x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

If at first you do succeed

As MEIFF introduces a new category for first- and second-time directors, Zaineb al Hassani looks at the careers that got off to good starts.

Abu Dhabi's Middle East International Film Festival has just introduced a new category: the Afaq Jadida (New Horizons) Competition, which will focus on the works of first- and second-time directors. Films nominated in the new category will also be eligible for several other awards, each of which comes with a $100,000 (Dh367,280) prize for the winner. The road to success (both critical and financial) is often hard, with many well-known directors waiting years before seeing their names in bright lights.

Take, for example, Steven Spielberg, whose movies regularly hit the $100 million mark in box office receipts and who commands an A-list line-up. When he first started out in 1964 at 16 years of age, his sci-fi film Firelight made a profit of just $1. With a budget of $500, it is a far cry from the reported $130 million he has secured for his latest venture, Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, in 3D.

The same goes for M Night Shyamalan, who released two unsuccessful films before striking gold with The Sixth Sense in 1999. The Indian-American's second movie, Wide Awake (1998), made a grand total of $288,000 against a production budget of $7 million. Released through Miramax (which was then an up-and-coming independent studio) the film's supernatural theme would present itself in future, more successful Shyamalan efforts.

The late Stanley Kubrick started off on a similar footing with his first films, including Fear and Desire (1953) and Killer's Kiss (1955), failing to make any real impact. Although both productions performed poorly, critics noted the potential in the young director, who went on to films such as Spartacus (1960), Lolita (1962) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). But for every successful director who had to wait their turn for acclaim, there is another who managed to hitch a ride straight to the top of the Hollywood fame chain with his or her directorial debut.

One lucky director who took this route is Quentin Tarantino, whose first two movies were Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994). Reservoir Dogs, of course, has gone on to become one of the most revered and influential movies of the last century despite early criticism for its violent content. Similarly, Pulp Fiction was nominated for seven Oscars (with Tarantino picking up the award for Best Original Screenplay) as well as taking the prestigious Palme d'Or trophy at Cannes.

The late John Hughes was another director who struck it lucky with his first two directorial efforts - 16 Candles (1984) and The Breakfast Club (1985). These films inspired a generation of angst-ridden teenagers, and many a high school movie since. And although Michael Lehmann never went on to achieve the same success as Hughes, his second film (which also centred on adolescent turmoil) became a massive cult classic. Heathers (1988), which starred Winona Ryder and Christian Slater as a pair of murderous teenagers, was initially a box-office flop despite winning Lehmann an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature.

And if any more encouragement for fledging directors was needed, surely inspiration can be found in the American director, John Huston, who began his illustrious career in 1941 with the film noir classic The Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart as the private investigator Sam Spade. It is often named as one of the greatest films of all time.