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Sometimes, when a quirky visionary hits it big with a mainstream movie, he can do whatever he wants from that point on.
An Auteur License is given to an Auteur type director who makes movies or TV series with a strong artistic style and grants them immunity from having to compromise their artistic vision in a mainstream setting. Auteur films typify the concept of Auteur theory which states that a film's director reflects that director's personal creative vision, as if he were the primary "Auteur" (the French word for "author"). While the theory technically applies to all films, it has come to signify small independent "Art House" cinema that has a high degree of quirky, "artistic" content. More often than not an Auteur director also writes much of the content of their work in order to ensure complete control over their creative vision.
Usually Auteur directors are pertinently relegated to the art house circuit as their films are generally deemed unmarketable to a wide audience. As such their films are appropriately cost constrained to avoid them spending large amounts of money on a film that few people will see. However, every so often work by an Auteur director will strike it big with a mass audience and either make an inordinate amount of money, earn a plethora of awards or both. In these cases the director may be granted an Auteur License by the film industry to make their unique type of films for a mainstream audience with a mainstream budget.
Because the usual studio system is unequipped to deal with the Auteur's unique artistic vision, the Auteur License grants them Protection From Editors and an exemption from Executive Meddling. This sort of treatment may cause the previously under known director to get an inflated ego, but an Auteur License does not imply this outcome.
The Auteur License is valid for as long as the Auteur director's work continues to make money at the box office. For some Auteurs this can last quite a long time, while others have had theirs revoked before their first piece is even fully realized. More often than not the magic of the first groundbreaking film is impossible to reproduce and result can range from something mediocre to box office bomb to the complete bankruptcy of the production company or studio. At this state the Auteur License can be revoked and the Auteur will be forced back into the art house world or stuck making movies with much much less creative control. However there have been quite a number of Auteurs that can maintain the success of their first films and build their style into a valuable brand that can even insulate their License from the occasional failure.
An Auteur License is not to be confused with your run of the mill star power earned with consistently high grossing, top quality work. While all creative work can bear the artistic stamp of its author, an Auteur License grants the bearer the ability to make a piece far outside what is considered standard fare and that would not normally be green lit.
Fun fact: As William Goldman pointed out, if you think about it, Russ Meyer fit this perfectly. He produced and wrote his movies all by himself, also did the camera work and the cut, and definitely had his unique, very personal artistic vision, if you know what I mean.
Protection From Editors is a less-positively related trope.
When an Auteur license is revoked, see Fallen Creator.
See also Prima Donna Director, when a big-name director has a (possibly justified) big ego.
- Akira Kurosawa was granted a Auteur License for the Pearl Harbor epic Tora! Tora! Tora! based on his strong body of work in Japanese cinema. In charge of the Japanese unit of the bi-national production costs and delays quickly got out of control due to Kurosawa's perfectionism. At one point he ordered a set completely repainted because it was a slightly wrong shade of white. Kurosawa was fired as director while the film was still in production being replaced by Kinji Fukasaku and very little, if any, of his footage made the final cut. The fact of his Auteur License being revoked was evidenced by never working in Hollywood again.
- Director Terrence Malick received his Auteur License after Days of Heaven, went into J. D. Salinger-esque seclusion for the next 20 years, and re-emerged to make The Thin Red Line, whereupon 20 major Hollywood stars lined up to get a part in the film, seven of whom were left on the cutting room floor. The studio pulled the plug on the film, whereupon 20th Century Fox insisted Malick employ more Hollywood stars, many of whom were offering to work for free... Malick retained his big-budget Auteur License for his next film, The New World (2005) with Colin Farrell.
- As of his Palme d'Or-winning 2011 epic The Tree of Life, he seems to have kept it.
- Director M. Night Shyamalan had a breakout hit with The Sixth Sense and was granted an Auteur License that allowed him to produce more of his signature Twist Ending films. While the next film Unbreakable achieved some success, and Signs was another hit. The Village made money but lost some critical respect. His next two films were outright flops, and Shyamalan became a target of mockery. His Auteur License was revoked right after he tried to show it off in Lady in the Water, and now he is having to make films from established franchises instead of his own stories. That hasn't worked out so well either.
