Meanwhile, AMC Entertainment (NYSE:AMC) has whipped together a fantastic stable of young directing talent, most notably pushing AMC powerhouse Breaking Bad to five Emmy wins and a guaranteed place in TV history.
Why am I talking about Star Wars and Breaking Bad in the same near-hysterical breath? Because Disney is looking to replace the Star Wars: Episode VI helmer with fresh talent in the final two core-series episodes, and rumor has it that Rian Johnson is on board.
Who is Rian Johnson? Glad you asked.
Johnson comes from a solid indie-film background. His first full-length film was instant cult classic Brick, produced for a meager $450,000 with a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a starring role. The film went on to score $4 million in global ticket sales. Not a blockbuster by any means, but a solid return on a modest investment. And the drug-dealing drama gave Johnson a foot in Hollywood's production doors.
Next, Johnson tapped Rachel Weisz and Mark Ruffalo to star in The Brothers Bloom, an offbeat sleight-of-hand caper. A troubled release schedule limited the movie's box office appeal, and it gathered $5.5 million in worldwide ticket sales on an unknown but probably modest budget.
So far, so average. But this is where Johnson's career gets interesting.
In 2010, AMC showrunner Vince Gilligan asked Johnson to direct a single Breaking Bad episode. If you've seen the third season, you probably remember the claustrophobic bottle episode with Walt and Jesse chasing a fly around Gus Fring's superlab.
The episode hit a nerve. Some reviewers and viewers loved it; others loathed it with equal passion. Fly has been called "the best bottle episode ever," as Johnson made the most of his two actors and single location. Entertainment Weekly ranked it as the fifth-best episode in Breaking Bad 's first three seasons. Critics often focused on the quality of this episode's directing.
Here, Johnson made a name for himself as a deft observer or emotion-packed drama. From this point on, he's been playing in the big leagues.
For science fiction thriller Looper, Johnson got back to Gordon-Levitt alongside action legend Bruce Willis and Golden Globe winner Emily Blunt. A $30 million budget led to $177 million in global ticket sales. The film won awards for Johnson's top-shelf writing and directing, and critics loved the intense blend of high-concept science fiction with -- you guessed it -- great character development.
After completing Looper but before releasing it in theaters, Johnson was back in the Breaking Bad fold. The 51 episode, where Walt goes car-crazy and Skyler walks fully dressed into her pool, was another emotional tour de force. Anna Gunn won an Emmy for her turn as Skyler in this one, and Johnson scored the Directors Guild of America's coveted drama directing award. You know, the same statuette that Martin Scorsese took home for a Boardwalk Empire episode two years earlier.
And then there was Ozymandias. If you don't know this episode, you probably never watched for Breaking Bad. Let me remind you with the fantastic trailer that AMC and Johnson created for it:
This time, Johnson got the Breaking Bad episode that Hollywood superstar Guillermo del Toro wanted to direct. Gilligan himself called Ozymandias "the best episode we ever have had or ever will have." The episode has been described as "mind-bendingly, soul-churningly devastating," "a powerful piece of television that transcended fiction," not to mention "the best television episode ever written."
Over 50,000 IMDB users concur, giving Ozymandias a perfect 10 out of 10 rating. It's the highest-rated episode of the highest-rated TV show ever. In fact, it's the only perfect 10 score I can find among IMDB's TV episode ratings.
Johnson doesn't get all the credit for this -- he worked with an all-star cast and didn't write the script. But you don't get this kind of ultimate quality without a masterful hand making it happen. And that's Rian Johnson.
Empire Strikes Back, 2.0
Johnson has leveraged three feature films and three brilliant Breaking Bad episodes to establish himself as a master of emotional directing and sci-fi special effects. It's a sharp direction change from J.J. Abrams' more action-oriented style.
Star Wars enthusiasts might be reminded of Irvin Kershner and Lawrence Kasdan taking The Empire Strikes Back in a more emotional direction after A New Hope 's dashing space-opera action. Empire is widely seen as the strongest film in the Star Wars series so far. If Johnson grabs the rains for Episode VIII and beyond, I can see him doing magic with this rich world.
There are multiple sources for this scoop, starting with the always-reliable Deadline Hollywood Daily and ending in Johnson's own Twitter account where you'll find him playing it coy with a classic clip from The Right Stuff.
"Dear lord, please don't let me [mess] up," says astronaut Alan Shepard in a heartfelt prayer for luck.
I couldn't agree more. The idea of putting the best Breaking Bad director in charge of my all-time favorite movie franchise is making me giddy. This is a billion-dollar director choice, and Disney is making the most of its $4 billion Lucasfilm investment.
With all due respect to J.J. Abrams, Rian Johnson is a definite upgrade for this particular job. When Abrams was chosen to create Episode VII, I said that Star Wars was rising to the next level. And now it's happening again.