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The Brand-New Wave

More video directors are taking on feature films. Quick cut to 'Con Air,' the latest example.

June 08, 1997|Elaine Dutka | Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

The film industry, asserts Simon West, is five years behind the rest of American pop culture. Even so, MTV has been around long enough for music-video directors such as himself to be considered cool. Younger studio executives were MTV kids, he explains. And those who weren't have come to regard video directors as a bridge to the youth market so central to the industry's bottom line.

"The largest part of the moviegoing audience is 14- to 24-year-olds, primarily males dragging their girlfriends to see a film," says West, whose debut feature, the $75-million "Con Air," opened Friday. "It's no coincidence that we talk their language, since that's the music-video market, as well."

The trickle of music-video directors making the leap into feature films has turned into a wave, accelerated by the track record of David Fincher ("Aliens 3," "Seven"), Michael Bay ("Bad Boys," "The Rock") and F. Gary Gray ("Friday," "Set It Off"), industry observers say. All of their films were profitable, and Hollywood is eager to duplicate that success.

"Everyone's looking for safety nets, reasons to justify decisions in case of failure," says Jerry Bruckheimer, a visually oriented producer who threw his weight behind directors of commercials such as Adrian Lyne ("Flashdance") and Tony Scott ("Crimson Tide") before giving West and Bay their first shot. "The studios are now thinking this is the way to go. In the end, though, it's less about formulas than about talent--and getting noticed. Like screenwriting and editing, music videos have become a way in."

As the door has opened, several first-timers have walked through. Brett Ratner was handed the $23-million "Money Talks," a New Line release set for August, and plans to shoot a Jackie Chan movie in October. Gore Verbinski is directing "Mouse Hunt," a holiday film from DreamWorks. Lionel Martin's "How to Be a Player" will be distributed by Gramercy Pictures on Aug. 15. Paul Hunter, currently talking with 20th Century Fox about taking on a feature, has signed on to make Quincy Jones' "Jook Joint" on HBO.

Rap-video director Tamra Davis made her move to the big screen with 1992's "Gun Crazy" and went on to direct "CB4" (1993) and "Billy Madison" (1995), both of which opened at No. 1. Bay is making it three in a row with Bruckheimer, whose "Armageddon" goes before the cameras this summer; Fincher's $70-million "The Game," with Michael Douglas and Sean Penn, is due out in the fall. And Gray is plunging into New Regency's "The Negotiator," starring Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey--bigger budget, more mainstream fare.

"Four years ago, there was a 'music-video directors can't deliver' stench I had to fight my way through," says Gray, 27. "Things are easier now."

Though the stigma has not entirely diminished, music videos are considered an excellent training ground--film school . . . with a paycheck, so to speak. Even novice directors are provided with the latest equipment--and budgets not always of the shoestring variety. Labels fork out between $200,000 and $600,000 for major artists and well into the seven-figure range for superstars such as Madonna or Michael Jackson. Because the stakes are lower, the freedom is greater. And since the directors walk off with dazzling showcases, they no longer have to be taken on faith.

Narrative is more prevalent in videos these days and production values, too, are on the rise. "Music videos are now a template for mini-features," said Bruce Mellon, whose production company, Original Film, makes both music videos and feature films. "And since most directors work on a tight budget and schedule, they're trained to think creatively."

Davis--one of the few female video directors during the 1980s--put this training to use on the set of "Best Men," an MGM action film with Drew Barrymore and Dean Cain set for an October release. With only $7 million at her disposal, she says, the production was necessarily seat-of-the-pants.

"To give the action a fresh look, I shot some Super-8 footage--the kind you use in home movies--alongside the director of photography," says Davis, 33. "I intercut that with the rest of the film. The movie looks like a music video in which I'd shoot a performance and splice it with film of a different color-type or grain."

Bay, 32, calls it "guerrilla filmmaking"--a skill that came in handy making 1995's "Bad Boys." Though some viewed him as a first-time director, he says, he'd already put in 500 days on videos and commercials--the equivalent of 10 feature films.

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