The other week, journalist Olly Richards published a heartbreaking piece in The Telegraph called “How Kerry Conran saw Hollywood’s future—then got left behind.” It’s worth reading in its entirety, but, in short, it recounts the unorthodox journey of the Conran brothers, Kerry and Kevin, the former a magazine designer and the latter a freelance ad illustrator (neither with any apparent foothold in Hollywood at the time), who set out to make a cost-efficient, feature-length, dieselpunk effects fantasy entirely via blue-screen compositing, a speculative project that ultimately came to the attention of producer Jon Avnet (The Mighty Ducks, Fried Green Tomatoes), who secured the participation of big-screen stars Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jude Law. The resulting film, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), which Kerry wrote and directed (with Kevin serving as costume and production designer), represents a quantum leap in contemporary effects-driven filmmaking, in which immersive, world-building spectacles, once achieved strictly via painstaking practical effects and/or arduous location shooting (think the original Star Wars, with its model spaceships and exotic Tunisian locales) would forevermore be rendered digitally—and economically—from the comfort of a Hollywood studio. In the wake of their cinematic accomplishment, the Conrans were invited to participate in a summit at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in which visionaries the likes of James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis, Brad Bird, and Robert Rodriguez were in attendance—and professed to be genuine fans of the Conrans’ groundbreaking work (as did J. J. Abrams, per Kevin, on another occasion).
Sky Captain, alas, underperformed, and the Conrans, who by their own admission made no effort to stay in touch with any of the aforementioned filmmakers—“We were in this rarified air for a moment and we never really took advantage in the way maybe smarter people would,” Kevin lamented in the Telegraph piece—soon found themselves left behind as Hollywood moved on to the very World of Tomorrow that the brothers and their ill-fated film had helped pioneer; they haven’t made another studio feature since.
Who knows why, really? The fact that Sky Captain bombed probably didn’t help (and the article offers compelling reasons for why that may have happened and how it could’ve even been avoided with smarter budgeting), but that hasn’t slowed down the careers of the Wachowskis or M. Night Shyamalan, who haven’t appeared to have had any problem securing jobs even after multiple high-profile flops apiece. Bad luck moving forward may have played its part, with the Conrans’ planned John Carter film falling victim to a regime change at Paramount. And that they weren’t shrewder networkers couldn’t have done them any favors—not in a town where people want to work with their “friends” (to the extent that any of us in Hollywood really have genuine friends within the industry); Kevin seems acutely aware of this, admonishing himself as “pretty dumb” for his insular work habits that keep him confined to his studio and altogether unaware of who’s doing what in Hollywood at large.
I don’t think he’s dumb—a self-assessment like that is most likely a defense mechanism—but I do have a hunch as to why the Conrans’ careers flamed-out before they got started, and it goes to that last point about their aversion to hobnobbing. Here’s the salient question Richards’ article doesn’t probe: Why didn’t they network—especially when Hollywood’s elite were coming to them? Much is made in the article of their shared (and evidently congenital) introversion, and I can certainly accept that as a characteristic common to artistic personalities, but is the Conrans’ fate perhaps a cautionary fable about the perils of soaring too high, too soon? Of, ultimately, getting more than you’d bargained for—or ever really wanted in the first place?
Let me elaborate: They didn’t, so far as I can tell from the backstory presented in the profile, toil day and night in the hopes of maybe, just possibly, against all odds achieving Hollywood success. They didn’t come up through the industry trenches, enduring setback after setback in an effort to prove their commercial and creative worth in a dog-eat-dog town. Yes, I acknowledge, per the article, that they spent seven years making a six-minute Sky Captain presentational reel—I don’t belittle the commitment and hard work that takes (and certainly no two paths to success are alike)—but no sooner had they sent it out than a major producer jumped aboard, and Kerry found himself directing his first feature film with no less than Angelina Jolie in a starring role! Few aspiring filmmakers—and any of you out there appreciate what a dramatic understatement this is—are so fortunate. And then George Lucas invites them to a seat at the table with the big boys, and they didn’t seem to know how to capitalize on that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. That’s the real tragedy here—not the box-office failure of a single movie, which, though unfortunate, could still have served as an adequate stepping stone to bigger and better things.
