Thursday, 15 September 2011

Hollywood Babble On & On #804: They Don't Know How He Did It...

Hollywood doesn't know history. You can see that whenever you see a period drama from a major studio. But the one thing modern Hollywood really doesn't know, comprehend, or appreciate is its own history beyond seeing what titles from the 1980s they can remake.

This week saw the passing of an important figure in the history of Hollywood, producer and studio executive John Calley, who died Tuesday at the age of 81.

Now I'm not exactly known for saying nice things about studio executives. In fact, I fear that this might be a first, but Calley was a role model for studio executives who knew how to balance movies as an art that's a business and a business that's an art.

It all goes back to the late 1960s. The whole studio system was in trouble. They were faced with skyrocketing costs, dwindling audiences and were blindly chasing fads and gimmicks in the vain hope of winning those audiences back, but were so slow and clumsy, by the time they caught a fad, or a gimmick the novelty was long dead.

Sound familiar?

One of the companies most seriously hurt by these developments was Warner Bros. Jack Warner, last of the founders, had sold it to the Seven Arts Productions, but they faced the same problems, so they, in turn sold to the Kinney National Company who at that time was known as the owner of parking lots and what would become DC Comics.

Kinney put John Calley in charge in 1969, and that's when everything started to change during what I call Warner's "3 Band-Aid" era, a name I came up with when I was a kid in the late 1970s and first saw their logo.

Calley saw all the problems facing the studios, and came up with a solution. It wasn't fads or big budgets that were going to get people away from the boob tube. The company had to make films that people would see as worth the effort of going to see.

That meant new stories told for the most part by new filmmakers. During his run Warner Bros. enjoyed not only box office success, but critical acclaim with films like
The Exorcist, A Clockwork Orange, Dirty Harry, and many others. Hollywood entered a creative and commercial golden age that saved the industry.

He left the company in 1980, only to return in 1989 as an independent producer, then he returned to the corner office, first trying to revive MGM with mixed results, but enjoying greater success as head of Sony Pictures, where he is credited for reviving company after the disastrous tenure of Peter Guber and Jon Peters.

His secret then: Make movies the audience thought worth the effort of going out to see.

He ran Sony Pictures until his retirement in 2003, and without him history is repeating itself.

Movie audiences are down, television's besting the big screen in both quality and quantity, and the studios are scrambling to win them back, blowing big money chasing fads like comic book movies, and big FX extravaganzas.

None of the dozens of executives that each studio seems to have remembers the lessons of John Calley's career.

Make films people want to see, start with a good story, add good filmmakers, keep an eye on quality and budget and the rest will take care of itself.

It's not rocket science.


  1. The company had to make films that people would see as worth the effort of going to see.

    Make movies the audience thought worth the effort of going out to see.

    Something that is completely lost to the studio execs today. Now it is just green-light some dreck that insults the audience directly and then cry and blame piracy and video games why no one wants to see it. They are too busy pleasing the A-listers and forget about the audience. Because this industry works differently, all the studios are all owned by some larger entity that makes a profit from something else that in the end ticket sales just do not matter.

    If you look at let's say the video game industry, all these companies need to SELL their product to survive, its not like "Who cares of Call of Duty: Kitchen Patrol fails, our parent company will just send us more money and claim this loss as a tax write off." EA and Activision still need to sell games to survive.

  2. I actually work in the game industry. For a while I worked for a company that made multi-million dollar games that had to sell a million copies to be profitable (they did). Now I work for a company that makes little tiny game that need only 50,000 sales to be profitable. But in either case a game has to:

    1) be quirky and appeal greatly to a niche audience. (Halo)


    2) be generic and appeal somewhat to a larger audience (Farmville)

    And, oh yeah, the game has to be Fun and Not Be Broken.

    Being Fun is a matter of putting entertaining things in the game. Unlike the first 2 hours of Pearl Harbor, for instance.

    Not Being Broken is a matter of letting your audience access the cool things physically or emotionally. For example, many horror movies make the mistake of having their heroes be such numbnuts that you don't care if they die. Therefore potentially cool suspense scenes lose their shine.