There are a lot of successful producers in Hollywood who can’t seem to do any wrong when it comes to pairing story ideas with talented actors and directors to make movies that are hugely popular among moviegoers.
Much of the time it’s the people in front of the camera or those helming the movies that get all the credit, but anyone who has made a movie knows the importance of a producer on keeping things on track from the very beginning to the very end.
Then there’s the case of James Wan, a filmmaker who came out of nowhere (actually Australia via Malaysia) in 2004 when his debut feature Saw premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Days before the movie’s World Premiere, Lionsgate picked up distribution rights, and the buzz behind the movie and a genius Halloween release later that year led to an $18.3 million opening and a domestic gross of $55 million. The movie cost $1.2 million to make.
Normally, a filmmaker would stay involved with a successful film, and while Wan continued to co-write and oversee the hugely successful sequels to Saw — well, four of them were successful as they maintained the model of making the movies cheaply — he decided to move onto other things as a director.
His 2007 follow-up, Dead Silence, co-written with Whannell, was a disastrous bomb, and his revenge thriller, Death Sentence, released later that year, didn’t fare much better.
At this point, Hollywood might have thought they’d seen the last of Wan, but in 2011, Wan and Whannell brought their latest horror film, Insidious, to the Toronto International Film Festival’s “Midnight Madness” section. Before the following morning, distribution was bought by Sony and upstart distributor, Film District. It’s important to note that for this movie, Wan and Whannell teamed with producer Jason Blum, who had been having similar success with his low-budget Paranormal Activity movies.
Film District released the movie the following April to gross nearly $100 million worldwide, and Wan was soon signed onto New Line’s The Conjuring, based on the real-life cases of supernatural experts, Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. That movie grossed $300 million worldwide and led to the greenlighting of a sequel and the Annabelle spin-off, produced by Wan.
But first, Wan would direct Insidious 2, a movie that would be even more successful than its predecessor. When Justin Lin left the Fast and Furious franchise after four movies, Wan was suggested to Universal and the producers to direct the seventh movie. That movie made $1.5 BILLION dollars worldwide or 1,000 times the budget of Wan’s first movie, for those keeping track.
New Line / Warner Bros.
Okay, that’s a lot of information to ingest without answering the most obvious question, which is “How does a director who was close to being locked up in director’s jail in 2007 become one of Hollywood’s most successful filmmakers ten years later?”
That’s what I’m here to explain, because if you ask any successful actor or director or screenwriter or producer in Hollywood how they became successful, you’re going to be hard-pressed to get more than a polite shrug. It’s not something anyone wants to spend more than a few seconds pondering before getting back to work.
In the case of Wan, I actually can tell you exactly why he’s successful, and it’s a lot more than his ability to come up with brilliant ideas that can launch multiple franchises.
Mind you, I’ve interviewed Wan many times over the years, going all the way back to the original Saw, an experience I’ll never forget because Wan and his creative partner, Leigh Whannell, were so full of energy and enthusiasm it was hard to forget them. Years later, I’d interview the duo for the first Insidious at TIFF, and they had the exact same level of enthusiasm and excitement to talk about their movie.
In fact, I’ve spoken to Wan for almost every single one of his films since then, except one, and no one was happier to see him being brought on for Furious 7 and being able to overcome the tragic death of Paul Walker and how that affected everyone involved with the production (including a year’s delay) to still create the most successful hit in the franchise.
Even after that movie’s huge success, Wan returned to horror, the genre he loves, to direct The Conjuring 2, a movie that was just as successful as the first movie.
Currently, Wan is down in his former home of Australia finishing work on Warner Bros’ Aquaman with Jason Momoa. Entourage jokes aside, I honestly think that the movie and character will be accepted similar to the recent success of Wonder Woman. And this is Aquaman, mind you, a superhero who has been the butt of jokes for decades, even being mocked on Saturday Night Live
As a producer, Wan is joining the likes of Joel Silver, Fast and Furious producer Neal Moritz, Pirates of the Caribbean’s Jerry Bruckheimer and others, at least in the horror space, by coming up with ideas that can be mined into successful on-going franchises and then putting together the best teams to realize them.
A few examples includes last year’s hit horror film Lights Out and the prequel Annabelle: Creation, which is currently bringing avid fans of the franchise into theaters worldwide. Wan also has the MacGyver reboot on CBS, which has been renewed for a second season, and the currently in-production The Nun and The Crooked Man, both Conjuring spin-offs. He’s also been hired to reboot previous Paul WS Anderson video game franchises, Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil, which may end up being two of Wan’s bigger challenges.
New Line / Warner Bros.
From the little I’ve gleaned from my few interactions in Wan, it’s pretty obvious to me that his unquenchable love for movies and genre films in particular that’s driven him to become so successful in those fields. When someone has the type of enthusiasm for making movies as Wan and other filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro and Edgar Wright, that love for the filmmaking process is infectious, and it means everyone on the cast and crew wants to do their best work.
It’s actually not that difficult a formula, because it’s more than just having great ideas or a particular vision, but having a way to communicate those things to others in a way that wants them to bring their A-game to every aspect of realizing said vision.
Maybe this can be disputed or disproven, but I’ve seen enough great movies and talked to enough of their filmmakers and actors that I can tell when they had a great experience on set making the movie and when things didn’t really click.
Wan has found a way to make things click, and that’s translated to both the movies he directs as the ones he produces in a way that the results quickly connect with moviegoers.
Whether it’s creating the surprising amounts of emotion in a big-budget action movie like Furious 7 or creating the types of scares that creeps out even the most avid horror fan, Wan has turned his very unique and distinctive personality into something that makes people want to work with him again and again. In some ways, that’s almost as important for a director as knowing where to place a camera or how to edit footage together to create something unique.
It doesn’t hurt that Wan’s early career was making movies fast and on a ridiculously low budget, so he also knows the meaning of money and how important it is for a movie to make its money back. But that also hasn’t stopped him from exploring his quirkier tastes with some of the weirdness of the Insidious movies.
While nothing lasts forever and everyone eventually makes mistakes, right now it seems like Wan can do no wrong. While we have a year’s wait to see how his Aquaman turns out, we’ll see two more by-products of his earlier work before then with The Nun spin-off and Insidious: Chapter 4, both which he’s producing. While sequels may be a risky venture these days, the idea of a spin-off from The Conjuring 2 should prove just as popular as the Annabelle movies.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor