As Warner Bros slates Christopher Nolan’s next directorial project for release in 2020, Jack Colwill took a look at his stature in film and question if he represents a shift in power at the box office.

There was a time in film history when a film would market itself on the star power in its cast list, back in the era of Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Clarke Gable, Humphrey Bogart, James Dean and the like. In those days, when a film was talked about, it would be defined by the strong-jawed, classically handsome man or elegant and mysterious woman on screen.

It was the age of the old-fashioned movie star.

However, something feels like it has changed in the modern era of cinema. When a film sets tongues wagging in the 21st century, it is more often the name of the director than the star that turns heads and widens eyes.

Directors like Peter Jackson, Quentin Tarantino and James Cameron have been among those to hold this privileged position, as directors whose box office muscle far outstrips that of their stars – take the recent Jackson-produced vehicle (pardon the pun), Mortal Engines, which despite being directed by Christian Rivers and not having an established star to lead the line (arguably apart from Hugo Weaving) benefited at the box office from Jackson’s influence.

However, in recent times, no director has been more emblematic of what we might call the ‘Director Generation’ of cinema than Christopher Nolan.

The fact that Nolan’s next project has been given a July 2020 release date, despite no further detail about the film being provided or even maybe known, and the subsequent excitement from cine-maniacs the world over is evidence enough that Nolan’s name being aligned to a film has become a greater box-office draw than any actor who works under him.

The man who brought us Inception, Dunkirk and the Dark Knight trilogy, among others, is a directorial box office banker these days and he is not the only one.

When one looks around at the media circus surrounding any high-profile film, the director is more often than not the prized interview. If not front and centre in any media coverage, the director is almost certainly taking a more active role in promoting their work than ever before. It is telling, therefore, that Nolan, being as all-encompassing and involved a director as he is, should be a symbol for the rise of the position in popular awareness.

It is also fitting that such a technologically adventurous auteur as Nolan should be so symbolic. It is my belief that the profile of a film director has grown so exponentially in modern filmmaking due to the fact there is simply so much more that the director needs to accomplish for a film to work. With CGI now a huge part of the furniture in filmmaking, processes like digital grading, costume work and ever-more complex set design has meant a director of a modern blockbuster in the Nolan mould simply has so much more ground to cover.

Christopher Nolan Comment

Christopher Nolan on the set of Interstellar

In simpler times, set design and costuming were primary concerns but after that, it was a case of putting the actors in front of the camera and enabling them to bring the film to life. Today, a film is given a sense of realism just as much by digital creation of the image as by the actors. This is not to say that actors are less important in the end product of a film or that actors these days do not work as hard – in fact, with the methods employed by some actors to get ready for roles and the diverse skill set that actors must now have, it is arguable they work harder today than ever before. It is simply, in terms of the pure volume of work, their contribution to a film is empirically a small proportion of the production. Getting good performances from the actors used to be the largest part of the director’s job.

That may not be true anymore.

One need only look at some of the set pieces that Nolan put together in Inception to realise the scale of the task at hand. To stretch the boundaries of cinema is to not only figure out how these kinds of things can be achieved, but then to execute them for real. Nolan, being one of the most forward-thinking directors going, makes him the ideal figurehead for the director generation.

The simple fact of the matter is that filmmaking, while capable of more than would have been believed possible a few decades ago, is now a harder practice than before. The need to push the boundaries and experiment with the cinematic form, and the myriad facets of a film’s production that have to be overseen, means there is so many more considerations and demands placed upon director that a film is now seen as much more of their creation than ever before.

There were directors in the movie star age that still held that prideful place – the likes of Hitchcock, Kubrick and Billy Wilder are still held up as titans and rightfully so. Similarly, there are some actors today that are still as big a draw as their directors with the likes of Jennifer Lawrence, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio springing to mind.

Today, though, the pure scale of the job of making a film has led us to a situation where directors are attributed far more responsibility for the films that bear their name, for better and for worse. The focus is now far more behind the camera than in front of it, in terms of creative definition and overriding responsibility for it in the mind of an audience.

That is not to say that it will not change again before we know it. The power dynamics in cinema may swing back towards the actors, or maybe the age of the Cinematographer is on the horizon.

What we do know, however, is that as we sit here now, it is the directors that are enjoying their time in the sun are concurrently the names that are chiming with the box office – and Christopher Nolan stands in their company as a landmark.

We may not know what Nolan is bringing us in 2020 but we can be sure that it is his name, not his star’s, that will be on everyone’s lips when he does.