Monday, 17 December 2007

Hollywood Babble On & On... #14: A System for Idiocy

There's a term I've used a lot over the years, and some of my friends have used it too. (without giving me any credit, but I'm not bitter)

The term is: The Self-Fulfilling Idiocy.

It's sort of like a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it has more to do with stupid actions creating more stupid actions until everything goes totally ape-feces in your face.

Now the classic self-fulfilling idiocy is what's happening in Hollywood.

But before that, a little history.

In the very dawn of cinema, actors didn't get any credit at all. In fact, the leading female actress of the Biograph company was simply known as The Biograph Girl.

However, that situation didn't last long.

We are talking about about actors here, and there's nothing they like more than seeing their name written in very big letters.

So during the Silent Era of the 19teens and 1920s two systems rapidly emerged: The Studio System and the Star System.

The Studio System boiled filmmaking down to factory like efficiency, because each studio had to produce at least one to two new films a week to show in the theatres they owned to stay afloat.

The Star System was where each studio had a stable of 'stars.' Actors whose talent, charisma, and public persona could help sell a film to the general public.

These actors were usually signed to 7 year contracts that meant that pictures were assigned to them by the studio, not picked by themselves. Those that disobeyed the studio got suspended, or even blacklisted as 'difficult.'

This system of gilded servitude lasted throughout the 1930s and 1940s as a form of symbiosis. The studio needed the stars to sell their films and the stars needed the studios to pay them, protect them, and provide work.

But then things started to change. First came World War 2 with many top names going overseas to fight fascism, second came the consent decree.

The Consent Decree was a move by the US federal government that meant that studios could no longer own the theaters that showed their films, because it constituted a form of monopoly.

Then the actors who served in the war decided that they weren't going to take the studios crap anymore and demanded greater independence. Some even becoming producers of their own films.

Then came TV.

Suddenly the studio system's monopoly on entertainment was on the wane. Many companies skirted bankruptcy, and most of the smaller studios collapsed. The old style moguls who built the business were forced out, and many studios were taken over by big multinational conglomerates. Suddenly Paramount became just another corporate subsidiary, logged in the books right next to the division that made widgets.

Hollywood flailed around during the 50s and 60s, trying to recapture lost glory with massive screens and grand technicolor extravaganzas.

Most of these projects failed.

The power of 'big stars' to demand big money also waned. Thus you started to see in the 60s and 70s big names appearing in grand epics one week, low budget foreign made schlock the next.

Then came the movie brats.

They were a generation of filmmakers raised on Hollywood classics and brought into the business through Roger Corman's low budget exploitation factories at American International and New World Pictures suddenly found themselves at the top of the cinematic food chain.

They made movies that the public wanted to see, and the normally closed shop of Hollywood suddenly blew wide open.

This led to a wave of creativity unseen since the emergence of the 'talkie' in the late 20s.

It also led to what I call the 2nd Star System.

This time it was the stars who called the shots.

They wanted control over their projects, big money, and a piece of the profits.

The studios, desperate for a piece of the success they promised, agreed.

Now this is where the self-fulfilling idiocy begins.

By the time of the 1980s the directors and stars that made their name in 70s were getting fat on big money from big movies.

The studios became a closed shop once again, no new talent or skilled tradespeople welcome. (Except for a brief moment in the early 90s during the 'indie-Sundance-boom but that's another story)

These developments led to movies becoming more and more expensive.

To protect their investments the studios started playing with the books, so suddenly profits began to disappear. Huge blockbusters were mysteriously written off as money losers, because they had less successful films attached to their budgets.

Suddenly the big names decided that having a piece of the profits wasn't enough if there weren't going to be any profits. They wanted big money up front, and a piece of the gross revenue, from the first ticket sold to the last VHS tape rented.

Production costs went even higher.

Then the 90s brought in what I call the Super-Agent System.

A select few elite agencies got control of all the top star actor and directors. If you wanted that star to be in or to direct your studio's movie, you not only had to pony up the big money, but you also had to hire some of the agent's other clients for big money. 10% doesn't grow on trees.

This was called 'packaging.'

But even that time came to pass. Especially when some of these 'super-agents' became heads of studios, and realized that they weren't super managers as well.

However it left Hollywood crawling with actors and directors who are on the so-called 'A-List' because their agents got them big money on the coat-tails of their more successful clients.

This system was maintained by a new system, what I call the Publicist System.

The 80s and 90s saw an explosion in celebrity driven media, from tabloid newspapers, magazines, and TV shows. These outlets needed a steady stream of 'stars' to populate the gaps between ads for zit cream and time-share opportunities in Boca Raton.

To get the 'A-list' actors, they had to appease their publicists, which meant that they not only had to treat their top clients with kid gloves, barring anything short of a murder charge, they also had to treat their less famous clients as if they were big stars as well.

So you had the media appeasing the publicists promoting actors beyond their star-power, so their agents could demand big money and pieces of the gross revenue.

This causes costs to go way up beyond inflation, despite new technology, revenue to go down in the real world, and not just on paper, and everyone except the select few at the very top, getting the shaft.

So to boil it all down, the studios, being greedy, started denying that films made money. This led to more up-front costs, and pieces being taken from the back end gross revenue.

Thus ensuring that films don't make any real money, no matter what the box-office take. And even though it's killing them, the studios are still being greedy, and still trying to screw everyone instead of reforming and simplifying the system.

And that is what I call a self-fulfilling idiocy.

1 comment:

  1. Really good D. Ironic that it seems the studios are letting their greed get the best of them and "killing the golden goose" as the saying goes.

    Maybe econ classes ought to have lectures on SMART greed and DUMB greed.