I submit, with full acknowledgment and firsthand understanding of the indiscriminate (and often cruel) vagaries of this business, that someone who’s worked for a career in studio filmmaking—and, more importantly, wanted it—for years and years and years on end would likely not have squandered the uniquely favorable circumstances the Conrans were accorded. I’m not piling on them, by the way—they’ve clearly been ground into the dirt by the heel of Hollywood (as well as imposed no small degree of self-punishment, as any of the quotes attributed to Kevin in the Telegraph article will substantiate)—I’m simply suggesting that there’s a reason why we pay our dues before we find success: It prepares us to deal with that success—and to make the most of it, because we know what we sacrificed to attain it. And it conditions us to deal with failure—the kind that crushed the Conrans. Rejection—and there’s no shortage of it here in Tinseltown—builds character: Those that can’t take it pack their bags (usually after only a year, as I can attest from having waved goodbye to many a colleague who determined that the cost of their show-business dues was more than they were willing to ante up—yet another invaluable takeaway from a conventional, rung-by-rung climb to the top); those that endure may never attain the precise career they’d envisioned, but they gain the self-confidence that comes from sticking it out and earning one’s place in this town. It seems to me the Conrans were caught between worlds: They’d made a big-budget movie with marquee actors—the dream of every aspiring filmmaker out here—but that didn’t make them feel as though they deserved their seat at court. And I’m not suggesting they did or they didn’t; I’m simply noting that they didn’t feel it in their hearts, it would seem—the only place that counts—and, consequently, they let themselves recede rather unceremoniously from view. (They just did so after the release of their first movie, whereas most of us never get that far before throwing in the towel.) No one who’s fought so hard to be seen—and heard—goes so quietly into the night. Failure teaches resilience. To have been unhabituated to that when your first feature flops would, I suspect, reduce one to an emotionally devastated mindset from which it would be hard to recover.
I was 22 years old and right out of college—still living in New York—when I signed with my first literary manager off an action/horror spec I’d written called BONE ORCHARD; I thought I’d “made it”! But, the script didn’t sell, and that management company folded shortly thereafter, leaving me back where I’d started: nowhere. So, I packed up and left New York for Los Angeles—on September 11, 2001 (a story for another time)—and that’s when the real work began: I learned about the politics of networking, and that moxie will get you everywhere in this town; I met people with talent and no hustle, with hustle and no talent; I met bullshitters—so many bullshitters; I met “creatives” without the first idea how to tell a story; I met storytelling masters—and learned from them, long after I thought I’d licked the discipline, how to tell a story. I learned something from all of them, in point of fact—and, most of all, I learned how badly I wanted a writing career. If BONE ORCHARD had sold way back when—and it certainly went out to a far more receptive spec marketplace than the moribund one we’re stuck with today—I’m certain I would have been a one-sale wonder myself: I’d have sold a script to Hollywood without any idea of what it takes to forge a career in Hollywood; I’d have accomplished something without having paid my dues first, and I wouldn’t have known how to handle all that came next. BONE ORCHARD wasn’t a failure; I simply wasn’t ready for success.
And that, if I had to guess, was what undid Kerry and Kevin Conran more than anything else. Their dream was to make an idiosyncratic, handmade movie—the kind of inexpensively produced yet visually arresting digital filmmaking that’s since become routine as the gap between consumer-grade and professional-caliber technologies has closed in the last decade—not establish a career as the next go-to tent-pole technicians. (Hey, I get that: I recently decided—after fifteen years of trying—against pursuing a career writing sequels to reboots of yesteryear’s franchises in favor of working for myself, beholden only to my own creative whims, as a novelist.) Sky Captain, however, became a product of Hollywood, and the Conrans’ careers a casualty of it—of a system they didn’t understand or ultimately long to be a part of; it wasn’t discomfort that kept them from “playing the game,” as the article suggests—it was ultimately disinterest. If the fire to make big-studio films had burned in their bellies—something they might’ve developed (or simply determined they didn’t have) had the road to success been a bit more winding—Sky Captain’s box-office disappointment wouldn’t necessarily have taken them down with it.
Many promising filmmakers, after all, have had inauspicious debuts, and still went on to great careers: take George Lucas (THX 1138), Robert Zemeckis (I Wanna Hold Your Hand), and James Cameron (Piranha II: The Spawning), for instance, all of whom persevered in the face of early professional setbacks to go on to create (multiple) groundbreaking, culturally significant cinematic “worlds of tomorrow”—and even many of those colossal hits had long, perilous roads from visions in their heads to images on the screen. Reflecting on the massive success of Batman (1989) in the documentary Shadows of the Bat: The Cinematic Saga of the Dark Knight, director Tim Burton (who cut his teeth as a Disney animator) observed, “I thought it would make things easier, funny enough—I thought, ‘Well, you know, I’ve had a couple of successes, so it was going to get easier.’ And, so, I learned my lesson from there that it was not—and it would never—become easy to get a film made.” Even the A-list continue to pay their dues, it would seem. If something’s worth it to you, you find a way to see it through.
But you’ve got to be okay with getting your ass kicked a little—and learn to take value from the experience so you might fight a little harder, a little smarter, for the next dream. Because that’s the thing about tomorrow: that it will come is a given—the sunrise is one of the few gifts we can take for granted—but what we make of the day itself is entirely up to us.