Wednesday, November 4, 2009

When stars fall to earth.

"With today's young audiences, names won't sell a picture anymore.  A great script and a devoted director-- that's what makes things happen."
                             - Charles Bluhdorn

Sounds true enough, right? The studios are constantly complaining about huge salaries for overrated stars, $20 million for a movie and attachments like their agents, hair dressers, cars, drugs and whatever else they can demand.  How many movies this year with big stars made the big bucks. Paranormal Activity has made $62 million in less than 3 weeks and it cost $15,000.00. Slumdog Millionaire had no stars, nor did Napoleon Dynamite. And the big action movies, Transformers, Wolverine, don't really have big stars.

Back to the quote, that came from Charlie Bluhdorn who was the head of Paramount. And he said it at the beginning of the 1970's.

History repeats itself, doesn't it.

Here's another quote by LA Times writer Patrick Goldstein about the new movies being made in the early 1970's. 

"The best movies, with rare exceptions, weren't the most expensive ones. They certainly weren't the ones that tested well with research audiences. They weren't remakes, they were diamonds in the rough,  made fast and cheap by talent with something to prove." 

What movies did he mean?

Chinatown, The Godfather, The Graduate,  Midnight Cowboy, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, Mash, Easy Rider, Paper Moon, Nashville, Serpico, The Conversation.  I could name 50 more like that. Okay, Godfather was a studio picture but it wouldn't have been made if it weren't for a new hip, cool studio head named Robert Evans who was smart enough to hire Francis Coppola who had made a studio flop previously.

Now think of the hits in the last few years, Slumdog Millionaire, Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, The Hangover. And as much as I hate it, Borat. Given the budgets of those movies, it could be argued that they were more profitable than Transformers and Wolverine.

So here we are, after 40 years, and the studios are in the same predicament. All they need is that injection of fresh new talent.

My question is... where is that new talent?

One of the reasons that many of those movies I mentioned from the 70's, were stories from a different time, less cynical and sarcastic as the movies are now. As much as everyone says young people want edgy and cynical movies and horror films where people are tortured, they also will fall for good dramas and comedies, like the recent ones I mention.

The writers are different now also, all of the writers in the 60's and 70's were young, but also didn't have the advantage or disadvantage of being exposed to millions of videos on YouTube. They looked for good stories in novels, true life stories and their own stories of growing up after the second World War.

I had the chance to speak to some of these writers, and their lives sounded more like movies than mine. In fact mine was pretty boring as compared to these guys who rode rails, worked in mines, hitched across America and Canada, lived hard and drank even harder. No wonder they came up with great stories. It's harder to write a good story if you grew up in the suburbs and your biggest thrill was buying your first pair of flip-flops.

Or thinking that The Brady Bunch was good TV.

I remember seeing the first video-cassette recorder for home use.  It was a Sony top deck where you shoved a Beta tape into the top and pushed down. That was it. No date or ability to record from a TV.  And it cost $2000.  Right, two thousand dollars and all you got was playback. And there were very few movies to buy. I thought right there and then, this was going to change the industry. People at home could now become involved in show business. 

It was easy to anticipate the next big thing -- video cameras for the home. And something else happened. Many of the new filmmakers, but not all, were film school graduates. The Movie Brats, as one book was titled. The old filmmakers went back to the silent days, where you learned how to make a movie by screwing up and learning how to make it good.

John Ford, arguably the best American director (with 6 Oscars) made hundreds of 1- reelers and a few dozen features before he made the classic western Stagecoach in 1939 and won 2 Oscars, also 2  nominations for Drums Along the Mohawk and  1 nomination for Young Mr. Lincoln. All in the same year!

But the film school bug exploded. When once there were only three real film schools, NYC, USC and UCLA, now every campus begin to have courses. I went to 2 film schools, actually 4 month courses, and I failed in the first one at Banff, along with my friend Phil Borsos I'm the bearded smiling one, Phil's to my right, bushy hair), and dropped out of the second one after Phil and I made a film with school gear. Interestingly enough none of the other students at Banff ever attempted a career in film.

But film school alone isn't the key, you have to have good stories. There are a few filmmakers now who seem to be fresh but consistency isn't their best suit. More than not, they are "1-hit wonders". The generation of filmmakers just before me had runs of 5 or more great movies, Robert Altman continued directing until he died in his mid 80's. Right now I don't really see that many consistent young filmmakers. Of course the competition is incredibly fierce now and a director's total career can consist of one movie. 

The late 60's and early 70's almost destroyed the studios and the industry was struggling to stay afloat. Fox sold part of it's backlot for shopping malls and office towers after Elizabeth Taylor was paid $1 milliion for Cleopatrra, a flop. Crews were laid of, directors like John Frankenheimer (Manchurian Candidate) had to go to Europe for work.

Sounds the same now.

But I have faith. Why? Because big studios are making fewer and fewer movies at larger and larger budgets.

Why is that good for me?

Because they will need more movies from outside to feed the machine. And that will most likely come from people like me, who do character-driven movies for a smaller audience on realistic budgets.  All we need is one thing...

"A great script and a devoted director".

1 comment:

  1. I sure hope you're right. We're due for some decent movies and from what I've seen, the younger generation has become more critical of the industry, less enamoured (or suckered in) by the sensationalism of blockbuster feature films. If the story bites, they call it like it is, and no special effects can hide a bad story. Things might be looking up! Thanks for a great post.