Show business does not (yet) have its own judicial branch empowered to imprison and, if necessary, torture people who commit unspeakable crimes against studio profits. It does however, have an even more effective tool at its disposal — director jail.
In today's LA Times, Patrick Goldstein reports on the redemptive journey to freedom of director John Lee Hancock; imprisoned for the crime of directing The Alamo, Hancock was apparently granted some kind of work release furlough and allowed to make The Blind Side; that film's surprising box office success this weekend has apparently restored him to full movie director citizenship.
Was a time when the rules for director jail were simple: when there was a big bomb, someone had to pay and the person attached to the film who had been the biggest pain in the neck to studio bosses was it. After two simultaneous disasters, Orson Welles, for example, found his big-time career as a director effectively brought to an end and had to struggle for the rest of his days, working when he was allowed, under probation and heavy official supervision.
But today, as with so much in our society, the rules are much murkier. For the citizens of Hollywood, director jail still exists as a looming deterrent against bomb-making, but what gets you there can be very unclear; some directors these days are allowed to make bombs forever, while others seem to be imprisoned after making a hit. Is anyone safe? Has the world gone mad and is it just by Fortuna's whims that any one of us has not found ourselves dragged off and locked away in the dankest, bug-infested cell in movie dungeon?
Well, the rules are more complex, more flexible, with many loopholes but they still do exist. Here's our guide to what it takes to get in to and stay out of Director Jail:
The Law: The general principle remains the same since time immemorial; every director has a bank of capital built up by their hits. Each successful film earns a credit. Every movie-losing film costs you one credit. A bigger hit may earn more credits however, as a bigger flop costs more. When your account gets to zero credits, you are sent to director jail.
The case of the aforementioned Mr. Hancock remains one of the most straightforward, classical cases of movie justice. He began his film career with The Rookie, a modest success made on a modest budget, which earned him two credits. But he then went on to make The Alamo, a huge flop on a huge budget, which cost both his credits, earning him his jail sentence. Likewise Michael Bay had ample credits in his account to weather the debacle of The Island.
The Grosses Speak Law: Whether the film is good or not, whether the director could have been replaced by a monkey, matters not at all if the film is successful. Bret Ratner the titular visionary behind the abomination of the Rush Hour trilogy, which combined grossed the better part of a billion dollars worldwide, has earned himself enough credits to stay out of director jail forever and ever.
The Beholder Codicil: However, the twist of the modern world is that perception matters far more than the actual facts. Even if Bret Ratner's career were nothing but a string of bombs, in a business where, as William Goldman said "nobody knows anything" you can in fact fool all the people all the time. Unshakable belief in yourself and the ability to play the part of great auteur on a grand scale can, if needed, be everything and can keep one out of director jail for a very long time.
The Laughingstock Law: A couple decades back, Renny Harlin was the Bret Ratner of his day. A high-profile, on-the-town action auteur, with a starlet wife and who, with Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger under his belt, could do no wrong. Until he did something very wrong; he made a movie that was not just a flop, it was so bad it made everyone involved with it look like abject maroons. The director jail authorities saided out to Cutthroat Island and carried Renny Harlin off for an extended vacation.
The Franchise Killer Act: No substance sustains life in Hollywood more than a successful film franchise — a series which can keep the spigots of cash flowing forever. And for the director who would kill a golden goose, no punishment is too great. Having made Speed and Twister in the 90's, Jan De Bont could have coasted for decades. But then he followed up Speed with the franchise killing Speed 2 - a sin which he just might have been gotten away with as it was his franchise to kill after all - but then he went on to bring down the might Lara Croft with The Cradle of Life, the third installment of her series. De Bont has not been heard from since.
The Coolness Exemption: In many instances, coolness creds can override profits and can keep a director out of director jail. There is a long line of entertainment poohbahs for whom being cool is almost as important as being successful, dying to work with anyone who can confer secondary cool. Donnie Darko, for instance, may have barely grossed a million on a $6 million budget, but its status as cult icon and ultimate cool film has created a long list of poohbahs wanting to work with director Richard Kelly. Even after the massive flop of his star-studded follow-up Southland Tales, Kelly continued to walk the streets. However, having now made an uncool flop with The Box, he may soon find there is a cell being readied with his name on it.
The Big Cool Friend Exemption: Director jail can also be avoided, or postponed, if a director can produce big movie star friends. Kevin Smith, for instance, whose bombs should have sent him to the movie guillotine long ago, remains at liberty thanks to his ability to get a long line of big name actors from Ben Affleck to Seth Rogen to vouch for him by appearing in his movies.
The Oscar Exemption: So long as smell of trophies cling to an auteur, they can buy their freedom indefinitely. Paul Thomas Anderson's films may always been more favored by critics than popcorn eaters, but so long as his genius-of-the-cinema creds remain off the map, so will never see the inside of a cell in director jail.
Now defunct: there used to be a disgrace to the entertainment industry law which carried with it a 20-year sentence, but since the term "disgrace to the entertainment industry has become an oxymoron, the law has been unenforced for years.