Neil Burger
Studio Project That Came Out In 2014: “Divergent”
Indie Background: “Interview with the Assassin”
About the Director: Though Neil Burger doesn’t have too many feature directing credits to his name, his past work has demonstrated an impressive versatility. His career started out with a micro-budget conspiracy drama about JFK entitled “Interview with the Assassin” that, despite its overdone premise, gave him enough acclaim to take on the 2006 suspense drama “The Illusionist” (starring Edward Norton and Jessica Biel), the post-war drama “The Lucky Ones” (starring Rachel McAdams and Tim Robbins) and the action flick “Limitless” (starring Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro). As a result, “Divergent,” which takes him into previously uncharted science-fiction territory, is fully expected to succeed (and is already off to a winning start at the domestic box office).

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Studio Project Coming Out in 2014: “Noah” (Release Date: March 28)
Indie Background: “Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream,” “The Wrestler”
About the Director: Darren Aronofsky has never been known to make the most easily accessible films throughout his career. Ranging from drug addiction to psychosis, his themes are often difficult for mainstream audiences to swallow. That’s perhaps why he’s been working in the indie film world. But with “Black Swan” managing to boost him over the $100 million box-office mark, Aronofsky has gained much more credit as a financially lucrative director — “Noah,” starring Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly, is undoubtedly his biggest film to date.

Director: David Ayers
Studio Project Coming Out in 2014: “Sabotage” (Release Date: March 28)
Indie Background: “Harsh Times”
About the Director: In his upcoming “Sabotage,” David Ayers may have kept the tough, gritty, violence-related spirit of his 2005 “Harsh Times” starring Christian Bale, but he’s brought it to a much grander scale. Bringing in James Cameron alums Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sam Worthington and infusing the story with the kind of action only a Schwarzenegger flick could bring, Ayers has certainly nailed down the commercial elements that have proved to be box office gold in the past. Whether the artistic merit of “Harsh Times” has been preserved or improved, however, remains to be seen.

Director: Wally Pfister
Studio Project Coming Out in 2014: “Transcendence” (Release Date: April 17)
Indie Background: “Memento” (as DP)
About the Director: “Transcendence,” a science-fiction flick starring Johnny Depp as a terminally ill scientist, marks Wally Pfister’s directorial debut. But before making the leap into the world of big-budget studio films, Pfister worked his way up from a vast number of independent projects in the role of cinematographer. His most notable indie film work comes from his long-standing relationship with Christopher Nolan on his sophomore directing effort, the upside-down-sideways suspense thriller “Memento” starring Guy Pearce. The result paid off handsomely, with Pfister ending up as the DP for all of Nolan’s commercially successful films and winning an Oscar for “Inception.”

Director: Nick Cassavetes
Studio Project Coming Out in 2014: “The Other Woman” (Release Date: April 25)
Indie Background: “Unhook the Stars”
About the Director: It’s no surprise that Nick Cassavetes’ works originated from the independent film world considering he is the son of legendary director John Cassavetes, who practically invented independent cinema. The young Cassavetes followed his father’s footsteps by casting revered actress Gena Rowlands, Nick’s mother and John’s lifelong muse, in his directorial debut “Unhook the Stars.” With a few other small-scale films such as “The Notebook” and “My Sister’s Keeper” added to his list of credits in the past decade, Nick Cassavetes has officially forgone his indie roots for a more mainstream movie, the light comedy “The Other Woman,” which stars Cameron Diaz and Leslie Mann as vengeful women out to destroy the man who’s been playing them both.

Director: Marc Webb
Studio Project Coming Out in 2014: “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (Release Date: May 2)
Indie Background: “(500) Days of Summer”
About the Director: Marc Webb made a huge leap from indie to studio films, with his directorial debut, the charming romantic comedy “(500) Days of Summer,” being his only non-“Spider Man” film credit to date. But the massive success of the superhero franchise’s reboot proved that Columbia Pictures and Marvel Enterprises were wise to trust the indie director who lacked much of a track record. And though “(500) Days of Summer” had virtually nothing in common with “The Amazing Spider-Man” aside from the man yelling ‘action!’, Webb is widely expected to bring the same box-office magic to the sequel that he managed to bring the first time around.