- Stanley Kubrick: Spartacus made him famous, but he didn't earn his Auteur License until after Dr. Strangelove. (In between, he suffered major Executive Meddling on Lolita.) For the rest of his life, he had enough respect to get away with strange, arty films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Eyes Wide Shut. (That last was his very last completed film.)
- Orson Welles got issued his Auteur License right off the bat by RKO Pictures for his first film, Citizen Kane, based on his work in radio and theatre. Welles directed, wrote, produced, and starred in it. While this movie is now considered one of the greatest films ever made, the content picked a fight with media mogul William Randolph Hearst whose papers refused to carry advertisements for the film causing it to fail financially. While his contract gave him exclusive control over his next film, The Magnificent Ambersons, the result was deemed unreleasable by the executives and was hacked to pieces by the studio. Welles' Auteur License was revoked at that point and he eventually had to spend long periods of time in Europe to exercise his creative vision.
- Walt Disney ran his own animation studio and served as producer on every project, so he may have received his Auteur License earlier than this, but he got it for certain (along with seven dwarf-sized Academy Awards) after presenting Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the first feature-length animated film to be made in Technicolor. (It's not the first feature-length animated film, just the first one anyone remembers). His work in animation was bold and innovative, proving the medium could do more than make silly cartoons. Though his later work was rarely as well-received as Snow White, he managed to use the money and prestige won off that one film to begin work on several more. Eventually his company became so profitable that he was beholden to no one in terms of what he could do. Ironically, around the same time, he lost interest in animation and began to work on his theme park.
- And live action movies - which met with various degrees of success.
- Woody Allen. He's practically had an auteur license since he started making movies forty-five years ago (his second film was a Japanese spy movie he bought and put a Gag Dub on top of. And it was approved!). His big success with Annie Hall in 1977 is what made him untouchable, even after he made a string of movies generally considered mediocre in the late 1980s through early 2000s, and after the "marrying his stepdaughter" incident that would've ended a lesser celebrity's career. The string of movies since 2005's Match Point are generally considered to be a comeback for him, but if he didn't have a strong case of this trope, he wouldn't have lasted long enough to have a comeback.
- It helps that he makes movies on relatively low budgets, and hence doesn't have to meet as many box-office needs as other movies.
- The budget itself is helped by his license; actors undoubtedly accept less money than they otherwise would, because it's a Woody Allen film.
- It helps that he makes movies on relatively low budgets, and hence doesn't have to meet as many box-office needs as other movies.
- After being forced to chop down the theatrical cuts of Aliens and The Abyss, James Cameron got his after Terminator 2. It was renewed after Titanic became the highest-grossing film of all time. Now that he's topped that feat with Avatar, it's safe to say that Cameron has a lifetime pass because his films practically grant licenses to print money.
- After a decade of often much-acclaimed films, both small- and large-scale (ranging from Mash to Nashville to 3 Women) Robert Altman got this for 1980's Popeye -- a live-action, big-budget family musical based on the comic strip and cartoon hero -- via super-producer Robert Evans. Unfortunately, the resultant film had a long, difficult shoot and got very mixed notices from critics, and couldn't gross enough money to prove profitable; Altman spent the remainder of the decade making much smaller-scale films that attracted little attention from anyone besides film critics -- and it was just getting started! He didn't make his comeback until The Player in 1992.
- Tim Burton got his after Batman in 1989. Pee Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice had both been bigger-than-expected hits for Warner Brothers, but he still faced a good deal of Executive Meddling on Batman. Once it was a megahit, he became a big enough name that not only he given a good deal of creative freedom on Edward Scissorhands, but it was his previous track record and now-signature style that was used to sell it to audiences. Although some of his subsequent films have been critical and/or commercial disappointments, he's had enough successes to hang on to the license.
