Wednesday, 7 September 2011

City of Angels: The Studios - The Studio Era, Part 9

Pauline Kael

The all pervading atmosphere of terror, brought on by the committee’s shenanigans did nothing to nurture what remained of Tinseltown’s creative spirit, which is exactly what Hollywood needed most to win the battle against television and in its struggle to get audiences back to the big screen.

Today, agencies have replaced the big studios, setting up package deals between writer, director, producer and star, who tend to be all under contract to the same agency. Studios are reduced to a mere distributing role, and to letting space to independent producers, who usually consist of the film’s director or star. As an independent production they rent space, or other studio facilities, at a particular studio over a certain amount of time. And even though studios still produce -or co produce- films, the better part of the activity on the lot is dedicated to television.

Francis Ford Coppola

Alan J. Pakula

Martin Scorsese

Hal Ashby

Re-emerging after the sorry years of the 1950s, Hollywood entered a second golden age towards the end of the 1960s, or, to quote famous film critic Pauline Kael, Hollywood’s only golden age. With the Old Guard gone, the Production Code abolished, and the studios mostly run and owned by huge conglomerations, in which the studio itself was but a minor asset, a new herd of film makers entered the scene, who, with their verve and idealism infused Hollywood with a string of remarkable movies. Influenced by the Vietnam War, the rise of Women’s Lib, and a new sexual freedom, film makers like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, William Friedkin, Alan J. Pakula, Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, and Hal Ashby led the way to what would later be dubbed as the New Hollywood, producing films that went beyond mere entertainment, analysing, scrutinising and dissecting human behaviour and society as a whole. Steven Spielberg changed all that.

When his film Jaws (1975) was released nationwide and subsequently breaking all box-office records, the age of the blockbuster was born, as studios and producers realised that given the right product and an adequate marketing and distributing strategy, millions of dollars could be made with just one film. Spielberg, who had astonished cinema goers with two remarkable, off-beat, low-budget films, done well before he entered blockbuster territory , Duel (1971) and Sugarland Express (1974), went on to become commercially the most successful director of all time.

Entering the 1980s, it is interesting to take a look at the Academy Awards, whose significance as indicator for the excellence of films has greatly diminished, but which have assumed the role of a magnifying glass for the zeitgeist: In comparison to the 1970s, where films that won the Best Picture award were commercial as well as critical successes, the 1980s presented a different scenario, as hardly any of the top box-office grossers were awarded the Oscar for Best Picture. In that respect, the 1980s, the business-orientated politics of the Reagan notwithstanding, reflected the Hollywood of the past, where the Academy tended to value quality higher than box-office returns.

But with society changing constantly, and with a world-wide shift towards the political right, accompanied by an ever-increasing hunger for profit and economic growth, during the 1990s grosses took precedence over quality, and the Academy Awards for Best Picture was usually bestowed upon films that were box-office winners, with little or no regard to their artistic merits. Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1993), and Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1994) being an exception to the rule inasmuch as both works were artistically as well as commercially triumphant.

This trend continues to the very day, and Hollywood today is indeed the factory of films it was thought to have been during the studio era. A lot of money is lavished upon the production of a major studio release, but other than the fact that yet another box-office record was once more broken, the finished result is mostly forgettable. As a reaction to this trend, a new, independent cinema has emerged, producing low budget films with a focus on the story and, luckily, quality, and some studios even set up an independent branch, such as Warner Brothers’ New Line to counterbalance its big budget releases.

Cinema attendance has been soaring for the past twenty years, disproving prophets of doom who, at the onset of the 1950s and the sorry time that followed, predicted the death of cinema and the end of motion pictures. The reverse is true, however. American cinema, after having survived HUAC, successfully battled the onslaught of television, videos, DVD players, and home computers.