"Hollywood" - No single word conjures such a sparkling picture of joy and untrammeled success. True, much of that has always been a carefully crafted myth, much like Camelot, but none-the-less that myth has had long power over the world's collective imagination. How shocking then to have heard recently from the mouths of two of Hollywood's grandees -- Steven Spielberg and George Lucas -- that "Hollywood" -- that is the American Film Industry -- was about to face "an implosion." What in heaven's name were they talking about?
To give any meaningful answer to that question we first must understand a little about what "Hollywood" means in the context, not of film art but of the film business, for that is really what Hollywood represents.
The motion picture business got its start in a small way back in the 1890s. Up until that time, before the advent of motion pictures, recorded sound, radio or television, public performance required live actors and musicians. Larger cities had theaters for live shows and burlesque and concert halls of various sizes and types for live music, but smaller cities and towns often had little public entertainment at all apart from the occasional traveling show or a traveling circus. No wonder an announcement that "The circus is coming to town!" raised such excitement.
Motion pictures -- "movies" -- changed all that. Suddenly "moving pictures shows" started appearing all over the country and small movie production companies were created here there and everywhere to fill the need.
In time the motion picture business in America became centered in California where the mild climate, day after day of dependable sunshine and abundant available space created together the perfect motion picture making environment. And in an amazingly short time the once many small movie production companies were replaced by a few large ones -- companies that owned and/or controlled every aspect of the motion picture business. The had the needed studios, the "back lots"of ready sets including all sorts of venues (Western towns, small town America, city streets, jungles etc.) And they had under contract all the talent needed to produce the films -- the writers, directors, technical people and actors. More than that the owned many of the movie theaters -- theaters that showed only motion pictures produced by the owning studio -- and had contracts with the rest that required them to buy the projection rights for films in "blocks" -- typically blocks of five films -- only one of which might have a large likelihood of success.
During the time when this "Studio System" reigned -- often referred to as "Hollywood's Golden Age -- hundreds and hundreds of films were made, distributed and shown to the public every year.
Among them were many "greats." The year of 1939 - perhaps the high point of what we think of as "Hollywood" -- saw the production and distribution of such films as "The Wizard of Oz," "Gone With the Wind," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Gunga Din," "Stagecoach" "Destry Rides Again," "Ninotchka" and "Goodbye Mr. Chips." All that in just one year!
But lots and lots of junk films were made that year too -- hundreds of them -- films that would never had found a viewing audience if not for the block contracts imposed by the studio system.
Then, starting in 1948, the government got involved and the studio system was step-by-step put out of business. ("For the good of the people" of course. For the good of the people!)
In very simple terms what happened was this: The Federal Government decided that it was an unfair business practice for the major film companies ("The Studios") to own both the means of production and the means of displaying motion pictures.
The whole affair was, as are all things in "big business" and government, very complex, but simplified we can compare it to the government deciding that it is unfair for a restaurant to have ownership of both the kitchen where food is prepared and the seating area where the food is served to the customer. Better (only government could think so!) would be for restaurants to be required to serve food prepared by someone other than themselves, and for chefs to be required to find some food serving establishment, somewhere else, to sell what they created in their kitchen.
How well do you think that would work?
In any case with the ending of the Studio System the big name studios that we think of when we think "Hollywood" became mere shells. Some for a time continued to actually produce films, but without the assured returns neccasary to contract writers, directors, actors -- and especially "stars" -- the costs of doing so went up and up and this without any assurance that a given movie, once made, would actually be shown in enough theaters to recoup the production and distribution costs, much less make a profit.
To counter this the entire movie industry was forced to change. Instead of mass producing hundreds and hundreds of films "The Studios" (now in truth often merely serving as distributors) started concentrating on BIG films with BIG stars that had to attract a BIG audience. Out went the small, low-budget drama, in came the blockbuster with "a cast of thousands" (or, more recently, a lot of fancy and costly digital effects).
And what does one need to do to attract a BIG audience? Study demographics and aim those high-budget extravaganzas at them. And in today's world that means teenagers and twenty-somethings. And that means... ach! ... mostly comic book type stories with lots and lots of "superheros."
More than that it means tailoring the film itself -- even its name -- to bring in the biggest possible audience. Thus even a film about a sci-fi here such as Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter can't go by the name of the book upon which the movie is based. After all, how many boys would be attracted to a film called "A Princess of Mars"? Nor dare they even call it "John Carter on Mars" -- for such a title might not draw in enough teenage girls. No, instead the film had to be called just "John Carter" and as such it attracted almost no one. -And that after Disney Studios had spent so much money producing, advertising and distributing the film that they'd have had to bring in box office receipts of at 600 million dollars just to break even.
The failure of last year's "John Carter" and its 160 million dollar loss was the harbinger of this year's multi-film bust. A year that has brought one failure after another of films whose production costs alone (never mind advertising and distribution costs) exceeded 250 million dollars apiece.
So far this summer such 'bombs' include "The Lone Ranger" (despite its starring Johnny Depp), "White House Down," "After Earth" (starring the normally reliable screen draw Will Smith), and nearly a half dozen others.
Obviously the film industry cannot survive suffering loss after such loss, but Steven Spielberg's warning of an "Implosion" reflected more -- the other side of that same coin -- the inability of even a name director such as himself to make a movie and see it distributed that was about something other than teen comic book style fantasies.
In 2012 Steven Spielberg had devoted his immense talent to a project that should have, by any reasonable standards, promised of huge success. That film was "Lincoln."
"Lincoln" had (or should have had) everything going for it. It was a film about a man who has for years been one of the nation's greatest real-life heroes. It dealt with the truly dramatic choice between the continuation of slavery or the advent of freedom and eventual equality for all Americans, and dramatically showed what it took for this truly great leader of men to change the course of modern history. More than thet It was directed by one of the truly great modern film directors -- one that has had repeated box office hits -- and it starred one of the today's truly great film actors, Daniel Day-Lewis.
But for all this Spielberg had trouble getting it shown in theaters. Indeed he says that it very nearly went directly to HBO!
If a film by Steven Spielberg about Abraham Lincoln can't get shown in theaters then what is the future of American film? Just more superhero flops? Or will the business become one of only digitally produced family cartoons and made on the cheap teen gross-out comedies?
If the past is any guide Hollywood -- the American Film Industry -- will not die. No, it will once again find a new road. It will change.
But for now there truly is trouble in paradise.