As fewer movies get made these days, the hardest thing for a director or a writer is just getting hired. Bryan Barber, who went from helming videos for bands like Outkast to making his feature debut with the stars of that group on the 2006 Prohibition Era musical Idlewild, grew so tired of getting close and losing out on big directing jobs that he hunted and secured a film-centric property to improve his odds. After the lengthy courtship of an 86-year old voiceover artist who controlled the rights, Barber will go to his next studio meeting flanked by Gigantor, the giant flying robot star of the 60s Japanese cartoon import with a catchy theme song and a family-friendly premise. Barber controls the movie, merchandise and videogame rights, and will shop a $60 million live action film he calls Transformers meets Goonies. And guess who’ll be attached as director?
Considering that robots remain hot—Hasbro told shareholders this week that another Transformers is in the offing and a Real Steel sequel is also a possibility—Barber figures there should be interest in this story of a 12-year old boy who ends up with the controls to the giant weaponized world-saving robot. Barber hopes to take the same proactive route that allowed Tate Taylor to direct the summer sleeper hit The Help (he optioned the book before it had a publisher) and years ago got Frank Darabont his directing debut on The Shawshank Redemption (Darabont had written a superb script and controlled the book, and refused to step aside even when Rob Reiner and Tom Cruise were ready to re-team after A Few Good Men).
For Barber, the Gigantor idea came out of the frustration of losing out on several big jobs that included Wolverine. While a stylish first effort, Idlewild didn’t make a lot of money and seemed to suggest an art film career more than the tent poles Barber wants to direct. The development jobs he got after Idlewild died off when the business contracted. “Shortly after my film came out, the writer’s strike killed those projects and when it was over, the number of films being made in Hollywood dropped dramatically,” Barber told me. “Suddenly there wasn’t as much room for up and coming directors. Those jobs were drawing 15-year veterans. And every time I went for a job, I’d spend huge amounts of time and my own money making presentations for each job so studios could see my vision.”
On Wolverine, Barber spent three weeks and $50,000 for a presentation that included motion capture, stunts, concept art, storyboards and sound design. Fox was impressed enough that it reimbursed Barber, but he didn’t get the job. Barber makes a living through commercials, videos, and some TV, but he tired of waiting to be chosen. After all, it was five years ago that Idlewild came out.
Said Barber: “When you hit a roadblock in this business, you can give up, but I learned a lot and made relationships through those attempts. I decided, if I was willing to invest my money to gamble on a project I didn’t own, why not spend that money on something I could control?” He saw a video box for Gigantor and remembered watching the series after school when he was a kid in the Bay Area. Barber started by calling the video company and eventually tracked the rights to 86-year old Fred Ladd. A voiceover guy for cartoons, Ladd was given control of this orphaned Japanese language cartoon nobody wanted. Ladd recut the cartoons and supplied English language dialogue for American audiences. Barber got him to agree to lunch, and that began a long courtship. A detailed storyboard presentation sold Ladd, Barber said.
“Fred had been in talks with Fox back in 1996 to do an animated film, but they didn’t agree, the regime changed and I think it just got forgotten even though anyone old enough remembers the theme song,” Barber said. “I got lucky. There’s a film here that doesn’t take itself too seriously, with heart and visual effects, about a super weapon that falls into the hands of a kid who develops the confidence to use the robot to save the world.”
Barber is now assembling a 6-minute sizzle reel–like Zack Snyder did for 300, Barber said–and he’ll soon be ready to go back to Fox and those other studios and try again. Barber is repped by WME. For those who don’t remember the Gigantor theme song, here it is: