Calendar Goes to The Oscars : The Industry and the Dream Machine : An assessment of Hollywood ‘89 and the conflict between the business of movies and the art of film

For Hollywood, the night of the Academy Awards is Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and the senior prom rolled into one. More than New Year’s Eve, Oscar Night defines the completion of the year--the film year--which is never truly ended until the last golden statuette has been clutched and cooed over.

Like the other ceremonial times, Oscar Night seems to invite a long look around at past, present and future. Beyond the specific triumphs of Wednesday, March 29, and the tumult of the Shrine Auditorium, what is to be said about Hollywood 1989?

In all its more than 80 years, there’s probably never been a time when Hollywood was not in change and (usually) crisis--from the days of its first phenomenal growth as the studio system took shape to the revolutionary impact of sound to the perilous Depression years when attendance shrank despite double-features to the prosperity of wartime when movies were virtually the only diversion left.


But the last 40 years--which is half the whole life of Hollywood as a film center--have been a time of profoundly revolutionary change. Peace and television arrived at roughly the same moment in the town’s history and things have not been the same since.

In simplest terms, television dethroned motion pictures as the mass medium of entertainment and demolished the large and habitual audience they had had. The rough measure is that the movies averaged 80 million admissions a week in the United States at their peak but in recent years have sold only 20 million tickets a week in a population that has climbed from 160 million to 225 million.

The attendance is spread over fewer films--perhaps a quarter as many as Hollywood produced in what can now be regarded as its Golden Age. But the fact remains that most adult Americans these days go to a movie, not to the movies.

The consequences have been innumerable. The studios, major and minor, no longer support rosters of players and no longer groom potential stars like race horses. The great cinemas have largely disappeared, replaced by smaller, multiscreen complexes which acknowledge both the shrinkage of the audience and the widely divergent appeals of current films. (The days are gone forever when all films were theoretically G-rated and no film was likely to offend the sensibilities of even the least sophisticated member of the audience.)

In the great battle with television, the movies have acquired a wider screen shape, far better sound, more agile cameras and faster film stock. More significantly, they shed all their inhibitions in the matters of sex, violence, theme and speech. In all this they sought to do what television could not do as well, or not do at all. For all the excesses the new freedoms have made possible, the longer and kindlier view of history will certainly be that the movies came of age as a story-telling medium, and that their finest and most mature efforts are better than anything that had gone before.

Ironically, now that the distinctions between what the movies can say and do and what television can say and do have mostly disappeared, it has become clear that the theatrical motion picture’s first, last and unchallengeable line of defense is indeed that it is seen in theaters.

The psychological experience of watching a film on a large screen in a comfortable, neutral darkness in company with tens or hundreds or thousands of others has a dreamlike power that cannot be reproduced in the home, no matter how large the screen nor how comfortable the surroundings.

(The movie experience is not even the same in elaborate private projection rooms, a truth that has probably been too little noted around the Bel-Air screening circuit, with its summary and often lethal judgments.)

The rise of television coincided with the decline of the movies’ founding and shaping giants, the deaths of Harry Cohn and Walt Disney, the ousting of L. B. Mayer from MGM, the aging of Jack Warner and Sam Goldwyn, intramural struggles that saw Darryl Zanuck out and in and out again at Fox.

The industry was having a leadership crisis simultaneous with what could be called the technological crisis represented by television. Thus, no small part of the perils of Hollywood over recent decades has been a struggle to find leaders who have something of the old chieftains’ instincts for the medium and for the audience and who, like the moguls, will back them with the spirit of a high-risk gambler.

The changes in corporate ownership have been a compounding problem because making movies is not like manufacturing, or selling, anything else. Having dabbled in the movies and left, Joseph P. Kennedy is said to have said that he could never be comfortable in an industry in which the principal assets put on their hats at 5 o’clock and went home.

In most ways, the changes in the nature of Hollywood seem irreversible. There will always be stars, but never again a star system. The major studios remain major (if here and there shakily so). But the great cadres who did everything from publicity to plaster of Paris statuary are no longer in place. Hollywood has become a do-it-yourself industry of free-lance specialists working from job to job.

It is an industry that spends virtually nothing on research and development. The remarkable technological innovations of recent years--including the faster film stock and light and agile cameras--come from entrepreneurial firms outside the studios, and from mavericks like George Lucas and Francis Coppola whose relation to the studios is tangential.

Undoubtedly, the largest casualty of Hollywood’s postwar, post-television years has been creative risk-taking. Chief among the dampers on daring has been inflation. Billy Wilder once said that the only thing more timid than a million dollars was two million dollars, which was twice as timid. That was a long time ago. As the average negative cost of a picture at a major studio rose from $8 million to $12 million to $16 million and, unthinkably, to $20 million, prudence and terror dictated an enshrinement of the sure-fire: best-selling properties, name stars (despite their astronomical salaries), exploitative material.

The timidity induced by inflation was reinforced by a shortage of creative confidence within the highest ranks of the industry, whose leaders in the generations beyond the moguls were often men of talent who had not, however, come up the creative ranks and in some cases didn’t know a dolly shot from a pinup.

Imitating the kinds of films that have prospered is nothing new in Hollywood (nor in the theater nor any other medium where you find audiences or perish). But in the ‘30s and even into the ‘40s and ‘50s, when the big studios were turning out from 30 to 50 films a year, there was room for risk, even a necessity for it. You did sequels of “Topper” and “The Thin Man;” against your better judgment, you took a chance on “Citizen Kane.”

