Every year at the Sundance Film Festival, cinephiles haul themselves through snowdrifts and inhale underoxygenated mountain air for a chance to be present at the unveiling of a great filmmaker. Sundance premieres are the cornerstone of the festival’s mythos. When a movie like Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is unleashed upon the world, you can practically feel the electricity surge through the crowd, and when it opens months or sometimes years later, you can tell your friends: I was there.
But as exciting as debut films can be, they’re often less important than the ones that follow. Take any filmmaker you admire, and look back at the arc of his or her career. The movie that sets the tone for their body of work, the one that establishes the kind of artist they’re going to be, is often the second and not the first. Think Rushmore instead of Bottle Rocket, The Matrix instead of Bound, Raising Arizona instead of Blood Simple, Jaws instead of The Sugarland Express. There are exceptions, of course: Some filmmakers nail it right out of the gate, while others take longer to find their voices. But a second movie is when a debut’s promise becomes a career.
It’s an important distinction, especially when it comes to filmmakers who aren’t white men. As Rebecca Keegan writes in the Los Angeles Times, “First films are often made in a democratic fashion—on low-cost cameras, with crowd-funded budgets and crews made up of college friends. But second movies typically rely more on the machinery of Hollywood, a machinery that has often excluded women and minorities.” White men, who fit the industry’s idea of what a filmmaker looks like, can parlay even a modest Sundance debut into a major franchise gig: Marc Webb followed the bittersweet romance 500 Days of Summer with two Amazing Spider-Man movies (the franchise is now being rebooted again, but with yet another Sundance success story, Cop Car’s Jon Watts), and Colin Trevorrow’s modestly clever time-travel adventure Safety Not Guaranteed was enough to get him Jurassic World, a job he was suggested for because director Brad Bird told Jurassic World’s producers he “reminds me of me.”
Given Jurassic World’s enormous global success, Trevorrow looks in retrospect like a pretty savvy choice. But consider the case of Josh Trank, who after his crafty found-footage superhero movie, Chronicle, was handed the reins to Fantastic Four. Even before the movie’s release, rumors began to circulate (or were planted) that Trank had been withdrawn and erratic on set, and when Fantastic Four was finally unveiled, it was a disaster, bearing obvious marks of major reshoots and editing-room fixes. For a while, Fox maintained it was going ahead with plans for a sequel, but in November, it vanished from the studio’s schedule.
To an extent, there’s no way to tell which filmmakers are ready to make the transition to the big leagues: No matter how sure-handed the debut, there’s an enormous leap of faith involved. And far more often than not, that faith is extended to the same kinds of directors it’s always been extended to. According a report produced in 2015 by the Director’s Guild of America, only 6.4 percent of feature films produced in the previous two years were directed by women and only 12.5 percent by ethnic minorities. Limit the figures to movies with budgets over $100 million, and 96.8 of those movies were directed by men.
That the DGA’s diversity report, the organization’s first of its kind, even exists is a sign that the industry is changing—or trying to. But if you watch a documentary like 2003’s Sisters in Cinema, which interviews black female directors about their experiences in the industry, or look over Slate’s Black Film Canon, it’s striking how often you see the pattern repeated: a promising debut followed by a long gap, or sometimes by nothing at all. In 1990, Wendell B. Harris won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize for Chameleon Street, which was based on the true story of a black con artist who passed himself off as a doctor, a lawyer, and a member of the Detroit Tigers. Twenty-six years later, he has yet to make another feature. In 2014, he tried to fund his long-awaited follow-up via Kickstarter. He asked for $60,000. He got $2,647.