Max Landis, screenwriter and son of director John Landis, didn’t take the poor box office performance of his latest film, American Ultra, very well. The film, about a stoner who doesn’t realize he’s also a sleeper assassin trained by the CIA (Jesse Eisenberg) and who falls in love with his handler (Kristen Stewart), opened last Friday and put up mediocre first weekend numbers. That set Landis off, and before we go any further, let’s revisit the ensuing Twitter diatribe:
There are a couple problems that somewhat took the wind out of Landis’ sails from the start. For one thing, American Ultra wasn’t exactly “acclaimed.” On Rotten Tomatoes, only 46% of critics and 57% of audiences liked it. “It didn’t suck as much as that other movie” isn’t a compelling argument for mainstream success, and Landis came off a bit entitled on that front, as though he deserved adulation for a movie that everyone deemed average.
Second, many people misinterpreted what Landis meant by “original,” wrongly believing that he was complimenting himself on the originality of his own script. As he later clarified, he was simply referring to the fact that he hadn’t written a sequel, not that his movie was the freshest piece of cinema ever created. But this is the Internet, and that explanation came long after the dogs had been unleashed.
(There’s a third problem, and this may not bug anyone besides me, but if Landis thinks the ‘80s and ‘90s were the golden age of cinematic creativity, he needs to read up on the ‘70s and “New Hollywood,” when directors had true creative freedom. The thing that “happened” that he can’t quite pinpoint is that movies like Jaws and Star Wars came out and showed executives just how much money they could make on franchise movies—a revelation responsible for the rash of sequels Landis bemoans today.)
These limitations led to a sort of crucifixion online; he was called a whiner, his movie was insulted, and people didn’t really engage in his point.
Which is too bad, because the point was good—Hollywood really is over-saturated with the processed sugar of blockbuster sequels. And it is true that bad movies can still make a lot of money by virtue of huge opening weekends, long before the critics can warn everyone else away. And it is true that smaller movies face an uphill battle, and even the great ones are destined to attract far fewer patrons than inferior megaliths that get top billing at the two or three theater chains that control distribution across the country.
Unfortunately, this is nothing new; the era of the individual genius had its sunset almost 40 years ago, and from then on, talented writers and directors have had to scrape and claw to obtain any recognition or success in a coldblooded industry. But as Landis himself pointed out, there are those who still push through. He mentioned Tarantino and Nolan, and I’d add filmmakers like P.T. Anderson, Charlie Kaufman, Wes Anderson, and the Coen Brothers. There’s still room for creativity in the movie business, but it takes a rare talent—combined with a rare ambition—to reach the upper echelons and actually sustain a successful career.
I’ll stop short of saying this is a “good thing”—cynical corporate control over the arts sucks, and anyone who truly loves film should be dying for a return to the ‘70s model—but it does create a situation where the “indie” talent that emerges tends to be pretty spectacular. Landis is not the first person to fight the battle, and because most of us never see the failures that slip through the cracks, we compare him in our heads to the Tarantinos of the world and unfairly call him a “whiner” for telling the truth.
Landis is only 30 years old, and he’s got a long career ahead of him that will probably include movies superior to American Ultra. If he’s able to reach the lofty heights of Hollywood occupied by the thriving nonconformists he admires today, let’s hope he uses his platform to preach the same message, and works to give new writers and directors a chance to break through. If he keeps singing the same tune as his career moves forward, it will mean more every day.