When 20th Century Fox greenlit James Mangold's "Ford v. Ferrari" — an original movie with a nearly $100 million budget — the director's agent had some advice.
"Enjoy this," Mangold recalled him saying. "This will be the last one of these you ever make."
"Ford v Ferrari," which viscerally recounts the efforts of an automotive designer (Matt Damon) and a race car driver (Christian Bale) to build a Ford that could beat a Ferrari at the Le Mans 24-hour race in 1966, has a lot going for it: big-name movie stars, a director coming off an Oscar-nominated hit ("Logan") and a marathon, nearly hourlong racing finale. But it doesn't have what typically scores such a large budget in today's Hollywood: franchise-making IP (intellectual property). It might as well be a unicorn.
"With the amount of mergers and streaming operations coming up to speed, I think there's a real question whether the theatrical film is really just the tentpole. Independent films are struggling. Even mainline dramas are struggling to find an audience," says Mangold, who has been a regular filmmaker at Fox, which Disney acquired earlier this year.
"In that sense, we're a throwback film," he says. "We're a modern movie in all the senses of modern storytelling, modern technology, modern sensibility. But we're trying to do something that I really miss seeing in the movies, which is a movie for grown-ups that's entertaining and thought-provoking and moving and isn't selling you the same old thing."
And this fall movie season, in particular, Mangold is far from alone. Oscar season always brings a welcome wave of originality after the reboots, remakes and sequels of summer. But this fall is especially rich in big, audacious bets on original films that will try to invigorate movie theaters with the most time-tested of methods: megawatt movie stars, genre twists, innovation.
The stakes are high. As the opportunities for adult-skewing movies made with scale dwindle, the pressure rises on those that do get that once-in-a-blue-moon greenlight to excel. Following the success of Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood," there's reason for optimism.
"I do think we have to sort of fight back at this practice of overwhelming the market with the blockbuster," Martin Scorsese, whose gangster epic "The Irishman" was bankrolled by Netflix after all the major studios passed, said in an interview earlier this summer.
The franchise films and sequels have far from receded. On tap in the coming months are "Frozen 2" (Nov. 22), "Joker" (Oct. 4), "Maleficent 2: Mistress of Evil" (Oct. 18), "Terminator: Dark Fate" (Nov. 1), "Charlie's Angels" (Nov. 15) and "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker" (Dec. 20).
But many of the season's most anticipated movies — "Ford v Ferrari" (Nov. 15), "The Irishman" (Nov. 1), the Brad Pitt space adventure "Ad Astra" (Sept. 20), Marielle Heller's "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" (Nov. 22), with Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers — will be seeking audiences as much as they are awards.
Some are aiming to chart a new way forward for movies by not just relying on throwback thrills but literally turning back the clock. "The Irishman," which Netflix has shelled out a reported $200 million to make, features digitally "de-aged" versions of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. In Ang Lee's "Gemini Man" (Oct. 11), Will Smith, playing an assassin, faces off with a clone of himself, 25 years younger.
Lee, who experimented with 3D on "Life of Pi" and high-frame rates on "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," believes the evolution of digital cinema is the future.
"You have to change the whole ecosystem, change what it is to go into a theater," says Lee, whose latest is in 3D and filmed at 120 frames-per-second, rather than 24. "You're not watching somebody else's story. You're experiencing a story. It's more immersive. Your attitude toward it is different. It's a different language."
"Gemini Man" will be major test case for those possibilities that could, potentially, remake the theatrical experience years after the promises of a 3D revolution largely fizzled.
"It's hard to duplicate in the living room, let alone on a smartphone. Eventually I'd like to see theaters change, the format of theater — the size, the shape. And I hope someday some smart person can figure out a way to get rid of those glasses," Lee says, chuckling. "What we've done here is a new baseline for digital cinema, I believe."
Heller ("The Diary of a Teenage Girl," "Can You Ever Forgive Me?") is more focused on the communal aspect of moviegoing, something that could be quite powerful for "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood." Heller is quick to caution that her film, based on Tom Junod's 1998 Esquire article, isn't a traditional biopic but dramatizes the relationship between Rogers and a skeptical visiting journalist (Matthew Rhys), who functions as a kind of stand-in for cynics everywhere.
"At its best, it's a collective human experience we get to have in making these movies and a collective human experience we get to have seeing these movies in theaters," says Heller, who shot the film, with her young family in tow, around Rogers' hometown of Pittsburgh. That included filming at Fred Rogers Studio, where "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was shot.
Just as last year's hit documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" ($22.8 million in ticket sales) proved, audiences are eager to reconnect with kind-hearted altruism of Fred Rogers.
"There's a reason that everybody feels so connected to him right now," Heller says. "I don't know, some collective consciousness thing where we all want Mr. Rogers in our life right now — myself included."
