“The movie business is America,” says NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, gamely trying to justify the network’s one-hour special on “The New Hollywood” (10 tonight on Channels 4, 36 and 39). “For better or for worse, the visions that we share in these darkened theaters shape the myths that define our times.”
So what’s a big network guy like Brokaw doing on a nice little story like this?
Just like the major studios it points a suspect finger at, “The New Hollywood” is another high-concept project--with a big budget, an all-star cast, and filmed on location in Los Angeles, Baltimore, New York and Puerto Rico. Who were they going to send, Gene Shalit?
Less a news special than a one-hour primer, “The New Hollywood” does cover most of the bases in describing how the business is run. It is chockablock with interviews with leading characters in town: studio chiefs such as 20th Century Fox film division chairman Joe Roth and Universal’s Tom Pollock, stars Robert Redford and Sally Field, directors Sydney Pollack, Oliver Stone and Barry Levinson, plus a variety of worried exhibitors, frantic agents and struggling screenwriters.
All of whom convinced Brokaw and his producers that “more than ever before, Hollywood is a place where business comes first, entertainment second and art . . . is a distant third. Money is the score card in Hollywood these days.”
Money has always been the score card in Hollywood and the show’s awed glance at the cars, homes and lifestyle of the industry’s rich and famous wouldn’t have come as news 50 years ago. And though it was a revelation to me that agents are in a high-risk trade (“Before the (telephone) headsets,” says Brokaw, "(agent) Bill Block developed an ear tumor from holding a receiver all day”), it’s not going to shock many out-of-towners to learn that the selling of stars and scripts is a highly competitive game.
The program’s main news hook is that because the conglomerates have bought up most of the major studios, and because the Justice Department seems willing to ignore 40-year-old laws forbidding studio ownership of theaters, Hollywood may be on the brink of a New Monopoly, a day when marquees may subtitle their fare with “Take it or leave it.” Small companies and independent-minded film makers are being squeezed out by the majors, Brokaw says, describing a scenario where “the bottom line will suffocate the story line (and) accountants, not artists, will have the final cut.”
“The New Hollywood” could have be subtitled “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” The “little people” have always been squeezed out by the big ones in Hollywood and the money interests have always dictated the terms of the art.
In its slightly hysterical summation of “vertical monopoly"--where studios produce, distribute and exhibit their own movies--the program overlooks the fact that the majors own only a small percentage of the nation’s 23,000 theaters and, with multiplexes now a permanent part of the theatrical landscape, it’s not likely they’ll ever be able to fill them without help from their competitors.
With its pretense of concern for serious film makers, “The New Hollywood” has its heart in the right place, but its head is seeing stars.