Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Hollywood Babble On & On #397: Indulge Yourself

Welcome to the show folks...

I recently finished reading Peter Biskind's epic Easy Riders & Raging Bulls, about the "New Hollywood" or "Movie Brat" generation that changed Hollywood in the 1970s and ushered in the dichotomy between their creations of the "personal film" and the "blockbuster movie."

One thing that struck me was how so many of that generation of filmmakers followed the same steps:

1. Early success. Consisting of critical praise as a genius auteur and boffo box office.

2. Unprecedented creative freedom. Essentially permission to do something crazy like shooting a film in black and white, or making a movie where all the lead characters die.

3. Indulgence. Essentially going completely ape-shit crazy making a "dream project."

4. Crash & Burn. The failure of the dream project(s), which was both over budget and behind schedule pretty much trashing the filmmaker's career, sometimes for years, sometimes forever.

Folks complain that filmmakers working in the studio system don't have the creative freedom that their predecessors in the "movie brat" generation had in the 1970s. Well, that's the movie brat's fault, and it all happened because of indulgence.

Allow me to explain...

I'll start by explaining exactly what indulgence is in Hollywood. It's basically a tendency to partake in your wildest, basest, or intellectual desires, regardless of the cost, both personal and financial. In the movie business there are two types of indulgence.

ARTISTIC INDULGENCE: This is a desire to break new ground in the field of creativity, or at least what you may
think is breaking new ground.

All too often Artistic indulgence is partnered with...

FINANCIAL INDULGENCE: This is also known as "extravagance" which is a desire to spend, spend, spend. And it goes beyond spending on the actual film, with much being spent on frivolous luxuries that have nothing to do with anything that ends up on screen.

Both forms of indulgence are ego-based.

Artistic indulgence comes from your ego telling you that it doesn't matter that your script is nothing but a half formed sentence scrawled on a bar napkin, or that your leading lady speaks only her native Serbian, or that your film is going to be a musical featuring singing anuses, you're the world greatest artistic genius and that will save the film. You know that you're the world's greatest artistic genius, because all the people who depend on you for their livelihood tell you that you are the world's greatest artistic genius. They have to be honest with you, don't they?

Financial indulgence comes from your ego telling you that shooting on location at New York's City Hall isn't good enough for you, you're going to reconstruct the whole building in the sound-stage, complete with furnished interior, even though you're only going to shoot one exterior scene. It's during this time that your ego tells you that you deserve imported silk sheets hand woven by Hopi shamans in your hotel room, or that you insist on eating only off of expensive antique china plates, that you then smash after every meal to prevent anyone else eating off them.

Now self-indulgence leading to self-destruction is not always immediate. Francis Coppola drove himself and his film
Apocalypse Now, to the edge of ruin through both artistic and financial indulgence.

However, he dodged the bullet when
Apocalypse Now made a profit. That was taken by Coppola as license to go beyond ape-shit on his next film One From The Heart, and that pretty much crippled him financially and creatively for years to come.

Now there is a way to be artistically indulgent and avoid self destruction, but you need to have your brain have final cut over your ego.

Case in point, the Coen Brothers.

They've managed to make their own films on their own terms and be fairly successful at it. One reason, is that when they do something that has deep meaning for them, but may be considered self indulgent by others, they follow a simple strategy.

They do it cheap.

Take a look at their film
A Serious Man. The film is a black comedy (already a tough sell), a period piece, about square middle class people, with elements of obscure Judaica involved deeply in the plot. That sort of project could easily backfire on them and ruin their careers.

However, they did the whole thing for under $7 million and did it ahead of schedule, and under budget.

Even if the film loses money in the theaters, it will be considered a minor loss by Hollywood standards, and the awards and critical praise could easily put it over the top into a modest money maker on home video and TV.

They didn't spend $300+ million to $500 million on what looks like a big screen version of cut-scenes from the computer game
Halo vs Smurfs: This Time It's Personal. They practiced self control, and kept their costs within the range that the film's potential audience would pay for.

It's how they can be personal in their film-making, but still viable enough to keep making movies their way.

That's why they are a couple of the smartest men in movies today.


  1. Quite interesting. Your very talented.

    PS, I came to your blog from a well-written comment about the New Coke exhibit being hidden behind a furnace.

    Yet more proof that comment marketing works.

    Anywho, I shall try to keep up with your work. Maybe I can find it at a local bookstore or the library. If anything I might request it.

  2. Thanks for the nice comments Emperor.

    If you would like to read more of my work and like fantasy adventure fiction you can click the links under the banner or on my side-bar for the book "Sha-Daa: Tales of the Apocalypse." I contributed Chapter 6: Dixie Chrononauts to that book.

    I also have portions of a novel called "Joe Average" at the authonomy.com site.

    I am also working on a book based on the blog where I try to explain Hollywood and my philosophy of business, but it's turning into quite a massive undertaking.

  3. This was classic, Furious. A good laugh. I'm still rooting for your movie book and keep hoping I can clear enough time to give JOE AVERAGE a look. And SHA-DAA was fun. Did I ever tell you that? Keep up the good work. Oh, and I can read your blog again without a struggle, thanks to a new computer and high speed. And to think it was only a few years ago I retired the post pony. Next thing you know I'll be wearing a blue tooth. No, I think I'll wait for the nano phones.

  4. No, you didn't tell me that.

    I'm glad you enjoyed Sha'Daa, and I hope you think my chapter was the best one.


    And I'm glad you finally got high-speed. How anyone can survive on dial-up these days is beyond me.

  5. Halo vs Smurfs, that is pretty much what AVATAR looks like.