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COMMENTARY : Exorcising the Demons of Hollywood : The old formulas aren’t working, so Hollywood may be forced to try some new ideas this year

<i> Jack Mathews is the Times' film editor</i>

A year ago, the movies that were previewed in Sneaks ’90 looked to most moviegoers like a menu at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

There were films coming from more than a dozen of Hollywood’s greatest directors. Every major star from Paul Newman to Tom Cruise, from Joanne Woodward to Madonna, had movies on the list. There were action films galore, mob movies and film noirs , and an amazing number of pictures adapted from great books. Even the sequels looked delicious, with updates coming on “Chinatown,” “The Godfather” and “The Last Picture Show.”

Well, we dove in for 12 months and . . . ptoooey! It was awful. For many people, there were some happy surprises--"Pretty Woman,” “Ghost,” “Home Alone"--and kids went crazy for those nutty little “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” But for most of us, 1990 was a bitter disappointment.

Will 1991 be any better? After reading through the synopses in this issue, you might not have reason to think so. In comparison to recent advance schedules this one is almost shockingly uninteresting and unpromising. But for that reason--the fact that movie plots and casts don’t leap off the pages--this could be a very good year indeed.

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Forgive the optimism, but in a few years we may look back on the period we’re in as a watershed in Hollywood. As bad as 1990 turned out to be, it continued to undermine the confidence of studio executives who have been running the industry for the last decade as if they knew what they were doing.

Those executives did know what they were doing as long as teen-agers kept pouring through the turnstiles for science-fiction, genocidal action-adventures and bra-snapping adolescent comedies. Sure, just make more! But with increasing competition for allowance money from video stores and a renewed passion for films among older moviegoers, talking robots, Rambo and knothole-views of girls’ shower rooms were no longer enough.

With research, demographics and box office returns showing a significant audience for a greater variety of fare, the confidence of most TV-generation film executives waned. As far as they knew, variety was simply the name of the trade paper that announced their promotions.

They still exercise too much control over content, too much control over screenwriters and directors, but the non-creative business people have been driven from the safety of high-concept thinking into the unchartered jungles of Fresh Ideas. The result is a sort of creative chaos, out of which may come-- will come--better movies.

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The question is when? Given the disappointing performance of last year’s costly action movies and the uncertainty of the economy, Hollywood has to become both more cost-conscious and more daring.

There are still knee-jerk decisions being made. For sure, a lot of romantic comedies and wish-fulfillment fantasies will be rushed into the market to satiate whatever appetite remains after the feast on “Pretty Woman” and “Ghost”; you’ll find examples of these rush jobs scattered throughout these listings. And there may be some quickie exploitation Mideast war movies cranked out; you won’t find those on the lists.

Although sequels remain safe havens for unimaginative filmmakers, that category is facing an off-year. “Alien III,” “Terminator 2" and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” seem to be essential to the spirit of supply and demand, but is there really an audience demanding “Problem Child 2,” “Beastmaster 2" or “Return to Blue Lagoon?”

There are movies of special interest in the list. Th recent disappointments from favorite directors can’t disabuse us of the notion that good directors make better movies than hacks. So we await Lawrence Kasdan’s “Grand Canyon,” Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear,” Alan Parker’s “The Commitments,” Oliver Stone’s “The Doors,” Bruce Beresford’s “Mister Johnson,” Hector Babenco’s “At Play in the Fields of the Lord,” Jonathan Demme’s “Silence of the Lambs” and Terry Gilliam’s “The Fisher King.”

And there are a couple of projects--Steven Spielberg’s “Hook,” the Kevin Costner-starring “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves"--that ought to be major film events.

But the clearest message to be read in the 1991 sneaks list is that more chances are being taken on both stories and on filmmakers. It is both a curse and a blessing that it is so hard to predict hits: a curse because so many executives think they do know what works and reject quality scripts; a blessing because the surprises that inevitably emerge encourage new ideas.

Finally, on one level, there is progress to report. Among the more than 300 movies scheduled to be released during 1991, about a dozen are by women directors. Among them: Randa Haines, Marisa Silver, Barbra Streisand, Gillian Armstrong, Jodie Foster and Lili Fini Zanuck. There are almost as many directed by blacks, including Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever,” Robert Townsend’s “The Five Heartbeats” and Mario Van Peebles’ “New Jack City.”

It’s a sign, if only slightly more visible than the Shroud of Turin, that Hollywood may yet enter the 20th Century before it ends.

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