Just 10 years ago, to find the center of gravity in Hollywood, you would have gone to Chasen's, celebrated watering hole for the industry elite, where you might have found MCA titan Lew Wasserman at a prized corner table, boasting about the fans lined up outside the studio's King Kong theme-park attraction.
A decade later, the Hollywood landscape has been transformed. Wasserman is retired, his company in the hands of a Canadian beverage company; Chasen's has sold its last bowl of chili, and the King Kong ride is considered a quaint antique from a bygone era.
For an industry that had never worried about tomorrow, the future is now. The entertainment business is reinventing itself at breakneck speed, trying to keep pace with home entertainment rivals, fickle audiences and dazzling new computer technology. The price tag for success has skyrocketed--it now costs $54 million to produce and market the average studio film, up from $24 million 10 years ago.
With so much money at stake, it's hard to tell the winners from the losers. Just ask Frank Biondi, Mickey Schulhof, Stanley Jaffe or Michael Fuchs. One day they were running mega-million-dollar entertainment companies, the next they were packing up the desk calendar and family photos--their falls, of course, cushioned by cozy multimillion-dollar golden parachutes.
Hollywood is a flavor-of-the-moment business, where the pressing issue of the day is the buzz over The Next Brad Pitt or the weekend box-office numbers.
But the scent in the air now is change. As the cost of making movies soars and box-office admissions remain flat, Hollywood has more competition for our entertainment dollars than ever before. Virtually every new technological advance--from home video and CD-ROMs to satellite TV and the Internet--is geared toward home entertainment. To lure consumers away from their TV and PC cocoons and to court the ever-expanding international market, Hollywood is desperately scrambling to replace tired old formulas with new thrills.
The spectacular success of "Jurassic Park" and "Toy Story" has sparked a burst of high-tech storytelling, fueling a run on futuristic thrillers and other films that thrive on computer-generated special effects. Hollywood has also borrowed energy and inspiration from pop music, which provides films with a rich coating of emotion or irony while serving as a potent marketing tool to attract young moviegoers.
It's always easier to recognize innovation after the fact, when the new laws of artistic gravity are in place. But if you poke around, it's not hard to find people who have the future in mind. We've picked five filmmakers, some operating on the high-tech frontier, some on the streetwise fringe, some you've never heard of before. Maybe one of them will become the next Lew Wasserman, maybe one will be the next Steven Spielberg or Spike Lee. Right now they are the dreamers and schemers who will help shape The Next Hollywood.
Michael de Luca: Making Movies That Don't Suck
Hung-over from a movie premiere the night before, Michael De Luca is holed up in his office, taking the cure--sipping a bowl of chicken soup. He's in jeans, scuffed sneakers and a faded Lenny & John's Pizzeria T-shirt. This morning, he's screening videos by two of his favorite new directors. It's a good bet that you haven't heard of them yet, but you probably will, which is why the 30-year-old president of New Line Productions is considered one of the few studio executives with a vision for Hollywood.
The videos provide an intriguing glimpse into the direction De Luca believes film is heading. One is Hype Williams' music video for rappers 2Pac and Dr. Dre's "California Love," a post-apocalyptic spectacular whose metallic domes and sprawling desert landscape borrow liberally from "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome." The other, a public service, anti-drug commercial directed by Tony Kaye, is an unsparing portrait of a bleary-eyed heroin addict shooting up as he rambles distractedly about his future.
The videos have no narrative pulse, no story to tell. Their drama comes from sharp, sensory details and the jarring juxtaposition of image and spoken word. If this is the future of filmmaking, New Line is on the bandwagon. The studio has scored box-office hits with many music-video graduates who've turned directors, including the Hughes Brothers ("Menace II Society"), David Fincher ("Seven"), the Hudlin Brothers ("House Party") and F. Gary Gray ("Friday").
De Luca also signed a production deal with R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, who made an immediate splash in Hollywood last year when he bought a script from a 17-year-old high school student. De Luca says he identified with the singer's attitude about movie-making: "He said he wanted to make films that don't suck."
