Thursday, 13 December 2007

Hollywood Babble On & On... #12: Gandhi, Oscar, & Making the Audience Your Enemy

Last night I was reading My Indecision Is Final: The Rise and Fall of Goldcrest Films... by Goldcrest founder Jake Eberts and business journalist Terry Illiot. Specifically I was reading the chapter on the making and selling of the Richard Attenborough's epic bio-pic Gandhi to Hollywood and the American public, and it shows how much Hollywood has changed since the early 1980s.

But first, a little background.

Goldcrest Films was started as a film finance fund by Canadian Jake Eberts and a partnership with British conglomerate Pearson-Longman. It rapidly grew to become a major independent player, dominating the Academy Awards in the early 1980s, and produced a series of modestly budgeted, intelligent, mature, and ultimately profitable films.

Sadly Eberts left the company for a better paying job, turf battles arose among various factions in the company, it got over-extended when it tried to out-epic Hollywood, and soon collapsed.

But that's another story.

What I want to talk about is the film Gandhi.

For years actor/director Richard 'Dickie' Attenborough had fought to bring the life and work of Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi to the big screen. After decades of struggle he convinced Goldcrest, the Indian government
and other investors to put up $24 million* dollars to make the epic.

After the film was made, on schedule, and under budget, Goldcrest then tried to sell it to Hollywood.

Fox was interested at first, and their executives
praised the film, but the passed. They didn't think the film was 'commercial' enough for the American audience.

Goldcrest then went to Columbia Pictures with Gandhi.

They loved it.

Then Columbia did something shocking.

They bought it.

They accepted that selling the film was a challenge, it was about a topic they weren't familiar with (the independence of India from British rule), set in a country the average American wasn't familiar with (India) and starred a then unknown stage actor named Ben Kingsley as Gandhi.

But they took that challenge not as a minus, but a plus.

They carefully marketed the film in a way to make the audience want to see because it promised not only spectacle and drama, but taught them something new, not only about the history of India, but about the human condition in general.

Elements of the human condition that the audience could relate to on an emotional level.

It showed that despite the cultural differences on the surface, the average American, and the average Indian held many of the same things in common.

The film was marketed not only on this universal emotional connection, but also to make the audience feel smart by going to see it. You may never go poor underestimating public taste, but if you can make them feel better about themselves, you will be pleasantly surprised by their good taste.

The audience came to Gandhi, felt that connection, felt smarter and better about themselves which helped them enjoy the film, and they repaid the film with excellent word of mouth.

The film then went on to be one of the major box-office hits of the year, win Oscars for just about everyone nominated, and then landed $20 million dollars, a then unheard of price for an independent production, for the US television rights from Embassy Pictures, who then sold it to HBO for $23 million.

Everyone involved enjoyed both critical and commercial success.

Now what would happen if Gandhi was made today?


A studio wouldn't make it today.

They'd take one look at the script and not see the universal themes that would appeal to the average American, but only a skinny Hindu in glasses doing a hunger strike for freedom where the average Hollywood starlet does it for magazine covers.

Besides, marketing such a film takes actual work and imagination, two things that seem to be avoided like death in Hollywood these days.

So instead of doing actual work to find out what connects with the average moviegoer, Hollywood has shifted to what they think is supposed to be challenging.

So you end up with:
  • Whiny tales of suburban sexual ennui, that claim to challenge conventional mores, but really only serve out the same cliches as the last film about suburban sexual ennui.
  • Boring, one-sided political lectures that present the side Hollywood opposes as cartoonish bloodthirsty villains, dimwitted buffoons, or both.
  • Outright condemnations or insults directed at the religion of the average moviegoer by presenting them as inherently evil, stupid, and/or hypocritical.
These aren't challenges to moviegoer to learn and expand. A challenge presents an honestly felt belief through a serious and intelligent argument. Intelligent and serious arguments require work and serious thought.

These sorts of films are not based on serious thought, but a rather cynical ploy to appeal to Hollywood's elite inner circle by presenting what they think is challenging.

The audience votes with its wallets, and most of these 'challenging' films end up circling the bowl financially. Yet they end up dominating the awards that Hollywood loves to give to itself, because they think they have to honour them because it presents what they think they have to believe in to be true artistes.

So Hollywood keeps making movies that lose money, and poison the art of film-making confident in their belief that they're doing the right thing, because they keep praising themselves for doing it. They start to think that these films fail because the audience, the great unwashed in flyover country, must be wrong, stupid, bigoted, and the enemy of quality.

Thus creates what I call a self-fulfilling idiocy.

Mainstream films get dumber and dumber with more attention and money paid to create CG effects and .

The majority fail to make a profit, because they don't connect emotionally with the audience, and only offer empty spectacle, but when some do hit it big, the studio suits think it only confirms their theory of audience stupidity and keep their fingers on the dumb button.

And more 'artistic,' 'serious' films, or 'independent' films (produced and/or released by major studio subsidiaries) aren't geared towards the general population anymore, but more to appeal to various and sundry political, social, and sexual fetishes of Hollywood's elite.

So you see the Academy Awards honouring more and more films that fewer and fewer people see. Critics scolding the general public for not spending their hard earned dollars on seeing a film that the critic only gave a thumbs up to because he felt he had to in order to get invited to all the good parties.

Box office suffers, the quality of films suffer, and culture and general suffers.

And then it all ends.

Not with a bang.

But with a silent theatre.

*I was stunned to see that budget figure.
That wouldn't pay for J-Lo's dressing room furniture these days.

1 comment:

  1. Right on Furious D. I completely echo your thoughts here. When the current hollywood crashes, we should get started on our replacement.