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Are Passion Projects actually a good thing for filmmakers?

5th Annual Rome International Film Festival - "La Dolce Vita" Photocall

If you’re a lover of cinema like I am, there’s an inherent extra bit of interest on hand when a director announces that he or she is finally going to make a passion project of theirs. Just this year, we’ve seen Darren Aronofsky finally get Noah to the big screen, while Richard Linklater completed his more than a decade in the making Boyhood in time for the Sundance Film Festival. Almost two years ago, Steven Spielberg brought his vision of Lincoln to the Oscar ceremony, and next year Martin Scorsese seems at long last set to shoot his own passion project Silence. They happen every single year, but the thing is…are they actually a good thing?

Obviously, the upside to passion projects is that the filmmaker in question is almost obsessed with making it as good as possible. They’ve perhaps even had a one track mind for years with these projects. When done right, you get Oscar contenders like the aforementioned Lincoln. It doesn’t always go that way, but when it’s a success, it always seems like a bigger success.

The downside however, is that sometimes it can blind said filmmakers to the inherent issues with the project. Look no further than this year’s Winter’s Tale or 2012’s Cloud Atlas. In the former’s case, Akiva Goldsman encountered near venomous reviews and in the latter’s case, the trio of Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer received as many reviews calling it the worst movie of the year as they did calling it the best. Both films suffered potentially from filmmakers too emotionally invested in the material to see where changes needed to be made.

Earlier this year, Aronofsky’s film Noah met with decidedly mixed reviews, some of which stemming from thoughts that he should have taken a more objective look at the movie. Granted, some of the issues came from his deviations from the religious text, and that’s not a legitimate criticism to me, but the purely cinematic issues are ones that I find to be somewhat valid. Aronofsky is a master filmmaker, but the two films that he received less than raves for were his passion projects (the other one being The Fountain, ironically one of my all time favorite films). Coincidence?

We’ll see soon with Scorsese’s Silence if all this time spent waiting to make the flick will help or hurt it. He spent a long time trying to make Gangs of New York, and that turned out decently well, so perhaps he’s the kind of director who functions at a high level with passion projects. Time will tell in that regard.

In the end, I don’t know if passion projects are actually a good thing or a bad thing, but I do know that they wind up leading to a mixed bag or results, so there’s something in the water, as it were. I’m keen to see how Linklater’s Boyhood does this year and how Silence does when Scorsese actually gets that one in the can. Perhaps we’ll learn something new about passion projects? We shall see…

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He also contributes to several other film-related websites.

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