The State of the Movies

Hollywood 1996: Things are changing, and it's all the same.

Against my better judgment, I watched the Golden Globes, that annual industry joke that's more of an event than an honor. Curiosity--and the spectacle of all those stars gathered together in one place, looking glamorous--got the better of me. After all, that's what Hollywood's about. The awards themselves, however, were disturbing. Not just because heartthrob Mel Gibson beat out the comparatively less handsome Martin Scorsese and Ang Lee for best director, but because he was even nominated in the first place. What does this sort of thing say about the state of the industry? At the heart of my unease was the oft-touted fun fact that the Globes are an early, and frequently accurate, harbinger of the Academy Award races. Is it actually possible we'll see Mel holding that statuette high in March? Or Meathead? Opie?

Though we seem to have fallen far indeed, this year really isn't much different from any other in recent memory. It's always seemed difficult for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) to come up with five solid best-actress nominations. However, it's only within the last five years that they've been equally hard-pressed to come up with five films to vie for best picture. In 1991 the field was so weak AMPAS bowed to pressure and nominated its first animated feature, Disney's Beauty and the Beast. And this year (also notoriously weak), Miramax's The Postman is being seriously considered as the first-ever foreign film to make the Academy's short list since Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers in 1973. Time to ask an old question again: Why is it that so many films suck so hard?

We should start by admitting the obvious but often forgotten fact that an awfully high percentage of movies has always sucked. Most of us have a highly selective memory--we romanticize the past, remembering It Happened One Night and On the Waterfront and conveniently forgetting bottom-feeders like The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe and I Like Your Nerve. But it's these marginal movies that really represent traditional Hollywood fare. Why? Because they were cheap to make and they made money.

During the heyday of the studio system, Hollywood studios were often called "dream factories." And factories they were. Thanks to exclusive contracts with writers, directors, and actors as well as studio ownership of movie theaters, feature films were churned out at an astonishing rate--often shot in less than two weeks' time (as opposed to present day features, whose shooting schedules are typically anywhere between five weeks and five months). With such control, it wasn't uncommon for an actor like Bette Davis, signed to infamous seven-year contracts, to make as many as 10 films a year; or for a director to receive a script on Friday and start shooting Monday.

The result was the B-movie. Employing novice actors and directors, studios turned them out weekly. Serials, westerns, melodramas, musicals--whatever was popular at the time was quickly produced and funneled into theaters. Even films like Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon were seen by the studios as B-movies. Popular, entertaining, and for the most part forgettable, these films were the bread-and-butter of the studio system, training fledgling directors like John Ford and John Huston as well as virtually every actor in Hollywood. And their profitability, in part, made it possible for the studios to take the financial risk of producing their prestige projects.

Of course, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that moviemaking has always been a business first, last, and always. Over the years, and throughout the changes in the market and marketplace, Hollywood has maintained a persistence of vision: to maximize product and minimize expense. Still, there persists among us the notion of film as art--because it can be, and sometimes is. But to the men (and occasional woman) holding the purse strings, as to so many of us, art is a luxury; and the only way a studio executive will finance art is if he thinks it will fill theater seats. It's the rare executive who thinks it will.

But since this has always been the case, it still leaves the question of why Hollywood seems to have produced progressively fewer surprises and more banality in the past few years. It's largely a testament to the manner in which studios develop, make, and sell their form of entertainment in an ever more lucrative global economy.

Hollywood films have long been a popular export, but throughout the '80s the profit ceiling kept being raised higher and higher, and Hollywood started to see the financial possibilities of playing well in France, Denmark, and Japan. For the most part it came down to one thing: action. You don't have to speak English or read subtitles to understand what Arnold, Sly, or Bruce are doing. Add to this an interest in American pop culture and technological feats of fancy, and you've got a built-in audience. The money came pouring in. Take the case of Jurassic Park. The foreign box office nearly doubled that film's already legendary gross, making it the first film to pass the $1 billion mark from box office receipts alone. In fact, due to the appetite for American films abroad (and the corresponding theatrical and home video markets), it seems like the days of a financial disaster on the scale of Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate are long gone. Just look at Waterworld. Though many in the industry predicted a Water Gate in the offing, overseas exhibition provided a bailout; thanks to Europe and Japan in particular, it's already passed the $200 million mark before its release on home video and cable television.

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