Directors: Age, Creativity, and Productivity in Hollywood

Studying Directors Careers

Quentin Tarantino, a relatively young, talented director, expressed the deep concern of many filmmakers, past and present, about maintaining artistic control over their careers in an industry that’s necessarily collaborative and notoriously commercial and mass-oriented.

The importance of studying systematically directorial careers is highlighted by the following case studies:

Enjoying a screen career of 50 years, Woody Allen is the only contemporary director who makes a film each and every year, This fact alone makes him the most productive filmmaker in American cinema. But is there a strong correlation between Allen’s amazing productivity and the artistic qualities of his films?  Critics cannot dictate (or even recommend) the sheer productivity of directors (how fast to work, how many films to make), but it is our task and responsibility to evaluate and reassess the merits of each individual feature, and then place it in the over context of the director’s career.

By contrast, in three decades, from 1973 to 2005, Texas-based Terrence Malick had made only three films: Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998).  Nonetheless, each of these original films was critically acclaimed and The Thin Red Line was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. Over the past decade, however, Malick has increased his pace and had made four films. As a result, his output now consists of ten films or so.

n 1978, with the release of the epic Vietnam saga The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino was deemed the most brilliant filmmaker working in Hollywood. Sweeping most of the Oscars, The Deer Hunter announced the arrival of a major talent.  However, two years later, Heaven’s Gate terminated Cimino’s career.  To this day he hasn’t recovered from the 1980 debacle (documented in Steven Bach’s Final Cut); he has made only 7 films in 30 years.

Examining the careers of the late Robert Altman and Sidney Lumet, two veteran and respected directors, who were contemporaries and of the same age, one can’t help but notice the major ups-and-downs in the career of Altman, a late bloomer, who made his best work in the 1970s, while in his late 40s and 50s.

As for Lumet, after a brilliant debut and some good movies in the 1960s, he reached his peak in the mid-1970s, making three masterpieces in a row: Serpico in 1973, Dog Day Afternoon in 1975, and Network in 1976.

The careers of Allen, Altman, Malick, Cimino, and Tarantino show the theoretical and empirical challenges in evaluating directorial careers and productivity versus creativity.

Woody Allen’s output is large (47 films and counting) and the speed of work astounding (one film every year) but the quality is uneven and variable.

Terrence Malick’s oeuvre is small but impressive (ten films in four decades).

Michael Cimino has had no sustained career– his last film was made in 1996.

Quentin Tarantino (8 films in 25 years) takes his time in order to maintain artistic control over each feature.

In order to explain the variability of film careers it’s important to place them in broader historical perspective and to use similar theoretical concepts (creativity, originality) and empirical measures (film output).

The book’s central concepts are:

Institutional Apparatus

Film Career




Institutional Apparatus:

Even the most conspicuously artistic film and the most accomplished directorial careers need to be placed in broader non-aesthetic contexts.  While scholars may or may not agree over what constitutes a great film or an accomplished career, they all realize that aesthetic film history is interrelated with social, economic, and technological histories.  My study will examine the impact of different institutional structures (the studio system versus the New Hollywood, mainstream versus independent cinema) on creativity, productivity, and the shape of careers.


Film Career:

The notion of artistic career remains one of the most misunderstood and least used in film studies.  Some historians treat careers in a vague, mysterious way.

Hence in his effort to explain the three great films (Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, and The Third Man) made within three years (1947-1949) by British director Carol Reed, the critic David Thomson perceives Reed’s creativity as a “puzzle of collaborators, timing, inspiration, and chance.”  But this broad and general statement doesn’t offer a sufficient explanation for Reed’s astonishing creativity–and then rapid decline.



Few terms denote and connote so many different meanings as the concept of creativity. According to one definition: “Creativity achieves products that have originality (novelty, uniqueness) and quality (merit, significance).”  Whereas it’s easier to assess the greatness of creators such as Beethoven, Picasso, and Einstein, some artists (Van Gogh) fail to win recognition during their lifetime.  Moreover, judgments of quality could be subjective and unreliable; like beauty, aesthetic quality may reside in the beholder’s eye.  As for originality, it’s often minimal and not necessarily desirable in film due to the medium’s industrial nature and mass orientation.