A Nine Inch Nails devotee and comic-book junkie who has an arcade-sized Mortal Kombat video game in his office, De Luca realizes how much young moviegoers are influenced by the vivid imagery and nonlinear narrative of music videos. "If you look at Hype Williams' music videos, he has a real feel for the rhythm of film. The editing to music forces you to be really kinetic and visual," says De Luca. "With a video director, the wild card is always 'Can you deal with actors?' But when I met with Hype, he was a thoughtful, soulful guy, which I think is a good sign. And if he can handle 2Pac, then he can probably handle any actor."
A New Line employee since he landed a job as a teenage summer intern, De Luca's tastes have shaped many of the studio's biggest box-office successes--from fantasies like "The Mask" to violent dramas such as "Seven" and "Menace II Society."
Until now, New Line has been a model of low-budget ingenuity, cashing in early on everyone from Jim Carrey to Jackie Chan. The average studio film costs $35 million. New Line's average budget is far less than half that--it's only released one film that cost more than $25 million. But expect that to change. To take advantage of the burgeoning international market, De Luca has been investing in bigger-budget action vehicles, most famously his $4-million purchase of the Shane Black script "The Long Kiss Goodnight," an ultra-violent Renny Harlin-directed thriller due out this Christmas.
Action thrillers are more than just cash cows. "It's action and fantasy films that can stretch the formula," De Luca says. "Jim Cameron [of the "Terminator" movies] is always doing something new; David Fincher has a great vision; 'Speed' had an exciting rhythm and pace. Action is the form that requires the creative people to use new technology that can push them in new directions.
"I'm a product of my generation," De Luca says. "I don't like corny, politically correct stories. A lot of people my age have the desire to be on the edge. They don't want to see copycat films that remind you of what you've seen before." How close will New Line get to the edge? De Luca cites a pair of his favorite projects in development: a '70s-era black comedy called, "Boogie Nights," set in the world of porno films, and an edgy drama about date rape titled "Jello Shots."
So far, his gambles have paid off. New Line has the best record of tapping into new pop-culture genres. "The Mask" was a huge hit while comic-book-inspired films such as "Tank Girl" and "Judge Dredd" failed. The video-game-inspired "Super Mario Bros." film flopped while New Line's "Mortal Kombat" movie succeeded.
"We delivered the goods," says De Luca, noting that "Kombat's" appeal was bolstered by its Hong Kong martial-arts-style action. "It helped that the game has great characters, but we followed through--we stayed with the story of the game."
With advances in new technology geared toward home entertainment, getting people out to the theaters will be a challenge. But De Luca contends that movies will survive because they satisfy our desire to share experiences with other people. "Movies have a real social motivation," he says. "I'd much rather walk out of 'Seven' with other people who have the same look on their faces as they relive the experience than see it by myself. In the theater, you have a whole audience with you, influencing the way you react. At home, it's just you and the technology. How much fun is it being on a roller coaster by yourself?"
Stacey Sher: It's in the Attitude
"Do you think he's available?" Stacey Sher asks casting director Francine Maisler. "There is something wonderfully perverse about casting Gore Vidal as an advocate for genetic engineering."
The 32-year-old Jersey Films president is watching audition tapes and debating casting ideas with Maisler and writer-director Andrew Niccol for Niccol's upcoming film, a futuristic thriller. The meeting is a good showcase for Sher's budget-conscious pragmatism, encyclopedic knowledge of any actor's film credits and her tart tongue--she describes a studio executive known as slow to respond to script submissions as "the mistress of time slippage."
When talk turns to possible candidates for a juicy septuagenarian part in the thriller, Sher launches into a monologue about onetime TV series stars, beginning with Karl Malden and Mike Connors and concluding with a complex theory about why, for this role, Buddy Ebsen would be cool and Eddie Albert would not.
"When you think of Eddie Albert, you only think of 'Green Acres,' " she says. "When you think of Buddy Ebsen, you don't just think of 'The Beverly Hillbillies,' but 'Barnaby Jones' and the whole coolness factor of having to bow out of the Tin Man part in 'The Wizard of Oz' because of a skin problem."
