Friday, 7 November 2008

Hollywood Babble On & On #188: History Repeats Itself

A tip of my turban to Nikki Finke, who took some time off from her time off to post about Gov. Schwarzenegger of California is going to start fighting for tax breaks for the movie industry.

Hollywood and the state government of California have a lot in common. Both are very large, heavily bureaucratic organizations, that take in billions of dollars every year, that, more often than not, have nothing to show for all that money
in the end. Now California's mad that too many of Hollywood's productions are going out of state to far flung places like New York, South Carolina, and even Nova Scotia. They are going to these places to take advantage of generous tax breaks, cheaper labour, and well... everything else being cheaper than just staying at home in the Greater Los Angeles area.

Which strikes me as funny, because it was a situation a lot like this that made Hollywood the movie capitol of the western world.

Yep, I'm going to give you a little history lesson.

You see, back at the dawn of the movie industry production was centred in and around New York and Chicago. But the technology had limits. They needed a lot of light to shoot those early silent films, and the best source of enough light was the sun, so things were either shot outdoors, or in glass or open roofed studios.

Which meant that shooting in Winter, or on cloudy or rainy days was tricky at best. So folks we
re looking for a place with a variety of locations, cheap land, cheap labour, and most importantly sunny weather. A handful of short films were made on location in California, but they tended to be western stories that were actually set in California. That began to change when the Famous-Player Lasky Co. (later Paramount) was going to shoot their feature film The Squaw Man in Albequerque. But it was raining when the train carrying the location scouts arrived, so they went on to the end of the line, which was a little town outside the little city of Los Angeles called Hollywood.

Soon the occasional visits became a full fledged migration as film companies headed to Southern California where land & labour prices made it affordable to build large studios, the sunny weather made outdoor shooting cheap and easy, even when indoor lighting became practical, and use the widely varied landscape of deserts, palm trees, and forests, to simulate the entire world in a very small area.

Now this is where things start to go wrong.

The very success of Hollywood soon destroyed the elements that made that success possible. The population exploded, land prices went up, in some cases beyond fair-market value, and the resources of water and power grew strained from the consumption. Labour prices went up when the feudalistic tendencies of studio chiefs created a unionized backlash, which made the studios closed shops with ever increasing labour prices. Plus, that sense of "anywhere" was lost, buried under layers of suburban sprawl.

The big studios and unions are now trying to stem the outmigration of productions by trying to get tax breaks from the state and federal governments, but I'm ambivalent about it.

The class warfare part of me is annoyed by big government giving breaks to millionaires to somehow ease the problems caused by their own mismanagement.

The libertarian economics wonk part of me doesn't care for those tax breaks, because they are not based on the overall reduction and simplification of bloated and inefficient tax codes, but on the further complication of those codes to satisfy the politically connected elite.

And another part of me, the history wonk, thinks that this might be a natural migration, guided by the immutable forces of history, and the unwritten bylaws of business. Technology and economics have changed drastically in the intervening 90 years, movies can now be made anywhere, at any time of year. You can shoot in the rain, the snow, and the sunshine. Filmmakers no longer need to rent the "small town" set at Universal anymore when they can just fly to South Carolina, and shoot the real thing at half the price.

This might, in the long run, be a good thing for the movie business. It's been centred for too long in one city, creating an isolated, inbred, and narrow minded corporate culture that is as disconnected from the audience it's supposed to entertain as you can get and still be physically on the same planet.

So I think a case can be made to just let nature take its course. The forces that brought the industry to California, may very well scatter it to new places. It'll be unpleasant, radical evolution often has its problems, but it just might save the industry in the end.

No comments:

Post a Comment