Sheer productivity is a more objective and quantifiable variable than creativity or originality, as it can be measured by the output (number of films) and career longevity (span of years between first and last film, age at last film).


Book’s Major Issues

The Impact of Directors’ Backgrounds on Creativity and Productivity:

The goal is to assess the variety and diversity of career patterns:

Directors who moved up the rank (Hawks, Ford, Walsh, Wyler, Stevens, Zinnemann)

Directors who came from the Broadway theater (George Cukor, Vincente Minnelli)

Directors who began as writers (John Huston, Billy Wilder, Joseph L. Mankiewicz)

Directors who began working in television prior to film (Lumet, Frankenheimer).


Artistic Evolution:

The social and artistic factors that account for directors’ development?  Some directors tend to repeat themselves by working within the same genre or using the same stylistic devices, while others reinvent themselves with each film.


Age and Creativity:

Do most directors achieve their creativity early on in their careers? Phrased differently, at what age do directors make their best films?  How crucial is the first decade in predicting the future shape of directorial careers?


Creativity and Productivity:

What is the relationship between creativity and productivity? What is length of directorial careers and what are the crucial determinants of longevity. Bunuel, Kurosawa, Hitchcock, and John Huston, to name a few, have made their best work at an older age, during the last decade of their careers. The study will examine career durability (in terms of years), productivity (number of films), and creativity (originality and quality of work)


Critical Recognition:

At what age directors tend to get critical recognition for their work. Recognition may take various forms: Favorable reviews (as measured by RottenTomatoes and other meters, citations from critics groups, such as the New York or Los Angeles Film Critics Associations; nominations and awards from peers such as the Directors Guild of America (DGA) nominations and awards, Oscar nominations and awards.


Career Longevity:

Hollywood is known as a young artist’s place.  The study will ask the question of at what age do directors make their last film?  Is retirement a matter of choice or forced reality of the marketplace?


Gender, Creativity and Productivity:

The study will examine the impact of gender on directorial careers in terms of productivity and creativity (see Data).


Methods and Data                                        

The entire group of filmmakers is divided into subgroups, or generations, determined by the director’s birth date and film debut.  Covering the sound era (1927-present), the lengthy historical frame allows for systematic comparisons among the career patterns of four generations of directors:


The Studio Directors:

These are contract directors born between 1890 and 1919 and working within the studio system during Hollywood’s Golden Age.


The Second Generation:  Directors born between 1920-1939, who began directing in the late 1940s and 1950s.  Many of these directors started their careers in television (Altman, Penn, Lumet).


The Film School Generation: Filmmakers born between 1940 and 1959, who are graduates of film schools and began directing in the 1960s and 1970s: Coppola, Scorsese, Lucas, Spielberg.


The Current Generation: Filmmakers born between 1960 and 1979, who began directing in the 1990s.  This group will be divided into two cohorts: Mainstream Hollywood and independent cinema.


Women Directors:

Since there are no more than 50 women in American film history who have enjoyed sustained careers, the study will place all the women into one group, even though they belong to different generations.  Among the women to be included are: Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino, Barbra Streisand, Penny Marshall, as well as foreign directors (Jane Campion, Gillian Armstrong), who began their careers in their native countries but later made Hollywood films.

Creativity and Productivity in Hollywood: The Shape of Directorial Careers is meant as a definitive survey of all the major directors of the American cinema during the sound era, from 1929 to the present.

The study will contest myths about directorial careers such as the notions that careers are short and unpredictable, or that old directors repeat themselves or cease to develop.

My goal is to publish the study in two volumes: One dealing with general issues of age, creativity and productivity, the other, in the form of a dictionary, enlisting alphabetically each of the 400 directors with never-before published statistical data.