- Quentin Tarantino at this point has pretty much permission to bend what he wants, where he wants, who he wants.
- Literary example: Kurt Vonnegut used and abused his novelistic auteur license to write a novel illustrated with his own quirky line drawings in which he features as a character (the wonderful Breakfast of Champions) and a semi-novel about his abortive attempt to write a novel called Timequake. It contains many parts of the Timequake story itself, interspersed with Vonnegut just talking about life, himself, and how things are going in general, and is generally touching.
- Steven Spielberg after Jaws.
- Christopher Nolan after The Dark Knight. After Inception, he's likely to hang on to it for a long time to come.
- Francis Ford Coppola earned his license by adapting, producing, and directing the awesome one-two punch of The Godfather Part II and Apocalypse Now. He used his newfound clout and money to build his own studio, American Zoetrope, where he planned to house an artistic community, turning out medium-budget passion projects. Unfortunately, his first such film, One From The Heart, went cataclysmically over budget. Unlike the similarly out-of-control Apocalypse Now, Heart flopped mightily upon release, and Coppola pulled it from theatres after a few weeks. Zoetrope was sold, Coppola's license was revoked, and he spent a good chunk of the 80s and 90s as a director for hire, trying to forge his way back to financial solvency. He has recently taken to financing his films with the proceeds from his vineyard and winery.
- Michael Bay has became heavily associated and famous for his brain-dead, over the top action movies with huge explosions. He gained his Auteur License after Armageddon and his visual style has been heavily copied in modern action films. He even made fun of his filmmaking style in this Verizon commercial.
- George Lucas had the run-of-the-mill star power with American Graffiti. He basically wrote, issued, and certified his license with some movie about a farm boy looking for his destiny. Due to its success, Lucas has made anything he wanted, anyway he wanted, since. Lucas even sets the terms for when his movies are released, at what theaters, and how the gross profits are divvied up.
- Since, you know, he owns his own studio. The last three films he directed were financed by Lucas himself, with Fox only distributing. Basically Lucas created his own licensing board and gave himself a license.
- And, he actually said "screw you" to the Director's Guild in 1981 (after they demanded he put credits at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back) and yet still manages to make movies, albeit with other talent willing to defy the union. This, sadly, scotched plans for Steven Spielberg directing Return of the Jedi.
- In the beginning of his career, Martin Scorsese cranked out a number of bonafide classics, (Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Raging Bull, etc). However, these were buffered by a number of financial flops, disallowing him the kind of carte blanche enjoyed by others on this page. However, since the release of Goodfellas in 1990, he's mostly been allowed to make his movies his way. Mostly.
- Truly talented director Michael Cimino got his license with The Deer Hunter and promptly lost it with Heavens Gate.
- Given the wild success of their movies, Pixar has earned theirs, especially with the release of movies like WALL-E and Up.
- Peter Jackson earned his license with The Lord of The Rings, which then allowed him to make a 3-hour King Kong movie with a $200 million budget.
- Judd Apatow got his with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which has also given him Protection From Editors and in return created movies with a lot of Padding.
- Jean-Luc Godard received his auteur license after the success of his first film, Breathless, leading him to make more complex and politically-driven films which consequently diminished much of the commercial and critical acclaim that first film earned. To this day, he still grips on to that license.
- A trend that's becoming popular in recent years is to bring the directors of blockbusters back in exchange for agreeing to bankroll vanity projects that the directors might otherwise not get the chance to make. The vanity projects will typically be lower-budgeted, and the studios know they can eat the loss from the gross of the blockbuster sequel, so they give the director complete control. Michael Bay got this deal for Pain&Gain when he agreed to direct Transformers: Dark of the Moon, but the REAL kind of this is Christopher Nolan, who was able to get $160 million to make Inception, and then made it profitable anyway...
- The application of this to the Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle anime was how Bee Train, while good at original works, ended up with a reputation for ill-advised adaptations.