Is Christopher Nolan the last of the ‘big brand’ film directors?

First of all, why am I referring to a film director as a brand, and why is that an important distinction from any other director? Let’s think about what a good brand is. Quite often, a brand is a promise of what can be expected when you chose that brand. Many are likely to chose Coca-Cola (for example) over other brands because you know what you’re getting. You know how it’s going to taste regardless of where you buy it, how you consume it, how much you pay for it and who sells to you. That ‘knowing’, that expectation is an exceptionally powerful aspect of brand recognition.

Firstly, because knowing what to expect makes you feel comfortable and therefore it’s an easy choice, and secondly, because it takes away any doubt or worry over the quality of the product you’re about to consume. There are plenty of other coke drinks, but Coca-Cola have really nailed the promise of their brand, and they’re *very* careful to keep it that way.

When you chose to watch a movie – whether it’s buying tickets at opening weekend or scrolling through your Netflix choices, these factors are also important. Often the first question you’ll ask yourself is ‘Who’s in this movie? Who will I recognise?’.

Christopher Nolan, as we’ll see, has been able to achieve similar recognition as a director, almost over and above the actors he choses to cast in his films.

In fact, I think if you asked most people who their favourite director was, Chris Nolan would come up fairly often. Whether it’s the blockbuster Dark Knight Trilogy, or the more complex Inception and Interstellar, the name behind them all is instantly recognisable. And his latest, Dunkirk, is almost guaranteed to go straight to number one at the box office and stay there for some time.

How many other Directors have such a consistent track record of success and recognition today. The Marvels and DC’s of this world seem to chose competent directors for their franchises at will, but very rarely do they have the instant name recognition of Nolan.

There are a few others that spring to mind. Joss Whedon and JJ Abrams are now synonymous amongst fans for their sci-fi exploits, but rarely venture into other genres.

Edgar Wright – of Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs the World and the excellent new Baby Driver, certainly has a cult following – and infamously walked away from Directing Marvel’s Ant-Man (he retained a screen-writing credit) as he didn’t feel he had enough control. A brave decision given the potential exposure such a movie is guaranteed to achieve, but it meant he was able to fully concentrate on writing Baby Driver and put all of his efforts into creating the movie HE knew he wanted to make, and the result is a far more personal and focused effort than anything Marvel’s pick-and-mix approach will ever achieve.

Danny Boyle – an exceptionally creative and consistently successful Director – and one of my favourites to hear talking about the process, has said himself he’s more suited and enjoys more working with smaller budgets so he can move quickly from scene to scene and have a little more engagement with the stories he’s aiming to tell. Well recognised, definitely, but does he have the instant box-office #1 guarantee? Not quite, in my opinion – but I say that merely to counteract how impressive I think Nolan’s achievements are.

Which brings us back again nicely to Christopher Nolan. he successfully engineered a complete trilogy with the Dark Knight, making Christian Bale a household name as Bruce Wayne / Batman, and according to Mark Kermode (BBC Five Live Podcast) he was given the budget and full control to create Inception as a ‘thank you’ for that success. Can you imagine anyone else being given that amount of freedom within the Hollywood machine?

With Interstellar, he again had full control to create his vision, and the result is spectacular, intelligent, thought-provoking, and I think, completely unique as a modern cinematic experience. Quantum Physics in your blockbuster? It can happen… but again, who else could be absolutely guaranteed to pull it off?

What we have with Nolan is a rare example of someone with the skill AND the passion to create his vision from start to end. To create story and character, inject intelligence into an otherwise fairly mindless blockbuster size franchise, and have total trust that the end result will be exceptionally well received.

I believe he’s the only Director at the moment consistently able to switch, even blend genres, work with big budgets, attract the very best A-list actors and other cast and crew, and have control of the entire movie making process from start to finish. In every interview I’ve heard with Nolan he comes across as exceptionally knowledgable, focused, and cares deeply about the quality of the end result, and for me, that’s why he’s as successful and widely acknowledged as he is. Whether it’s by design or not, he has successfully created a personal brand that is now able to stand on its own, regardless of the projects he takes on. To me, that’s the ultimate achievement.

Having said all this, and coming across as a complete Christopher Nolan fan-girl (no apologies!), I noticed over the weekend a trailer for the new Steven Spielberg movie, Ready Player One, and it looks like it’s going to be big and spectacular. Having grown up at a time when Spielberg was synonymous with crowd-pleasing family entertainment, it’ll be interesting to see if this marks the beginning of a similar era of mainstream director recognition.

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