Director: Jon Favreau
Studio Project Coming Out in 2014: “Chef” (Release Date: May 9)
Indie Background: “Made”
About the Director: Long before he created the action-packed, comically-inclined “Iron Man” franchise (which managed to boost him onto the A-list and revive Robert Downey Jr.’s career), Jon Favreau got his directing start with the 2001 crime comedy “Made,” which re-teamed him with his “Swingers” co-star Vince Vaughn. Now Favreau returns with his upcoming comedy “Chef” about a man who tries to rebuild his cooking career and his family after he loses his job. Though the film is technically not backed by a studio, there’s little validity in calling it an indie considering Favreau’s prominence in the industry and the fact that it re-teams him with his “Iron Man” co-star Robert Downey Jr., along with Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman and John Leguizamo — a feast of A-listers that indie directors rarely get to revel in.

Director: Frank Coraci
Studio Project Coming Out in 2014: “Blended” (Release Date: May 23)
Indie Background: “Murdered Innocence”
About the Director: The name Frank Coraci might not ring any bells to the average moviegoer, which is quite a surprise considering his extensive collaboration with Adam Sandler. He first directed the famed comedian to his delightful romance with Drew Barrymore in “The Wedding Singer,” then following up their teamwork with “The Waterboy” and “Click.” But before delving into mainstream comedies, Coraci began his directing career with a little-known thriller called “Murdered Innocence.” The film featured no known actors and flew fairly under the radar, while proving Coraci’s ability to make darker films as confidently as he does comedy. His experience outside the comedy genre was short-lived, however, with his upcoming film “Blended” promising to feature the same charming chemistry that Sandler and Barrymore exhibited in “The Wedding Singer.”

Director: Bryan Singer
Studio Project Coming Out in 2014: “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (Release Date: May 23)
Indie Background: “Public Access,” “The Usual Suspects”
About the Directors: Before the X-Men franchise propelled him into Hollywood prominence, Bryan Singer had his directorial debut with the adequate (if not totally unremarkable) thriller “Public Access.” But it was his sophomore collaboration with Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie on “The Usual Suspects” that proved his artistic brilliance. Singer’s knack for thought-provoking thrillers grew stronger with “Apt Pupil” a few years later, fully demonstrating his ability to introduce dark characters in engaging settings that seems entirely fitting for a franchise about mutants in a human society — and certainly put his filmmaking strength to good box-office use.

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Wyatt Fisher

Aronofsky is a weird example. Noah may have been bigger and more expensive than his previous works, but I wouldn’t exactly call it a blockbuster. Maybe I’m just biased, though, since it was easily my favourite film of 2014.


Don’t forget James Gunn! He made SUPER before Guardians of the Galaxy- both are awesome.


This is an interesting article but here is my personal "NW film student" opinion on the 10 directors listed –

Noam Murro – 'Smart People' was a pretty lame film that tried to build off the even lamer American "indie" rebirth of the mid 2000s that was nothing but people trying to imitate the god awful 'Juno.'

Neil Burger – Divergent is a YA adaptation meaning this guy must not have too many artistic dreams because that's pretty much just giving up. 'The Illusionist' isn't complete garbage so I guess he isn't that bad, but still a sell-out.

Darren Aronofsy – Great director. 'The Wrestler' is an American classic, although I'm laughing because all of his films are so well known regardless of their "indie" status that I can't really consider them being "indie" given the films I watch? Noah is supposedly a very Aronofsky-ian re-imagining of the story as well so if anything its the least blockbuster film on the list considering how much he fought Paramount over artistic integrity concerning the film.

