what can i possibly write about hollywood that hasn’t been told already? so let’s recapitulate the main points.
los angeles was not always the metropolis it is now. as for the film business during the classical age, for all its glamour, it could hardly have been called an industry. it comprised few companies, each ministering over a relatively small pool of actors and technicians. schulberg wrote the book about what hollywood was back then and the big knife showed it to us, both as a play and a film.
the big change took place when the studios were acquired by much larger business concerns. the new owners had a lot more in common with exxon mobil and general electric than with the studios of yore. losing no time, they addressed the question of returns on their new investment. even though the production and distribution of movies provided steady revenues over time, blockbusters were infrequent and unpredictable. for the mega corporations, piddling revenues would no longer do. only blockbusters would have an impact on the bottom line. as a result each movie needed to be conceived as a las vegas show: it would cost millions but it would be seen by millions. practically speaking, this meant the franchise films, the super heroes vehicles, the movies with tom cruise, etc.
next a winner-take-all strategy that gave no quarter to the also-ran was enacted. ninety per cent of the box office was not enough. films with a different outlook were promptly denied access to the marketplace.
finally, a novel master plan called for synergies between a film and the other businesses within the parent corporation. in short, the studios became responsible for producing content that could be monetized by these other divisions. whereas in the past, a film would be green lighted based on its merits, in the new model, its development depends on umpteen companies whose interest in the project is limited to what they themselves would gain were that film given the go-ahead. beyond that, any project must survive a grueling audit that evaluates its investment appeal to commercial outfits such as mcdonald’s and burger king. in this environment the film itself is no longer important. what matters is how much these various commercial entities would benefit from their association with any given project.
hollywood’s blockbuster formula has been extraordinary successful throughout the world. one certainly cannot confuse one of these movies with anything produced elsewhere. there is nothing subtle about the way these films occupy a screen. they come on strong, brassy, full of swagger. they are made to be big and want to be seen that way. their aesthetics are aggressive, muscular, even brutal. one senses a macho mentality at work.
beyond the high-powered narratives and the visual exuberance, what sets a hollywood movie apart from the rest is in the way everything is accented in it (augmented reality is not a new idea in tinsel town). the stars obviously, but also the supporting actors and even the extras, are sharpened till they become a lot more impressive than their counterparts in daily life. sceneries too are given a bright shine that makes them look striking. the world as a result looks more intense, more flamboyant than the one we left behind when we entered the theater. we want to live in that world, to become part of its imagery. and we want the film to never stop delivering its fabulous high.
through the world hollywood movies now define what viewers expect when they go to the cinema. as a result it has become harder than ever to interest people (producers as well as audiences) in projects that are atypical.
before anything else, hollywood connotes success which is why no one can resist its appeal. to work there means you have arrived. you are now part of an exclusive club, you are a member of the elite.
for directors, the lure is that money will no longer be an issue: you’ll be working with, arguably, the best actors and technicians in the world and you’ll be able to use all that fantastic equipment. a similar aspiration ensnares crew members. they paid their dues working on smaller films, they have proven themselves, and now they have reached the pinnacle. they are recognized as the best of the best. each night, they leave the set exhausted knowing that nobody could have done better. yet, in both cases, all this talent is often made to work on projects that hardly require such savvy.
under the surface, hollywood remains a fickle place for the admission ticket does not guarantee permanent access to the table. each day you must prove yourself anew in order to get the next meal ticket. look at the credits of older movies, you probably won’t recognize many names. yet, while making that film, each one of these men and women thought: this is it, i’m on my way, my career is taking off, only to remain in the background or to disappear all together afterwards. when working in hollywood then, one is never more than an extra, hired for a day, dispensable the next. everyone working there knows only too well that one flop and it’s all over.
the big deceit about hollywood is that one will automatically work on better and better films. very few however are able to achieve that. let’s say you made a small good independent movie. well, is directing an episode in a miniseries a promotion? think about it: you are not its showrunner, you are a mere executant, hired to apply a visual style that preceded your arrival on the set. in other words, you must leave behind the personal touches that distinguished your earlier effort. soon enough what matters most to you is no longer to make good films but to keep working regardless of the project’s worth.
what about old timers, those who were lucky enough to have a career? is the girl with the dragon tattoo really a breakthrough in david fincher’s career? did he have to involve himself in gone girl, the kind of project normally left to hacks? or look at jordan cronenweth: you’d think the man would have been number one after blade runner. so what happened? was it bad luck and there were no good projects on the horizon when it was time for him to go back to work? or was it poor taste and he chose mediocre projects over better ones? in the end, people work on films for all kinds of reasons including restocking the pantry.
you don’t make your films in hollywood. hollywood uses you to make the movies it wants to make.
behind its glamorous surface, hollywood remains a cold, capitalist enterprise. it enforces a hardened hierarchy that demarcates people above the line from those under it. only those at the top of the food chain are trusted with creating the cultural products the system is comfortable with. in return, they are obscenely rewarded for their efforts. everyone else is a hireling, a worker on the assembly line. how many directors know the name of the grips and electricians working for them? in comparison to those above their rank, the below-the-line people are paid but a pittance. more crushingly, they know they will never be able to join the creative elite. in other words, they are stuck pushing the dolly or rigging the lights till they are told they are too old for the job and shown the door.
for many in hollywood today, films are only means to an end. what such people are really after is the money, the celebrity status, the lamborghini, the red carpet, the oscar trophy. you recognize them easily: they strut in front of the camera as much as behind it. you hear and see them wherever you turn. this crowd has polluted the landscape. trying to make a honest film in such crass environment is difficult. it is certainly not good for the soul.
in the old days hollywood films occasionally contributed to the social discourse (say, all my sons and the best years of our lives immediately after the second world war). no longer. this job has been left to independents. zombies, extraterrestrials and superheroes have taken center stage. more and more movies avoid talking about the world we actually live in. in its embrace of the global market hollywood cannot even be said to be making genuine american films any more.
an industry is concerned with mass producing standardized products. it is not in the business of manufacturing one-off items. general motors produces automobiles under thirteen brands worldwide. the cars may turn up in different showrooms but, underneath the stylistic differences, they share just a few platforms. the movie industry is not any different. films must be like other films, especially successful ones, if they have any chance of being produced. at times an unusual proposal by an eccentric director will get through as long as some money can be expected to come out of it. by and large though, the place is fundamentally hostile to anyone who dares assert his or her unique creativity. so what happened during the1942 academy awards remains a warning for any artist brave enough to challenge the system. as you remember, citizen kane which had been nominated nine times won only once. that’s not surprising: academy members are not known for their good taste. what is not acceptable though is that, at the biltmore hotel, the hollywood crowd booed each time someone on the podium announced the film’s title. this is not something that can be forgotten or forgiven, ever.