It's Valentine's Day and two huge bouquets of roses arrive in Sher's office, one from her boyfriend, the other from Courtney Love of the rock group Hole, who has a small role in "Feeling Minnesota," an upcoming Jersey film. The good inside Hollywood buzz Love got from the role helped the singer land an even bigger part playing wife Anthea Flynt in Milos Forman's new film about Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt.
That's part of what makes Sher a force for change in Hollywood. During her five years at Jersey, she's discovered new talent and involved them in commercial projects. An early champion of Quentin Tarantino, she helped get "Pulp Fiction" made after Tri-Star Pictures (Jersey's then-distributor) passed on it. She took a chance on "Reality Bites," made by Ben Stiller, a first-time director, and written by 22-year-old unknown writer Helen Childress. Even "Get Shorty," though it relied on experienced talent, was a first: It's the only time, after many tries, that Hollywood has captured the snap of an Elmore Leonard novel on screen.
Watching Sher race through a day of meetings and phone calls, it's easy to see why Jersey gets the jump on the competition. One hot script in Hollywood last year was "The Truman Show," which Paramount Pictures has yet to film, awaiting Jim Carrey's availability . Yet Jersey has already hired Niccol, its hot screenwriter, to direct the thriller tentatively titled "The Eighth Day," which could be out far ahead of "The Truman Show."
"We're to the movies what alternative music is to the record business," says Sher, whose office includes a German "This Is Elvis" poster and a "Saturday Night Fever"-era John Travolta coloring book. "We look for scripts that are passionate and emotional and fresh. We make sensibility films, not guy-and-a-gun movies. It's like the [slogan] on our 'Get Shorty' poster--'attitude plays a part.' "
Sher, born in New York and raised in Fort Lauderdale, was attracted to books and movies from all corners, many where attitude played a part. "When I was 14, I must've read 'Atlas Shrugged' 4,000 times," she says. "I grew up watching 'Shampoo' and 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.' I saw 'The Way We Were' 1,000 times, and [filmmaker Stanley] Kubrick was like a god." And her attachment to pop music is nearly lifelong. Living in Los Angeles during sixth grade, she remembers habitually answering the phone at home, "KHJ plays all the hits!"
Many of her favorite filmmakers, especially Kubrick, Martin Scorsese and Hal Ashby, have used pop music to great effect, a technique echoed on many Jersey soundtracks. "Music has become a great tool for filmmakers," she says. "It can add a whole other layer to a film. I can't think of 'Manic Depression' without thinking of the party scene in 'Shampoo.' That's what we try to do, to understand how music can be an emotional part of a film as well as the marketing of the film."
For Sher, artists with a true love of film will shape Hollywood's future. "People will always respond to films that are about something, that are personal. It's the same reason they respond to Nirvana or Pearl Jam. Their music is about real emotions."
"Think of what it's going to be like for the next generation, growing up with Courtney Love and Liz Phair as pop cultural stars, not just fringe cult idols, as Patti Smith was when I grew up. It's the same in film, with young kids having John Singleton or Quentin Tarantino as role models. It's going to change things, for them to know that if you're really committed and have a vision, you can make it over the wall."
Ice Cube: It's About Respect, Money and Women
A balding white man is furtively staring at a polite black man standing at the store counter, waiting to pay for a carload of sound equipment. As the white man glances between the black man and an autographed poster for the album "Lethal Injection" on the wall, you can almost see him wrestling with his preconceptions. Could the soft-spoken guy next to him actually be Ice Cube, the notorious gangsta rapper?
Finally he screws up his courage. "Hey, didn't I just see you in a movie the other night on cable?" he asks. "It was set on a college campus and--it was you, right?"
Cube nods and tells him the title. "Higher Learning."
"That's it," the white man says, all excited. "I was really impressed--I hadn't heard anything about it. And you were really good in it. I thought the movie had a lot to say. Was it ever in the theaters?"
"Yeah," Cube says. "Last year. It made good money, too."
For Ice Cube, who has been driving his Range Rover across the San Fernando Valley all afternoon in search of sound equipment, this encounter neatly illustrates his theory about the economic hurdles black filmmakers must overcome to establish a career in Hollywood. During the past several years, the 26-year-old rap star has begun a second career as a filmmaker. Best known for his acting roles in "Boyz N the Hood" and "Higher Learning," Cube has directed a dozen music videos, co-written and co-starred in the hit comedy "Friday," and will write and direct his first feature, "The Players Club," this summer.
