Jordan Peele is that rarest of things: a director whose name is enough to put butts in theater seats.
For most of Hollywood’s existence, the industry has been driven by stars. This usually meant actors whose name recognition would be enough to draw audiences in on opening weekend. For a long time, Will Smith’s unofficial nickname was “The King of Fourth of July,” and there was also a strongly held belief amongst some studios that all you had to do to sell a film to general audiences was to put Tom Cruise on a movie poster.
But while stars were the main draw, there was a class of directors whose name was enough to draw in a mass audience. The primary example of this is famously Stephen Spielberg, but also at various times James Cameron, George Lucas and other helmers of well-made popcorn fare.
(And to be clear, directors such as Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Bros and the like could certainly draw a sizable audience and tended to rule the world of art house cinema, but with the exception of cultural phenomena like, say, “Goodfellas” and “Pulp Fiction,” these directors’ names alone weren’t going to pull in Tom Cruise opening weekend box office numbers.)
But then the industry changed. In the 2000, Disney (DIS) CEO Bob Iger had the company focus more on developing long-running franchises and turning its intellectual properties into films and TV shows. Other studios began following suit, and in the process recognizable properties became the selling point, much more so than the director or, in many cases, the actor.
This isn’t to say that actors and directors are unimportant, far from it. (Even if a film is based on a very well-known superhero, it’s ultimately unlikely to do well if it’s full-on just a bad film. There are several entrees in the X-Men franchise that bear this out.)
It’s completely understandable if you don’t like this change, and blame Disney for making Hollywood too-franchise centric. But film fans have long complained that everything is a sequel or a remake and there are no original ideas anymore. Yet somehow every year critics and film buffs are able to make year-end lists of movies they love. Things change all the time, but good films tend to find their audience over time.
Jordan Peele Is The Rare Modern-Day Celebrity Director
There are a few directors whose names alone are enough to make sure a film does well on an art-house level or later becomes a word-of-mouth streaming hit. These are the types of directors that become household names in the sort of households that are still mourning the demise of Entertainment Weekly’s print edition and who make bets about who will win the Oscars.
But will all due respect to Greta Gerwig, the Safdie brothers, Luca Guadagnino, Rian Johnson, Barry Jenkins, amongst many others, there’s arguably only filmmakers who came of prominence this century whose name recognition is enough to compete with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Harry Potters of the world.
The first director is Chris Nolan, and part of his stature is because of the audience he gained through his genre-defining work on the “Batman Begins” trilogy.
But Jordan Peele is a special case. He first came to prominence as a writer and performer of the comedy showcase Mad TV, before teaming up with his frequent creative partner Keegan-Michael Key for the era defining sketch program “Key & Peele.” That show had a central creative premise of exploring how the cultural experience of being black had changed in the Obama and social media era…and how much it had not.
His directorial debut “Get Out” earned him an Oscar for Best Screenplay and nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. (This is an exceedingly rare achievement for a horror film.) It also earned $255.5 million worldwide, against a production budget of $4.5 million, a very rare achievement for any film that’s not attached to a franchise or recognizable IP.
The success of “Get Out,” and the follow-up “Us” made Peele the rare filmmaker who is given a sizable (but not too big) budget to realize his vision without having to get a superhero involved.
His latest horror film “Nope,” which will be distributed by Comcast's Universal Pictures, is shaping up to be his most ambitious swing yet. It’s also, with a budget of $68 million, his most expensive film yet, even though that’s nothing compared to what a Marvel film costs, and the film is already projected to make at least $50 million on its opening weekend.
What Is Twitter Saying About 'Nope'?
“Get Out” struck a cultural nerve, and ended becoming one of the most beloved films of the ‘10s by doing what horror movies, at their best, are supposed to do, getting at a fundamental social truth by means of metaphor. “Get Out,” explored the concept of black culture and talent being commercialized and exploited for mass entertainment while actual black life continues to feel precarious to many, while “Us” looked at the way society treats the poor.
Along the way, Peele has answered both a public hungry for original cinematic visions that aren’t part of a Cinematic Universe, and become the rare filmmaker who can produce films with topical commentary that don’t seem didactic and heavy handed.
It helps that he always carefully balanced his desire to raise provocative questions and push cultural buttons with showman’s flair for entertaining the audience.
We don’t want to get too heavy into the plot or themes of “Nope,” because a big part of the fun of his films is discovering these things for yourself, though Peele has talked about how he wanted to explore the concept of the black cowboy, an idea that has largely been written out of America’s cultural history, and that aliens may or may not be involved.
So with that in mind, here’s a spoiler-free round-up of what critics and early viewers (it made $6.4 million in Thursday night previews alone) are saying about the film.
Variety thinks it's a full mood, but isn't quite sold on the script.
Entertainment Weekly couldn't resist the wordplay of saying they're not saying "Nope" to the film. So that's a rave?
Indiewire loves it.
The Ringer thinks its Peels most ambitious film yet, and a lot to take in. But in a good way.
In particular, critics and early reviews are singling out actress Keke Palmer for what's being called a star-making turn.
IGN thinks it's the "best summer blockbuster in years."
The Huffington Post largely likes it, but thinks sometimes Peele's big ideas don't fully land.
Did we mention everyone loves Keke Palmer in this film? Because they really, really do.
But don't worry, there's plenty of love for the Oscar-winning star, Daniel Kaluuya, who is re-teaming here with Peele.
And if the early audiences reactions are anything to go, it sounds like Peele's hot streak isn't ending anytime soon.