Why have some movie directors made classic early films, but subsequently failed to match their initial successes, whereas other directors have begun much more modestly, but have made great movies late in their lives? This study demonstrates that the answer lies in the directors' motivations, and in the nature of their films. Conceptual directors, who use their films to express their ideas or emotions, mature early; thus such great conceptual innovators as D. W. Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein, and Orson Welles made their major contributions early in their careers, and declined thereafter.Er, a bit of elaboration might be necessary, especially since the paper isn't yet free for the taking. Galenson had originally developed a similar thesis for modern art—this article gives a readable overview—with a similar division. "For the conceptual artist, the important decisions for a work of art occur in the planning stage, when the artist either mentally envisages the completed work or specifies a set of procedures that will produce the finished work." As one might expect, then, most conceptual artists peak relatively early on—when they haven't yet been bogged down by pre-existing conventions and methods and can think up radical new stuff. Obviously they don't have to peak early on—conceptual innovation can in theory occur at any time in one's life; it's just more likely to occur at a young-ish age.
In contrast experimental directors, whose films present convincing characters in realistic circumstances, improve their techniques with experience, so that such great experimental innovators as John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, and Akira Kurosawa made their greatest films late in their lives. Understanding these contrasting life cycles can be part of a more systematic understanding of the development of film, and can resolve previously elusive questions about the creative life cycles of individual filmmakers.