There are many other freshly original films on tap, too, including the Donna Tartt adaptation "The Goldfinch" (Sept. 13), the stripper revenge tale "Hustlers" (Sept. 13), Steven Soderbergh's Panama Papers satire "The Laundromat" (Sept. 27), Robert Eggers' mad monochrome tale of 1890 lighthouse keepers "The Lighthouse" (Oct. 18), the Lena Waithe-penned black outlaw drama "Queen and Slim" (Nov. 27), Noah Baumbach's divorce chronicle "Marriage Story" (Nov. 6), Kasi Lemmons' Harriet Tubman biopic "Harriet," Edward Norton's Jonathan Lethem adaptation "Motherless Brooklyn" (Nov. 1) and "Parasite" (Oct. 11), Bong Joon Ho's Palme d'Or-winning class satire.
The most affection ode to moviegoing might come, ironically enough, from Netflix. "Dolemite Is My Name" (Oct. 4) stars Eddie Murphy as Rudy Ray Moore during the making of the 1975 Blaxploitation classic "Dolemite."
A handful of filmmakers will also, for a moment at least, be stepping off the franchise treadmill. In "Jojo Rabbit" (Oct. 18), Taika Waititi will break from "Thor" installments for a madcap Nazi satire in which he, himself, co-stars as Adolf Hitler. In "Knives Out" (Nov. 27), Rian Johnson's follow-up to "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," the writer-director crafts an elaborate Agatha Christie-inspired whodunit.
"It wasn't a break in the sense of 'Oh God, I've got to get out this Star Wars machine.' It was kind of just the next thing I wanted to do," says Johnson, who initially planned "Knives Out" as his follow-up to 2012's "Looper."
"But there was something really nice about the contrast of doing a very dialogue-based movie. I could hire all these fantastic actors and give them a lot of words. It's just been an essential part of 'Star Wars' that to some degree you're always trying to figure out the simplest way to say any thought," says Johnson, who's also developing a new "Star Wars" trilogy. "In that way, it ended up being a really invigorating and exciting film to make coming off of 'Star Wars.'"
And there are few more delicious acting showcases than a murder mystery. The ensemble cast includes Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Lakeith Stanfield, Toni Collette and Michael Shannon.
"You're going to see big movie stars just having the time of their lives up on the screen," Johnson says. "There was something really appealing about having a character-based movie that wasn't based on some heavy character arc but character-based in terms of a bunch of fun characters."
It's often said that the new movie star is IP. This fall, movie stars might be the new movie stars.
40+ must-see movies for fall
“The Goldfinch” • Donna Tartt’s 2013 bestseller gets a lavish big-screen treatment in John Crowley’s drama, with Ansel Elgort and Nicole Kidman. (Friday)
“Hustlers” • In this based-on-a-true-story tale, former strip club employees (Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Cardi B) join together to hustle their Wall Street clients. (Friday)
“Ad Astra” • James Gray’s space adventure, originally slated for a summer release, stars Brad Pitt as an astronaut in search of his lost father, a renegade scientist. (Sept. 20)
“Rambo: Last Blood” • Sylvester Stallone reprises his Vietnam War veteran a fifth installment of the “Rambo” franchise, with a “Taken”-like plot involving a friend’s kidnapped daughter. (Sept. 20)
“Downton Abbey” • Julian Fellowes, who penned the upstairs-downstairs drama “Gosford Park” before finding a small-screen sensation in “Downton Abbey,” returns to film for a movie that reunites much of the show’s original cast for an earth-shattering occasion: The King and Queen are coming for a visit. (Sept. 20)
“Diego Maradona” • Asif Kapadia, the documentary filmmaker of the Oscar-winning “Amy” and “Senna,” brings his archival-based approach to the mythic rise and fall of Argentine soccer great Diego Maradona. (Sept. 20)
“Abominable” • A Yeti discovered in Shanghai searches for its family with the help of a teenager (Chloe Bennet) in this DreamWorks animated tale. (Sept. 27)
“Judy” • Renée Zellweger plays Judy Garland in this drama, adapted from the play “End of the Rainbow,” about the singer-actress during a string of London concerts in 1969. (Sept. 27)
“The Laundromat” • Steven Soderbergh’s latest, for Netflix, burrows into the stories within the Panama Papers, the leaked financial documents that exposed thousands of offshore accounts. With Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas. (Sept. 27)
“Joker” • Joaquin Phoenix takes his turn as the DC Comics villain in this character-based, “Taxi Driver”-inspired tale from director Todd Phillips (“The Hangover”). (Oct. 4)
“Dolemite Is My Name” • Eddie Murphy makes his big-screen return as filmmaker Rudy Ray Moore, who created the 1975 Blaxploitation classic “Dolemite,” in this Netflix movie directed by Craig Brewer (“Hustle and Flow”). (Oct. 4)
“Pain and Glory” • In Pedro Almodóvar’s highly autobiographical drama, Antonio Banderas stars as an aging film director whose memories and creative juices are spurred by a reconciliation with an old friend and colleague. (Oct. 4)
“Lucy in the Sky” • Natalie Portman plays an astronaut whose life is in free fall after returning from a lengthy mission in Noah Hawley’s directorial debut. (Oct. 4)
“Gemini Man” • Ang Lee directs this 3D science-fiction action film about an assassin (Will Smith) pitted against a younger clone of himself (also Will Smith, as a computer-generated creation). (Oct. 11)
“The Addams Family” • With a voice cast including Oscar Isaac, Charlize Theron and Snoop Dogg as Cousin Itt, the Addams Family returns in an animated film, 28 years after Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1991 movie. (Oct. 11)
“Parasite” • Korean director Bong Joon Ho calls his Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner, about one poor family and one rich family, “a comedy without clowns, a tragedy without villains.” (Oct. 11)
“The King” • Timothée Chalamet plays Shakespeare’s Henry V, with Joel Edgerton as Falstaff and Robert Pattinson as the Dauphin, in David Michod’s Netflix drama. (Oct. 11)
“Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” • A sequel to the 2014 film, starring Angelina Jolie as the “Sleeping Beauty” sorceress. (Oct. 18)
“Zombieland 2: Double Tap” • A decade after the original, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg and Emma Stone return for a sequel to Ruben Fleischer’s comic zombie movie. It also reportedly resurrects Bill Murray, whose cameo stole the first film. (Oct. 18)
“Jojo Rabbit” • Taika Waititi takes a break from “Thor” films for this World War II satire, co-starring Scarlett Johansson and Waititi, himself, as Adolf Hitler. (Oct. 18)
“The Lighthouse” • In Robert Eggers black-and-white follow-up to his 2015 horror hit “The Witch,” Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe star as 1890s lighthouse keepers on a remote Maine island. (Oct. 18)
“Black and Blue” • Naomie Harris stars as rookie police officer whose body camera captures her partner murdering a young drug dealer. (Oct. 25)
“The Irishman” • Martin Scorsese teams an all-star cast of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci for this crime saga about hitman and Jimmy Hoffa associate Frank Sheeran. (Nov. 1)
“Terminator: Dark Fate” • The sixth installment of the “Terminator” films, set 27 years after “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and starring Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Nov. 1)
“Harriet” • Kasi Lemmons’ biopic of Harriet Tubman, starring Cynthia Erivo. (Nov. 1)
“Motherless Brooklyn” • Edward Norton wrote, directed and stars in this adaption of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel about a private eye with Tourette’s syndrome. (Nov. 1)
“Marriage Story” • Noah Baumbach, who depicted his parents’ divorce in “The Squid and the Whale,” returns with this drama about a marriage’s dissolution, starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. (Nov. 6)
“Last Christmas” • Paul Feig’s romantic comedy stars Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding. (Nov. 8)
“Midway” • Roland Emmerich gives an action movie treatment to the pivotal World War II battle in the Pacific. (Nov. 8)
“Doctor Sleep” • An adaptation of Stephen King’s 2013 novel and a sequel to “The Shining,” with Ewan McGregor as Dan Torrance (the child in “The Shining”). (Nov. 8)
“Playing With Fire” • John Cena, Keegan-Michael Key and John Leguizamo star in this comedy about a trio of firefighters who take in kids after rescuing them from a fire. (Nov. 8)
“Honey Boy” • Shia LaBeouf wrote this film, directed by Alma Har’el and starring Lucas Hedges and LaBeouf, about his own childhood. (Nov. 8)
“Ford v. Ferrari” • Matt Damon and Christian Bale star in James Mangold’s action-drama about automotive designer Carroll Shelby and race car driver Ken Miles’ battle to build a Ford that can beat Ferrari at the 1966 Le Mans race. (Nov. 15)
“Charlie’s Angels” • Elizabeth Banks writes and directs this third “Charlie’s Angels” film, starring Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott and Ella Balinska. (Nov. 15)
“Atlantics” • Mati Diop’s Cannes prize-winner is about a young Senegalese woman whose boyfriend disappears while migrating by sea to Spain. (Nov. 15)
“The Good Liar” • Bill Condon’s conman drama, based on Nicholas Searle’s novel, stars Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren. (Nov. 15)
“Frozen 2” • The much-anticipated animated sequel following the continuing adventures of Elsa, Anna and Olaf, six years after “Let it Go” became etched in the minds of millions of children and their parents. (Nov. 22)
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” • Marielle Heller’s drama follows the relationship between Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) and a visiting journalist (Matthew Rhys). (Nov. 22)
“21 Bridges” • Chadwick Boseman, playing a New York police detective, puts the city on lockdown in order to hunt a pair of cop killers. (Nov. 22)
“Knives Out” • Rian Johnson does his best Agatha Christie in this star-studded whodunit, with Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis and Lakeith Stanfield. (Nov. 27)
“Queen & Slim” • Director Melina Matsoukas, working from a script by Lena Waithe, crafts a kind of modern-day “Bonnie and Clyde,” with Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith. (Nov. 27)
“The Two Popes” • Jonathan Pryce plays the future Pope Francis and Anthony Hopkins his predecessor, Pope Benedict, in this drama of a Vatican transition of power. (Nov. 27)