What does Barbie, a confection in Pantone 219 C with an 88 per cent Rotten Tomatoes score, have in common with Meg 2: The Trench, a humans versus dino-shark mess with a meagre 27 per cent? Both are directed by former indie stars who have sold their souls to the corporate movie-makers – or so many critics would have you believe.
The Barbie director Greta Gerwig is an indie darling, having started her career in mumblecore films such as Hannah Takes the Stairs and Frances Ha. Her 2017 film Lady Bird had a budget of $10m and made $79m. Comparatively, Barbie is a megalodon, making $1bn globally in its first two weeks on a budget of $145m, and was made by the film wing of Mattel, the company that owns the Barbie brand. Next on Gerwig’s to-do list are two Chronicles of Narnia films.
Before Meg 2 (budget $129m), Ben Wheatley was perhaps best known for High-Rise, the JG Ballard adaptation starring Tom Hiddleston – his biggest budget film at $8m. Most of his work – including A Field in England, Sightseers and Free Fire – is varying shades of indie horror and black comedy, often satirical and always cynical. A film in which Jason Statham says “See ya later chum” before kicking a bad guy into the open mouth of a giant shark is something of a departure.
Such directors, the sell-out discourse goes, trade their previously upstanding film-making credentials for the big bucks of Hollywood, and lose all credibility in the process. They should instead have toiled in obscurity on low-budget movies for the rest of their careers, for the sake of artistic purity, real or imagined.
[See also: A strategic analysis of Barbie]
Neither Gerwig nor Wheatley has mentioned pay or budgets in discussing why they took on these latest projects. The Meg 2 director was after a diversity of experience, telling an Empire Q&A: “I’ve always tried to make stuff that’s 90 degrees from the last thing I made, and you couldn’t get more extreme whiplash [than] from the one-two punch of In the Earth, Rebecca, Meg 2.” For Gerwig, too, it was about the challenge: “It felt complicated enough, sticky enough, strange enough, that maybe there could be something interesting there to be discovered,” she told the Guardian.
But even if they had answered: I just really wanted to splash around in cash on set and take home a fat pay packet, what would be the problem with that? A film is a commodity; they are made to be seen and to make money. If you have ever bought a cinema ticket or signed up to a streaming service, you have accepted that concept. Financial progression is a normal, hoped-for part of any career. The list of esteemed directors who have made the move from indie to Hollywood is long. Before Peter Jackson made the Lord of the Rings trilogy he was big into making splatter films. Taika Waititi went straight from Hunt for the Wilderpeople to Thor: Ragnarok and is now making an as-yet-untitled Star Wars film. Chloe Zhao followed Nomadland with the Marvel movie Eternals. Patty Jenkins made her name with Monster and wound up directing Wonder Woman. Barry Jenkins, director of Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, is working on a Lion King prequel.
Ultimately, accusations of film-makers selling out are about snobbery. Blockbusters can have artistic merit and offer connection and meaning, just as arthouse films can. Working for a big studio does not invalidate a director’s earlier work, nor does it preclude them from making an indie film in future. It may be unfashionable to have ecumenical taste in an ever-more divided online world, but a pluralistic approach – in art as in politics – can only offer a richer, more generous experience.
And for anyone concerned that Greta Gerwig’s jocose spirit is no match for the mega-movie machine, consider what Mattel and Warner Bros executives received when they demanded a preview of the script’s contents: an abstract poem in the style of the Apostles’ Creed.