As a rapper, Cube has had a dramatic influence on youth culture, voicing a rebellion and alienation that both inner-city blacks and white suburban teenagers can relate to. With his keen ear and street credibility, Cube has the potential to break down the persistent barriers separating white and black movie audiences.
Cube knows that he and other black filmmakers have to reach a broader audience, overcoming a key difference between the two mediums: Music is private entertainment--you play it at home or in your car. Movies are public entertainment, experienced collectively in a theater.
"When 'Friday' first came out, I got all this response from black people, but I didn't hear anything from white people until it came out on video," says Cube, an unpretentious man with a remarkably serene disposition. "It was like that guy in the store. He liked 'Higher Learning,' but he didn't even know it was in the theaters."
The problem, in Cube's view, is that white moviegoers won't go to a movie that attracts a predominantly young black audience. "The video sales are right on," he says. "But white America won't go to theaters because of the problems they perceive about gangs and black kids. Can you imagine two white kids seeing 'Menace II Society' on opening night in Westwood? I don't care how hip they are, they're not gonna want to be in an audience full of young black kids."
One way to make films more accessible for white audiences is to capture reality but still emphasize entertainment. "As a black filmmaker, you're not going to survive trying to beat people over the head with serious stuff," he says. "You don't pay $7.50 to walk out of the theater more depressed than when you came in. You gotta entertain people to make a profit. Look at [Steven] Spielberg--he made a lot of entertaining movies before he made 'Schindler's List.' "
To Cube, what's missing from mainstream movies is the presence of African American heroes. "We need a big black action hero--where the black actor is The Man," says Cube, who's disappointed that Wesley Snipes hasn't followed up on the success of "Passenger 57." "We always get the sidekick part, where we never get any [sex] and we're always having to take some kind of sh--. I loved 'Crimson Tide,' but when Gene Hackman socked Denzel Washington in the face--twice--Denzel didn't do anything. I mean, when have you ever seen Arnold Schwarzenegger take two shots to the face and not give anything back?"
Cube is convinced there's a simple economic reason why black filmmakers haven't made action films. The typical action-movie budget runs from $40 million to $100 million and no one gives that kind of money to black directors. For now, films such as "Menace II Society," the "House Party" series and "Friday" are virtually an underground phenomenon. Made on shoestring budgets, they generate huge profits but somehow don't register on the radar screen of white moviegoers because they don't open in as many theaters.
"I don't think Hollywood is behind or ahead--it's a business about profit. They give people what they want," Cube says. "It's probably more comfortable for America to see blacks in comic roles. To see me holding an AK-47 is a little more threatening than Schwarzenegger [holding one]. I guess they think I might really have one."
As a kid, Cube often stayed at the theater all day, watching films like "Star Wars," the blaxploitation favorite "The Mack," or Brian De Palma's "Scarface." But he couldn't imagine himself as a filmmaker.
"Movies seemed so unapproachable," he recalls. "Nobody I knew--anywhere--ever hinted that I could be a filmmaker. You had to be a part of the clique to know how to get it done. It wasn't until they did "The Making of 'Thriller' " that I even had any idea how it worked," he says of the behind-the-scenes look at how director John Landis made the pivotal Michael Jackson video.
After Cube got into acting, he soon wearied of being offered the stereotypical gangbanger movie parts and began writing his own scripts. He's getting his shot as a director because "Friday," filmed in 20 days on a budget of $2.3 million, made $28 million. "The Players Club," which revolves around two black strippers in an Atlanta club whose owner is dodging gangsters, is budgeted at about $6 million.
And the bad guys win in the end, which is the way Cube likes it.
"Why not?" he says. "Happens every day. Even when I was a kid, I loved villains more than the heroes. 'Scarface' was a great movie because it had a great villain. If I'm making a movie, that's what I want to see. It's about respect and money and power and women. And if that ain't the American dream, what is?"
