The decline of directorial auteur runs

I recently watched Frances Ford Coppola’s Godfather Part II and Apocalypse Now on the big screen. Like many other directors of his era, he charted his path through auteur runs: multiple movies in a row with wide distribution and a personal artistic vision. No extended detours into TV. No five plus year gaps between films. No anonymous paycheck gigs. Coppola’s output from 1972 to 1979 – The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now – was arguably the greatest auteur run ever. Such directorial stretches used to be commonplace but are rare today, especially for younger directors. It’s a trend that, left unchecked, can threaten film’s cultural relevance.

But before getting too pessimistic about the situation, I did some research. I looked at Sight and Sound’s 2022 critics poll alongside the most popular movies on Letterboxd for a more populist take. From these sources, I hand picked at least forty directors who each had at least one reasonable auteur run: three or no movies in wide release (e.g., available across your average American cineplex or widely popular for rental or streaming) with no gaps greater than five years and no obvious mercenary gigs.

Every decade, many influential directors have had auteur runs at their critical and financial peak. In the 50s and 60s, there was Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Kubrick, Wilder, Fellini, and Goddard. The 70s brought New Hollywood in with Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, Friedkin, and Lucas. The 80s were defined by filmmakers as varied as Spielberg, De Palma, Stone, Carpenter, Cameron, Zemeckis, and Lynch. For the 90s we had Tarantino, Soderbergh, Lee, Linklater, Fincher, the Coen brothers, and Paul Thomas Anderson. I’d argue the 2000s saw a meaningful dip, but we still saw talent like Bigelow, Anderson, Wan, McDonaugh, and Iñárritu break out.

Jumping ahead to today, scanning through awards lists and festival draws, I found fewer directors on an auteur journey. Actual A-list directors – the kind that bring in an audience based on name alone, whose movies make big money and strong critical reception – are rare. Only Christopher Nolan, Wes Anderson, Jordan Peele, Denis Villeneuve, and Yorgos Lanthimos fit the bill. Nearby, less visible art house directors are still doing good work but with occasional struggles to secure financing, like Sofia Coppola and Luca Guadagnino. The masters from the 70s and onward, like Ridley Scott, are still working, but usually in muted form.

Notably, every name I mentioned, except Peele, is over 50. Promising directors under 50 can struggle to sustain auteur runs, with long gaps between films and pivots to new areas for financial stability. Barry Jenkins blew out of the gate with Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, but then made a criminally underseen Prime Video series and recently wrapped up production on a Lion King sequel for Disney. Chloe Zhao won the Best Directing Oscar for Nomadland after The Rider, but her jump to Marvel with Eternals was a critical and financial disaster. Adam Wingard built his reputation on a series of horror and thriller movies (e.g., Your Next, The Guest), but after 2021, he seems fully committed to working on big-budget Godzilla vs. Kong monster movies. Lulu Wang’s The Farewell won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Film, but pivoted five years later with a Prime Video series (Expats), her next feature to be determined. Jeff Nichols built a solid reputation with the smaller budget drama circuit in the mid-2010s (Take Shelter, Mud, Midnight Special, Loving), only to disappear for eight years before his next feature. The Safdie brothers felt like a spiritual successor to 70s Scorsese with their anxious crime dramas Good Time and Uncut Gems, but they haven’t directed a film in almost five years and broke up in early 2024.

This trend doesn’t mean auteurs under 50 are nonexistent. Greta Gerwig directed three critically acclaimed box office hits and likely has a long studio career ahead of her. Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) almost fell into “director jail” after the costly misfire Babylon, but has a new feature on track with Paramount. Sean Durkin has built a career from slow-burn adult dramas (The Nest, The Iron Claw). Robert Eggers, Ari Aster, and Ti West have found their oddball segment of the horror genre to stake out. Emerald Fennell is only two features in, yet she has picked up one Oscar for Promising Young Woman and made a viral streaming hit with Saltburn.

Yet when the roundup of young directors on an auteur run feels maxed out at ten or fewer, it’s a worrisome sign. Historically, auteurs can reshape film trajectories for years to come. Their success helps green light other pictures and helps studios take risks with new talent. A strong director’s output can also generate a “halo effect” that excites would-be filmgoers back to theaters and inspires them to watch more movies.

A cynic’s take would fast forward a few years when many of the greats will have passed away or retired. Film survives as an escapist medium for the masses, helmed by anonymous directors, while those with a more auteurist spirit are pushed to the margins.

Yet my definition of auteur runs hinges on wide mainstream distribution; remove that element, and there’s no shortage of impressive films out there. Considering directors on the international art house scene, debuting films at major festivals, and popping up on specialty streaming sites, there are many reasons for hope. Over the last year, I’ve seen new features from Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Evil Does Not Exist), Alice Rohrwacher (La Chimera), and Justine Triet (Anatomy of a Fall). All are from directors under 50, built original artistic visions across several films, and have the kind of financial backing that suggests more features to come. There are also other younger directors with the type of bold feature debut (e.g., Celine Song’s Past Lives, Molly Manning Walker’s How to Have Sex, Daniel Goldhaber’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline) for where a future big studio production or streaming TV series looks unlikely. Still, each has found a receptive audience and partnered with like-minded production companies and distributors like A24, Neon, Film4, and the CNC, which I expect will keep their careers going.

So perhaps cinema’s future isn’t bleak, but just messy and bifurcated. The days of Frances Ford Coppola knocking out critically acclaimed adult dramas while making a killing at your local theater are largely gone. Your Warners and Universals will continue cranking out mega-budget studio IP that might require half a billion to break even. In parallel, the international art house and indie scene will find its footing on streaming, in festivals, and occasionally turn a respectable profit in wider release with midrange budgets. Cinema has a vibrant future, but you must put in more effort to find it.