Do directors whose movies bomb really wind up in jail?

Careful, Mr. Fancy Director. If your box-office draw isn't up to snuff, you just might wind up in director jail.
Careful, Mr. Fancy Director. If your box-office draw isn't up to snuff, you just might wind up in director jail.
Darren Klimek/Digital Vision/Thinkstock

On the outskirts of an undisclosed Midwestern city is a prison complex housing dozens of Hollywood film directors who are doing time for making flops. Culturally and geographically isolated from both the lala of L.A. and the neuroses of New York, the location is its own form of punishment.

But "punishment" isn't a word you'll hear from prison spokesperson Angelina Jolie. "This is a correctional facility, not a punitive institution. It's a place for creative people to rethink their relationship to the industry. It doesn't have to be a lifetime sentence. We've managed to rehabilitate dozens of directors over the years. I mean, we had to put Davie Boy (David O. Russell) in solitary for months at a time. Now look at him: Ever since 'The Fighter,' he's a locomotive!"

Jolie's husband, Brad Pitt, agrees, carefully eschewing terms like "prisoner" or "inmate." "Clients come here with a lot of baggage. It's about finding innovative ways of inviting them to unpack their baggage, sort through it, toss some and repurpose the rest. Instead of sitting around regretting unforgivable garbage like (Matt Weiner's) 'Are You Here?' view it as part of your process, as a teachable moment."

Pitt, who's in charge of something called the jail's "dimensional framework" designed the complex as an homage to the World War II-era prison camp in "The Great Escape." The idea is to remind inmates that, like Steve McQueen and his cohorts, they too can break out if they can learn to be team players.

"A lot of folks waste their time petitioning producers and agents for clemency," says Absolution Supervisor Tom Hanks, "but that just ain't the way out of here. You've got to knuckle down and direct a couple of commercials, work your way up to shooting an episode of 'Orange is the New Black,' and collaborate with the guards to come up with three or four strong scripts to pitch at your parole hearing."

It turns out that the prison guards he's talking about are all aspiring young script writers who have agreed to work for minimum wage in exchange for daily proximity to the has-beens and might-still-be's of director jail.

As for the parole board, it consists of associate producers with a maximum of two years' studio experience in Hollywood. It goes without saying that the humility required for veteran directors to pitch their ideas to 20-something film grads can have a salubrious effect on their egos.

The prison is funded by the foreign sales of the straight-to-video films made by the inmates prior to incarceration. Jolie, Pitt, Hanks and a host of other permanent A-listers provide their services free of charge. "As heinous as some of their crimes may be," says Chief Warden George Clooney, "we just can't think of them as unredeemable. Some of my best friends are in here. It's tragic."

Heinous crimes? Parole hearings? Can any of this be real?

That's All Malarkey

Even acclaimed director Kathryn Bigelow, seen here with her "Hurt Locker" stars, felt Hollywood's ire after helming a few flops.
Even acclaimed director Kathryn Bigelow, seen here with her "Hurt Locker" stars, felt Hollywood's ire after helming a few flops.
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images Entertainment/Thinkstock

Nothing on the previous page is true. Absolutely none of it. Angelina Jolie is not the spokesperson for Director Jail, and Brad Pitt is not in charge of anything there, nor are Tom Hanks and George Clooney.

That's because there's no such thing as director jail. Never has been. The quotes from the aforementioned stars are completely made up, and no attempt was ever made to reach them for their opinions on jails, directorial or otherwise.

"Director Jail" is a fanciful term that pops up in the media from time to time to refer to what happens when a director makes a film that goes belly up at the box office. It's a fairly obvious situation: For a director to make a big-budget Hollywood movie, he or she needs money — a lot of money. The people with the purse strings (the major studios) like to think that when they pony up, they're going to get their lucre back, and then some. If they hand over a chunk of change and it disappears from sight, they get miffed. And the next time that director comes sniffing around for dough for another project, the people they need to talk to always seem to be "in a meeting."

Take Katherine Bigelow, for instance. With films like "Point Break," and "Strange Days," she was a reasonably successful director in an industry not known for gender equality. Then, in 2002, her submarine action flick "K-19: The Widowmaker," bombed. For the next seven years she was in "director jail" [source: Abramowitz]. In other words, nobody would give her any serious money to do her thing.

Of course, that story has a happy ending that involves a little movie called "The Hurt Locker" and a certain statue named Oscar. In fact, Bigelow was the first woman to win for directing a feature. "The Hurt Locker" was independently financed and filmed on a small budget [source: Dawtrey]. But winning that Oscar definitely got Bigelow out of "director jail," and the next time she went looking for money, blank checks were waiting.

Author's Note: Do directors whose movies bomb really wind up in jail?

As you can see from the first page of this article, I got a little carried away with the idea of a directors jail (to the degree that my poor, sleep-deprived editor was briefly convinced that such an institution actually exists). And my feeling is that just because it doesn't, doesn't mean it shouldn't. Directors whose movies free-fall financially might actually welcome a chance to spend some quiet time away from the hustle and bustle in a place that offers them a chance to "rehabilitate." And for beginner screenwriters it could be a great opportunity to break into the business. If nothing else, one of them should option this article and turn into it into a million-dollar script!

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Sources

  • Abramowitz, Rachel. "In Hollywood female directors are still the exception." Los Angeles Times. March 7, 2010. (July 7, 2013) http://articles.latimes.com/2010/mar/07/entertainment/la-et-women-directors7-2010mar07
  • Dawtrey, Adam. "Nicholas Chartier: A profile of the Hurt Locker producer banned from the Oscars." The Guardian. March 9, 2010. (July 7, 2015) http://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2010/mar/09/hurt-locker-producer-oscars-banned
  • JoBlo.com. "Movie Jail." (July 4, 2015) http://www.joblo.com/tag/movie-jail/
  • Rushfield, Richard. "The Rules of Director Jail." Gawker. Nov. 24, 2009. (July 4, 2015) http://gawker.com/5411923/the-rules-of-director-jail
  • Thorn, Jesse. "Director Paul Feig on Getting Out of 'Movie Jail' with Bridesmaids and The Heat." Bullseye with Jesse Thorn. 2013. (July 4, 2015) https://soundcloud.com/bullseye-with-jesse-thorn/paul-feig
  • Yamato, Jen. "The Fighter's David O. Russell on Breaking Out of Director Jail: 'I Don't Need to Get Burned Twice.'" Movieline. Feb. 24, 2011. (July 4, 2015) http://movieline.com/2011/02/24/the-fighters-david-o-russell-on-breaking-out-of-director-jail-i-dont-need-to-get-burned-twice/