James Cameron: Dreaming With His Eyes Open
If you follow the money, you'll understand why the most explosive area of innovation in Hollywood is visual effects. The astounding effects possible with the new digital technology do what Hollywood understands best--generating profit. From "Batman Forever" to "Apollo 13," nine of the Top 10 worldwide grossing films of 1995 made significant use of computer-generated wizardry. (And that's not counting "Toy Story" and "Jumanji," two films released late in 1995 that will undoubtedly make this year's Top 10 list.)
"For the past 15 years, the most profitable films worldwide have been ones that use visual effects," says James Cameron, who directed such high-tech wild rides as "Aliens," "The Abyss," "True Lies" and the two "Terminators." "Computer effects are trans-cultural. Movies that are visually driven penetrate cultural barriers--they play as well in Singapore or South Korea as they do here."
Three years ago, Cameron co-founded Digital Domain, a leading digital effects firm in Venice that has generated special effects for TV commercials, music videos, theme parks, CD-ROMs and films like "Apollo 13." It also serves as Cameron's own digital back-lot.
"Dream with your eyes open" is a favorite maxim at Digital Domain. And that's what makes digital technology so enthralling for filmmakers--their narrative skills can expand into areas never before imaginable. "Good storytelling doesn't change," says Cameron, 41. "But computer effects create storytelling possibilities that didn't exist.
"Ten years ago, if you had taken the 'Jurassic Park' script to Steven Spielberg, he flat-out couldn't have made that film. You couldn't do a living, breathing Tyrannosaurus Rex. It was the technical advances that allowed him to tell the story. Audiences are being conditioned to accept nothing less than total reality. That's why 'Jurassic Park' blew our minds. It took dinosaurs out of our heads and onto the screen."
As a boy, Cameron devoured history and astronomy books as well as sci-fi comics. "When I read science fiction, I saw stuff in my head that I'd never seen in films--that I never thought could be in films," he explains. "Then I walked into 'Star Wars' and went, 'Wow! That's what I've been seeing in my head!' That's what turned me into a filmmaker. All the things I'd been imagining could now be done."
Dating back to his earliest days in film, when he worked as an art director on low-budget Roger Corman sci-fi flicks such as "Battle Beyond the Stars" (1980), and "Galaxy of Terror" (1981), Cameron has been a Big Bang filmmaker. Today, you could call him the David Lean of special effects, wowing us with eye-popping assaults on our visual senses. And the pace of digital innovation is shaping Cameron's own career path. He's convinced that his upcoming film, which recounts the catastrophic sinking of the Titanic, couldn't have been made two years ago. "Some of it can't be done now," he says with a laugh. "We have to write some new software to do it."
In the past, to show a ship sinking, filmmakers had to use models, which lacked a crucial dramatic element--you never saw anyone on board when the ship went down. "You'd see a shot of the people, then of the model, but never in the same space together," Cameron explains. "But with our technology, we can start on a character's face, pull back to seeing the ship plowing through the water, then farther back to see the people strolling on the deck at sunset and it'll look completely real."
Digital Domain also helps stimulate the ideas behind the special effects. "I walk through the building and get ideas that go back into the script that goes into the movie that comes back to Digital Domain," he says. "And if I go to the guys and they're not screaming loud enough saying something is impossible, then I'm not doing my job right. I'm not using enough imagination."
Cameron gets plenty of bang for his bucks, although the bucks have gotten bigger with each project. "Terminator 2" came in at a (then) record-setting $90 million, with "True Lies" reaching at least $100 million. The increased financial risk creates intense pressure, both for the studio and the filmmaker, although Cameron insists that the costs of visual-effects films have escalated in direct proportion to their earnings capabilities.
Nonetheless, the potential scope of computer technology is one reason Cameron helped launch Digital Domain. Having seen the kind of profits studios have made on most of his films, Cameron wants to own a piece of the action by creating computer-generated characters that could star in their own TV show or video game.
For a filmmaker like Cameron, the challenge is staying ahead of his audience, who expect each new film to showcase more dazzling high-tech theatrics. "It's a competitive environment," Cameron says. "You can't sell the same car radio to people you could 10 years ago. And it's the same with movies. They want more.
"As a filmmaker, you have to embrace the future. You've got to surf the wave or you're gonna get hammered by it. If I didn't create Digital Domain and learn how to use it, I'd get smoked by some younger guy who grew up with all that. I don't want to be obsolete, so I'm going to lead the charge."
