Greed, Hollywood-Style

The Thing That Ate Hollywood

The death of the motion-picture business as founded has been on the horizon since the Industry learned all the wrong lessons from the success of Steven Spielberg's Jaws back in 1975. Whereas theaters had once touted air-conditioning as the prime means of putting fannies in the seats when the weather outside was steamy, the "summer blockbuster" now enticed them with chills and thrills. When Jaws begat Star Wars and the customers were shelling out record sums of money to watch what used to be called "B" movies, the moguls were quick to respond.

[A word to our younger readers: once upon a time in a galaxy not far away at all, there were "A" movies and "B" movies, so called because they were two halves of something called a "double bill," on which for the price of a single ticket you got two movies: a big-budget picture (in color!) with famous stars, and a cheaper film, usually in black-and-white, plus a couple of short subjects and maybe a cartoon or two. Similarly, 78-rpm records had an "A" side -- the song you wanted to hear -- and a "B" side, which you got more or less for free. You could look it up.]

In due course, the summer blockbusters morphed into "tentpole" movies -- mega-productions around which the studios would hang their entire yearly schedules, until at last the tentpoles became  the schedules, with a few voguish pictures chucked into theaters just before Christmas in order to qualify for "awards season" Oscars. Civil-rights dramas, coming-of-age movies (by which read: first sexual experience), and gay coming-of-age movies -- this is how a movie that nobody you know actually saw, Moonlight, won Best Picture last year.

And so it has come to pass that, at what's left of the multiplexes in what's left of shopping malls, you can see just about any kind of movie you want as long as it's a "franchise" movie -- in other words, a sequel or a remake of something you've already seen -- or a superhero movie -- in other words, based on a comic book; you know, the kind of thing you gave up reading when you were 14 years old. Just about every other genre -- westerns, dramas, thrillers, action-adventures, romantic comedies, slapstick comedies -- has been subsumed into the maw of the Things That Ate Hollywood.

Don't blame "Hollywood" for this state of affairs -- mostly because there is no "Hollywood" and hasn't been since the death of the studio system and the disappearance of the last of the independently owned studios themselves. The old moguls -- whether semi-literate glove salesmen or fast-talking Sammy Glicks -- at least knew which business they were in. They had come from the Jewish Rialto on Second Avenue in Manhattan, from the nickelodeons, and the schmatta trade: they knew that the customer was a) fickle and b) king. When they went to Hollywood, they understood instinctively they needed a wide array of wares, goods that appealed to as broad a clientele as possible, not a one-size-fits-all union suit.

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