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Sunday, October 1, 2023

In Defense of Vanity Projects


  • Vanity projects can be divisive, with audiences often feeling deceived when the hype doesn’t match the execution.
  • Filmmakers who refuse to compromise and have full control over their projects can be seen as interesting and admirable, even if their films are not critically acclaimed.
  • While some vanity projects flop, others, like Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky and Billy Bob Thornton’s Slingblade, go on to find success and critical acclaim, challenging the notion that all vanity projects are bad.

Cringe is in the eye of the beholder. Indeed, everyone thinks they are star-worthy. Modern social media is founded on the promise anyone can quit their dreary day-job. Isn’t every new director/writer/star guilty of this crime? Rudy Ray Moore’s body of work was only possible through his delusion he could act and knew karate. Today, his films are considered cult classics. Quentin Tarantino cast himself in his own movies, and he has made a reputation indulging in his pedantic film knowledge to the delight of millions, playing his private record collection to us in every film he has made thus far.

Why does the term “vanity project” have such a nasty reputation? The obvious answer is hubris. But it really has to do with the gap between hype and execution. Audiences don’t like feeling duped.

Neil Breen — you knew we had to go there — is, for better or worse, one of the most interesting filmmakers of recent times. Why? He doesn’t compromise. That is, except when it comes to budget. In churning out an impressive array of different genres on his resume, his self-made films prove that anyone can be a screen icon. Small note, Breen is also the poster child of the backlash against vanity projects, the joke of the internet.

Or could it be that we all feel a little jealous of a man creating the work he wants to, with unfettered control? Without the same artistic urge that produces After Earth we also wouldn’t have any of Martin Scorsese’s films either.

When Good Intentions Go Wrong

CHiPS Is R-Rated and Loaded with Nudity, First Photo Revealed

What constitutes a vanity project? Patton Oswalt hit the nail on the head, identifying cult films as the work of self-important filmmakers (usually men, often martial artists, frequently with thinning hair, who sing), who not only want to be the center of attention, but who deceive themselves into the belief that “I’m bringing the masses something that will change the world.” The problem with this sentiment is that every artist thinks this way. If not, why are any entertainers doing all this work? Just for a paycheck?

On the less artistic side, we get films like CHIPS, the brainchild of Dax Sheppard. In interviews, he admitted the opportunistic purpose of the film, saying, “I’m always looking for something that will hold both comedy and motor sports. I’m looking for anything that I think I can combine those two things and that someone will make. So, this movie’s got the safety net of being a global brand, a global property.” He not only wanted to ride motorcycles, he wanted to be paid for indulging in his hobby, and so chose a recognizable IP to exploit for multiple movies. Too bad no one else shared his enthusiasm. The CHIPS cinematic universe was DOA after one installment.

In 2018, we got the thriller Blackbird, the passion project of former dancer Michael Flatley. Did anyone want to see the River Dance guy reinvent himself as Daniel Craig? No, and it summons necessary comparisons to Tommy Wiseau’s much-loathed tragic romance The Room.

Related: Is Netflix’s FUBAR Any Good or Just an Arnold Schwarzenegger Vanity Project?

Exceptions to the Rule?

Sling Blade
Miramax Films

In the mid-70s a young actor of no acclaim, battling for bit parts on the peripheral of the acting world, decided to capture his feelings of insecurity and impotence. The script he penned was called Rocky. We know how it turned out, the screenwriter currently has an Oscar on his shelf. What we should remember is that Sylvester Stallone refused to let anyone else play the title role, turning down offers for his script at a time he was struggling to pay his bills, only relenting when it came to directing it himself. Should we label this a vanity project too? Isn’t that only fair?

Slingblade, written, directed, and starring Billy Bob Thornton, began life in a different form. The veteran actor played throwaway role after throwaway role (he’s the dummy getting slapped in Tombstone), before pouring his heart and soul into a 1986 stage play about a mentally challenged man. That very same character found his way into a 29-minute black and white short film. After a dispute with the director, he refused to even acknowledge it, despising the way it ultimately turned out and his lack of control. He convinced producers to take a chance, and he, too, found worldwide respect. Should we hold it against the guy that he had a vision and defied everyone in Hollywood to get it made his way? Is the only way we’ll let an ego slide if the guy gets an Oscar?

Related: Billy Bob Thornton’s Most Underrated Movies, Ranked

Waiters of the World Unite

Vin Diesel in Fast & Furious Tokyo Drift
Universal Pictures

We don’t hate vanity projects, and make no mistake, they are tied to excessive self-esteem; no sane person would jeopardize their future otherwise. Taking ridiculous chances goes hand-in-hand with making great movies. Kevin Costner made The Postman precisely because he made Dances With Wolves. We only hate the bad ones, which is such a reductive observation to make it is utterly pointless. A good movie is good, and bad movies = bad. Got that?

Rather, we need vanity projects. Movies are built on a desire to express oneself … and also megalomania and never-satiated egos seeking validation and awards. Orson Welles thought of himself as a one-man band, scraping together funding anyway he could, assigning himself the writing, acting, directing, and probably a few other menial tasks in order to lower costs. Sometimes, he pulled it off, other times he didn’t. In fact, One Man Band was the name of his biographical documentary, which, true to his reputation, was abandoned due to lack of cash.

The funny part about vanity projects is that their creators are pushed to bankrupt themselves to make them in the first place, putting their money (or their gullible investors’) where their mouth is. The result might not be “good” in a strict sense of the word, but they’re more intriguing than most films. Hollywood buries completed films for the sake of profit. Is it so awful to imagine someone caring enough to risk their life savings to make one they do believe in?

No one would argue that M. Night Shyamalan doesn’t build his film around “Mary Sues.” But the guy’s got definite passion for his scripts and the craft of film-making. Vin Diesel built a career off a single autobiographic film about his struggles as a biracial actor in his directorial debut Multi-Facial. That’s quaint and even heroic in the era of focus-tests and actors phoning it in for roles they have absolutely no interest in.

Maybe instead of discouraging struggling actors bussing tables to finance their own movie, we should enjoy their creations, whether bad, unwatchably-bad, or so-bad-it’s-good. Despite all the jokes, Neil Breen and Tommy Wiseau are having fun, so why are we so unhappy with their fame?

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