Mark Dippe: Digital Revolutionary
When Mark Dippe was 5, he persuaded his mother to take him to see the 1958 horror classic "The Fly." For him, the film's most unforgettable scenes were the ones in which the hero, cruelly transformed to half-man, half-fly, disposes of his prey by dragging them into coffins.
"For weeks afterward, I obsessed on it," Dippe recalls. "It showed the emotional power of film. I'd lie awake at night trying to make my mind stop, to feel what it was like to be really dead."
"The Fly's" visual effects convinced Dippe that movies could overwhelm your emotions. At 38, he has already used his magic kit--the process of adding computer-generated images to film--to radically alter the cinematic landscape.
Dippe is one of Industrial Light and Magic's special-effects stars, having created effects in "The Abyss," "Terminator 2" and "Jurassic Park."
Influenced as much by artists like Magritte and Cocteau as by Roger Corman, Dippe talks like a hip-hop rocket scientist, full of supercharged lingo about mediocritized experiences, sensory drugs and tweaked emotions.
The digital dinosaurs that awed audiences in "Jurassic Park" are just the tip of the iceberg. "The battle's already over," says Dippe, clad in hipster black from his leather jacket to his well-worn work boots. "The digital revolution has won. Hollywood can be very moribund. But it's also an animal that's always on the prowl for new ideas and energy. And 'Jurassic Park' just tumbled everything. It wasn't the art--it was the numbers. Everyone in Hollywood started going, 'How in the hell did that movie make so much money?' "
When Dippe picked up his phone one day and found ICM agent Bill Block on the other end, eager to fly up to ILM to meet him, "That's when I really knew Hollywood was going to let digital artists become filmmakers--the walls were tumblin' down," says Dippe, now an ICM client.
Dippe, born in Japan to a Chinese mother and an American father, grew up in Anchorage, Alaska. A self-described problem child, he left home at 17 for college, where he spent most of his time watching the psychedelic western "El Topo" and dabbling in experimental video. Stints in electronic painting, animation and 3-D computer graphics followed. But Dippe was still disenchanted by the commercialization of cinema, and in the mid-1980s, he simply dropped out.
"I lived in the woods, barely made a living," he recalls. "I got into a hole in my life. I just refused to use my ideas to further a stupid culture."
When he returned to work, he joined up with some old friends going to work at ILM in the Bay Area on "The Abyss." Once Dippe saw the images he was creating on film, "the old obsession came back--I fell in love with everything all over again." With digital technology, he has found a way to incorporate his dark side in his work. The first film he's slated to direct, later this year, is "Spawn," a cult comic whose brooding hero is murdered but brought back to life and given a chance to redeem himself.
Eager to explore themes of gender and sexuality, issues that "people shut their eyes to," Dippe probably has more in common with young pop rebels like Trent Reznor and PJ Harvey than with his careerist Hollywood peers. He believes these youth culture concerns are shared by young filmmakers everywhere.
"Our culture is far more global than ever," he says. "I meet people in Tokyo or Madrid that I have more in common with than anyone in San Francisco. We're attracted to the same bands, the same art. We have the same pop culture."
Still, Hollywood will only nurture artists if they can reach a broad audience. And having worked on such Velveeta fare as "The Flintstones," Dippe knows how splashy new effects can be co-opted to serve retro storytelling.
"Most digital technology will eventually be just another Hollywood convention, like car chases and women with large breasts," he acknowledges. "But it also can create places that we can't make, creatures or environments that don't have any physical embodiment."
He rubs his hands together, as if molding wet clay. "In the digital world, you don't have to obey the laws of nature. You're playing God. Animals can jump 50 feet high, trees can fall over in any direction, the sun never has to go down. For someone who loves film, it gives you the ultimate high--it frees your imagination.
"When I go to an art museum, I feel like I'm in the hallowed halls of dead men. When art gets codified and deified, it loses its edge. The dispersal of technology frees things. With digital technology, you have an endless amount of originals. It means, so what if someone manipulates a few hundred thousand copies? There are still plenty more originals."