It is just that now the copies and the sequels loom larger as a percentage of total production. An early count suggests that at least 30 films in 1989 will have Roman numerals in the titles--or could have. This approaches a quarter of all Hollywood production.

The turmoil, the shifts in ownership, the uncertainties in the film industry are by no means at an end. The Japanese are said to have an eye on Columbia Pictures. The Italian investor Giancarlo Paretti has bought three ailing companies: Cannon, de Laurentiis and New World. MGM is suites of offices across the street from the house that Mayer and Thalberg built, and the lot, called Lorimar, is a great question mark in the Culver City sky, its future uncertain.

Yet the motion picture industry continues to resemble Pauline in its ability to survive perils. Motion picture attendance appears to have bottomed out as long ago as the early 1970s, when it hit around 17 million admissions a week. It then climbed back to 20 million a week, give or take, where it has remained--and where it has remained, surprisingly, despite the massive popularity of video cassettes.

While the situation may yet change, what appears to be true is that the video cassettes are in effect serving as inducements to theatrical movie-going. “If moves are good on the small screen, they’ll be better on the big screen” may sum up the attitude.

Some exhibitors feel that cassettes are widening the gulf between the business done by the most and least successful films. Customers decide to go out to catch the big films but to wait for the lesser items on cassette.

Despite the continuing changes in ownership and leadership, the industry presently seems to be steadying itself. After an increasingly moribund time following Walt Disney’s death, his studio has found an extraordinary new lease on life under the Frank Wells-Michael Eisner-Jeff Katzenbach team and led all studios in box office grosses last year.

After its own moribund years, Fox under Barry Diller is an important presence in television and is being heard from again in motion pictures, with “Big” and “Working Girl” as its singular 1988 successes.

Paramount, under the low-profile leadership of Frank Mancuso, continues to turn out successful films, and will have the third (and last) Indiana Jones film, “The Last Crusade,” to enliven the summer starting in mid-May.

Success in Hollywood has always been cyclical and in later years it has seemed cruelly so. Success in television is particularly volatile, the mortality rate among series being what it is, although Universal has had more consistent success in the medium than it has lately had in films.

Yet the movies, in their uneasy mixture of art and commerce, can’t be judged by commerce alone. A hard view of this year’s crop of Oscar nominees would suggest, subject to all manner of qualifications, that the industry is doing better as commerce than art.

It takes nothing away from the quality of the work to say that there was not a conspicuous amount of daring to be found. Even “Rain Man,” with its superb performances by Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise and its unusual subject matter, is at the same time a road picture and a buddy picture out of well-proved Hollywood tradition. Not least it had star power in the oldest Hollywood tradition.

Its serious intentions are manifest, yet “Mississippi Burning” has sufficient exploitational elements of confrontation, violence, suspense and even muted romance that it can be said to work at two levels, which has angered the critics who feel that the fireworks overwhelm the message. This is an arguable viewpoint but the fact is that the substantive content was well guarded by commercial elements.

The other nominated films can be comparably analyzed. The wonderful, literate text and the splendid performances of “Dangerous Liaisons” are supported by all the couplings and titillations a wide audience could ask for. The skilled romantic comedy of “Working Girl” embraces a kernel of provocative social commentary. “The Accidental Tourist,” subtlest and quietest of the five films, is a quirky love story drawn from a best seller, with a considerable star, William Hurt, as its central figure; but at that it is the least overtly commercial nominee.

With the expansion of cable television and its innumerable options, television is by another irony doing to itself what it did to motion pictures, breaking up an old monopoly. In the case of television, the monopoly is actually the triopoly of network dominance which existed from the ‘50s forward. Now the networks’ share of prime time viewership has dropped from something like 95% to just over 70% and will probably decline some more.

The need for more product to occupy all those channels is rising, though the money for new product may not rise accordingly. It does suggest more work, if also more uncertainty, for the dream factory. Meanwhile, the Hollywood vaults are being exhumed yet again for new old product.

The merger of Time Inc. and Warner confirms the predictions of more consolidation for the entertainment industry as a whole. (The communications industry is probably the more accurate term.)

For film lovers, the trend toward consolidation will make the independent sector more important than before, if also more imperiled. The independents have long survived by doing genre films, especially horror flicks and other exploitational fare. But the independents in recent times have been the most interesting and consistent risk-takers, producing low-budget but quality films that have been in refreshing contrast to the sleek dynamics of major studio product.

“Room With a View” and last year’s “The Moderns” suggest the range of visions in cost, content, tone and outreach of the independent product. At the other end of the spectrum, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” independently financed by Saul Zaentz, although nominated only for script and photography, was one of the few 1989 films reaching traditional Academy Award standards of size and aspiration.

“Gorillas in the Mist,” jointly financed by two major studios, Universal and Warner, was another Academy-sized undertaking, and a risky venture despite its melodramatic elements. It affirms that daring is not gone from the majors nor confined to the independents. But it is not abundant anywhere in film making. And while it appears unlikely that the level of movie attendance will rise significantly above its present levels, even those reduced levels are not assured.

The film audience is more sophisticated, experienced and demanding than it has ever been. It does not necessarily know what it wants but it recognizes what is second-rate because it has seen so much that is second-rate on television. The moguls themselves would undoubtedly have a harder time psyching out the present quirky public than they used to.

It will take neatness, originality and aptness of thought to sustain present audiences, let alone attract new ones. There are signs that the majors are getting their administrative acts together again, after years of fumbling, and you can only hope that a new generation of leaders has a taste for creative risks.