Hollywood Plays to the Pimply

Frank Pierson, who wrote "Cat Ballou," "Cool Hand Luke" and "Dog Day Afternoon," among other films, is president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This is adapted from a speech to the graduating class of USC's film school.

Hollywood was once a small company town, where everybody knew everybody, and if you dropped your pants at a party or punched a reporter or danced with a prostitute in the parking lot, it wasn’t on “Entertainment Tonight” tonight.

It was even hard to get arrested. Every studio had a publicity department that paid the Los Angeles cops to stay away from show-business people. The police didn’t arrest movie people. They drove them home.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. May 30, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 30, 2003 Home Edition California Part B Page 15 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Conglomerates -- Frank Pierson’s article Monday incorrectly stated that “Warner Brothers was bought by Seven Arts, Seven Arts was bought by Kinney Shoes....” The correct entity is Kinney Services.

We all went down to the film factories every day (at Warner Bros. even actors, directors and writers punched a time clock until the mid-1940s). We ate in the studio commissary, where the writers’ table was preferred seating because the jokes were better there. If the New York writers were in town, slumming -- sneering at the movies and cashing big, fat paychecks -- you found yourself sitting next to Dorothy Parker or F. Scott Fitzgerald.

You could wander off to a sound stage and watch John Huston or Willy Wyler shooting a scene with Bogart or Hepburn or Peck. No security. We all knew each other.


It was up close, and personal.

Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia, was a legendary bully who admired Mussolini and had his office designed to resemble Mussolini’s -- with a long approach into blinding lights and himself behind a desk, raised a foot above the floor, ranks of Oscars his studio had won behind him. He said he made only pictures that he wanted to see, and once the public stopped wanting to see what he liked, he’d quit. Not for him delegating decisions to demographers, pollsters and marketing experts. Nobody knew what a demographer was in those days.

It was up close, and personal.

Then, in the 1960s, when the glove salesmen and carnival touts who built the studios began to grow old and retire, their grip on the business loosened. For a while, independent producers flourished. New companies, new writers and directors burst the bonds of studio-imposed style.

The ‘60s and the ‘70s produced movies now looked upon as a golden age: “The Godfather,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “Taxi Driver,” “Chinatown,” “Clockwork Orange,” “Annie Hall,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “MASH,” “Bonnie and Clyde” and a couple I like, “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Cool Hand Luke.” Even “Easy Rider,” which symbolized the anarchistic spirit of that drug-ridden time, was a Columbia release.

Then, on Wall Street, it began to be noticed that a single blockbuster movie could make in a weekend what a substantial business made in a year.

Warner Bros. was bought by Seven Arts, Seven Arts was bought by Kinney Shoes, and the whole mess now is owned by AOL Time Warner (as are HBO, Warner Books, Turner networks and CNN). Viacom owns Paramount, CBS, Showtime cable and Blockbuster. Of the 100-odd prime-time shows that will premiere on the four networks this fall and winter, more than 30 -- including CBS newsmagazines -- will be made by companies owned by Viacom. An additional 25 or so will be made by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which owns the Fox network.

We had been having too much fun to notice: The barbarians were inside the gate. The polo games, the writers’ table, Jack Warner’s lunchtime tennis matches with Errol Flynn, the cops as our friends, all were a thing of the past.

We began to see Harvard Business School MBAs sit in on story conferences. Lawyers multiplied.

As the huge debt created by mergers was added to the rising costs of making little but blockbusters, the risks of making a film forced the businessmen to be risk-averse, to play to the least critical audience: teenage boys with disposable income.

The problem is how to keep this “average” moviegoer, male, 16 to 25, high school education at best, doesn’t read books, gets his news from the 11 o’clock news if he bothers at all, never heard of Mussolini and thinks Korea is another part of downtown L.A. This pimply, oversexed slob with the attention span of a chicken, how do we keep him awake and interested while staying awake and interested ourselves?

It’s not just Hollywood. What has happened here has happened to us all because the focus of international business has shifted from production to distribution. Whoever controls distribution shapes what is produced -- to what will fit under the seat or in the overhead compartment. Today, agribusinesses have researchers trying to produce cube-shaped tomatoes that will be easier to pack in boxes (and that probably will taste like the boxes). Watch the odd, the old, the personal, the traditional, the idiosyncratic, the family-made or the regional disappear from supermarket shelves that are rented by the foot to international companies that then stock them with their own water and sugar products.

As the movie business has changed, liberal critics have raised the alarm over corporate censorship. But the danger of censorship in the United States of America is less from business or the religious right or the self-righteous left than from self-censorship by artists themselves, who simply give up. If we can’t see a way to get our story told, what is the point of trying? I wonder how many fine, inspiring ideas are strangled in the womb of the imagination because there’s no way past the gates of commerce.

To the studios today, the art of film and TV is a byproduct of their main business, a side effect, and like most side effects, more likely to be a noxious nuisance than a benefit.

But movies are more than a commodity. Movies are to our civilization what dreams and ideals are to individual lives: They express the mystery and help define the nature of who we are and what we are becoming.

We need writers with ideas and passion, who write with force and conviction; directors who have minds enriched by their lives and not a library of stunts and special effects. They must be centered in their feelings and ideas in the culture and society, not in comparing grosses and applauding computer-generated ballets of violence.

We need it like we need clean drinking water and roads, green parks and libraries; it is as important as the breath of democratic life. Somehow we need to keep alive in our hearts the vision of community, shared interests and understanding of our neighbors’ needs, the sense of connection this fractionated society is losing.

We need to recapture the spirit of Main Street. Up close. And personal.