David Ayers – Hahahaha, 'Harsh Times' is only an "indie" film because it has Christian Bale playing a bad tempered, drug addict, white cop that sports a tough guy Latino accent. It's also a bad film overall.

Wally Pfister – This dude did the cinematography on all the Batman films how is he just now, "going to a studio?" Hahaha.

Nick Casavettes – This guy is the son of Gena Rowlands & John Cassavetes (Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Faces, Woman Under the Influence) who basically INVENTED the American independent feature and Nick has made nothing but films that soil what the American independent feature is and film as a whole. I mean, he made The Notebook & My Sister's Keeper. His main filmmaking tool is melodramatic manipulation. This guy is a loser and his sister Xan Cassavetes makes way better features than he does and her last one was a vampire film that felt and looked like a fashion magazine.

Marc Webb – I hate '(500) Days of Summer' and 'The Amazing Spider-Man' ruined Andrew Garfield for me so this guy can go to the cemetery next after the studio for all I care.

Jon Favreau – HAHAHAHAHA WHAT. This guy just directed "Iron Man" and "Iron Man 2" and they're saying that his recently critically dismissed "Chef" is more of a "studio" film than those? I hate lists like these.

Frank Coraci – I've never heard of this guy and I just looked him up and the film he's releasing this year is an Adam Sandler film. Before that he also directed "Zookeeper" and "Here Comes the Boom" with Kevin James, so I'm really glad IndieWire included this guy when picking 10 directors to represent the bridge between American independent and studio filmmaking!!!

Bryan Singer – Okay, yet again. This guy has made two other X-Men films, a Superman film, that stupid Tom Cruise thriller where he tries to kill Hitler but you already know Hitler wasn't assassinated so it's boring anyway film.

Basically, how do ANY of these people – with the exception of Aronofsky – represent independent filmmaking in the slightest? Oof. I know, they had to make the leap to "studio filmmaking" but in that case just don't make a list like this so people don't confuse the two.


"Limitless"–an action movie?


Pathetic that 10 out of 10 of these indie filmmakers who were offered that glorious big break are all men. Clearly the award-winning female filmmakers of equal or better talent will not equally be given that open door of opportunity.

Alex Williams

What about Gareth Edwards? He went from Monsters and is soon releasing Godzilla! Massive step up! Good for him though, monsters was great!


Wally Pfister was never an indie filmmaker, so I don't know why he's on this list. He's a DP who was given a chance on a big budget movie.


I don't watch blockbuster films…couldn't care less whether white guys make them or disabled, immigrant transgendered environmentalists.


No women, not a shock.

Laurie Kirby

They never dreamed of this? I think that's what all directors dream of…but can only achieve if a white male.

Dan Mirvish

Nice list, but don't forget Slamdance Film Fest alumni whose subsequent films have had a worldwide gross of $10.618 BILLION. Folks like Joe & Anthony Russo (Pieces to Captain America: Winter Soldier), Christopher Nolan (Following to Dark Knight), Mark Forster (Loungers to World War Z), Mike Mitchell (Herd to Shrek the Fourth), Seth Gordon (King of Kong to Identity Thief). For more, read my piece "Slamdance’s Big Footprint in Hollywood: First-time Directors Have Grossed $10.618 Billion" at Filmmaker Mag.


"But aside from that and a TV short for HBO, the director hasn't had much to slap onto his resume before managing to get a hold of the coveted "300" sequel for Warner Bros."

Dude, Noam Murro is one of the biggest commercial directors in the world today for the biggest agencies and brands.


Um, doesn't almost every director follow this path?


Pretty bleak and narrow period in film. :-(
White guys seem to have the freedom to tell any person's story regardless of gender or race in studio films.


I didn't think there would be any women on this list, of course there aren't any women. Hollywood is a depressing mess where only about where it means more to be a white guy than it does to be talented.


Sad to see not one woman made this list. I guess that´s sexist Hollywood for ya.

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