5 Directors Who Escaped "Movie Jail"

Directors Who Made Comebacks After Disastrous Career Moves

Mel Gibson
Mark Rogers - Summit Entertainment

For film directors, the best way to continue working for the major studios is to create films that make money. On the flip side, the quickest way to find yourself out of work is to make films that don't make money or to cause so many on-set problems that actors refuse to work with you.

The term "Movie Jail" is used to describe a filmmaker who is essentially exiled from directing movies by the major Hollywood studios. Even the legendary Orson Welles ended up in Movie Jail because of his numerous behind-the-scenes battles with the studios that financed his films—films that rarely made enough money to justify Welles' demands. Another example is filmmaker Michael Cimino, won both Best Picture and Best Director for 1978's The Deer Hunter. His following film—1980's Heaven's Gate—was a critical and commercial bomb of such magnitude that in nearly bankrupted United Artists when it went overbudget. For the rest of his life, Cimino had difficulty finding work as a filmmaker.

However, a few filmmakers have been fortunate enough to escape from the exile of Movie Jail. These five filmmakers have each made a comeback from box office bombs, bad reputations, or a combination of both.

Kenneth Lonergan

Manchester by the Sea
Roadside Attractions

Playwright Kenneth Lonergan became a successful screenwriter (Analyze This, Gangs of New York), and became a film director with 2000's You Can Count on Me. In 2005, Lonergan shot a drama for 20th Century Fox titled Margaret about a conflicted New York teenager (Anna Paquin) who feels responsible for a bus accident. Though the shoot was completed, Lonergan and 20th Century Fox could not agree on the length of the film and their disagreements resulted in several lawsuits.

Fox finally released a 150 minute version in 2011 and then Lonergan's 186 cut the following year. In the meantime, Lonergan was thought of as being difficult to work because of the situation. It wasn't until his friend Matt Damon and other producers hired him to write and direct 2016's Manchester by the Sea that Lonergan had the chance to make another feature film. It helped that Manchester by the Sea was a critical hit and went on to be nominated for six Academy Awards.

David O. Russell

The Fighter
Paramount Pictures

David O. Russell may have directed several acclaimed films like Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings, and I Heart Huckabees, but he developed a reputation for being difficult to work with after having several heated on-set arguments with actors. Leaked footage of him yelling at actors on the set of I Heart Huckabees made his bad reputation public. After an extremely difficult production process on a film titled Nailed, it looked like Russell was persona non grata in the film industry (Nailed was not even released until 2015, now under the title of Accidental Love).

Russell made a comeback with 2010's The Fighter, which was both a box office and critical success. Russell followed The Fighter with Silver Linings Playbook (2012), American Hustle (2013), and Joy (2015).

John Lee Hancock

The Blind Side Poster
The Blind Side Poster.

After directing the modest 2002 sports drama hit The Rookie, John Lee Hancock's "cinema crime" was that he co-wrote and directed The Alamo, a 2004 film about the famous Battle of the Alamo during the Texas Revolution. After receiving terrible reviews from critics, The Alamo grossed just $25.8 million even though it cost four times that amount. That's the type of box office bomb that would end the careers of most film directors.

Surprisingly, Hancock's stay in Movie Jail was brief. Five years after The Alamo he directed The Blind Side, a major box office hit. Sandra Bullock also won an Oscar for her performance in the film. Since then he's also directed the well-received Saving Mr. Banks (2013) and The Founder (2016).

M. Night Shyamalan

The Visit
Universal Pictures

Few directors' careers have reached the highs and lows that M. Night Shyamalan's has. After his first two films barely received a release, his 1999 film The Sixth Sense became one of the most successful films of the 1990s, grossing $673 million worldwide. Shyamalan also directed Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002) and The Village (2004), all of which were also box office successes. However, his reputation took a hit with 2006's Lady in the Water and 2008's The Happening, both which were not as financially successful. While 2010's The Last Airbender and 2013's After Earth were successful at the worldwide box office, they were less successful in the United States and savaged by critics. Many audiences also criticized his tendency of ending his films with surprising twists and often judged an entire film by Shyamalan on the final twist.

Shyamalan turned his fortunes around by downsizing his films. He self-financed lower-budget thrillers The Visit (2015) and Split (2016), both of which received stronger critical and audience praise and were successful at the box office.

Mel Gibson

Hacksaw Ridge
Summit Entertainment

After an incredibly successful career as an actor, Mel Gibson turned his talents to directing. 1995's Braveheart not only won Gibson an Oscar for Best Director, but it also won Best Picture. In 2004, he direct The Passion of the Christ, a film about the Crucifixion of Jesus. Though the film was criticized for its depiction of Jewish leaders during the Crucifixion, it became the highest-grossing R-rated film in U.S. box office history. Gibson then directed the ambitious 2006 film Apocalypto, which was another box office and critical success.

However, behind the scenes Gibson faced controversy for using anti-Semitic language during a drunk driving arrest, numerous issues with alcoholism, and accusations of assaulting his wife. After several public apologies, Gibson returned to directing with 2016's critically acclaimed Hacksaw Ridge. Gibson even received an Oscar nomination for Best Director for Hacksaw Ridge, something that many never expected to ever happen again because of his tarnished reputation.