Thursday, 24 April 2014

Hollywood Babble On & On #1141: Bring Back The Old Days?

A corporate lawyer named Schuyler Moore at Forbes Magazine has written an article about how the major studios should bring back the old style studio star system.

If you don't know your Hollywood history, don't worry, I'll do some explaining.

Back in ye olden days the major studios like MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros, Universal, Columbia, 20th Century Fox, RKO, United Artists, and major independents like David O. Selznick, Samuel Goldwyn, and Republic Pictures would have actors under contract. 

The contract basically bound the actor to that company for about seven years where they worked exclusively for that company and for whoever their master rents them out to. In exchange they got a set weekly salary, training in acting, singing and dancing, and the resources of the studio machine to protect them and their peccadilloes.

Each studio's roster of stars became a reflection of the studio's identity. MGM's roster was both the biggest and most glamorous, Warner Brothers had the toughest tough guys and dames in the racket, etc… etc… 

Now this system started to collapse after World War 2. 

The studios were forced to divest from their movie theatres, slashing their profit margins, then along came competition from television, and suddenly keeping large stables of actors on salary, whether they made money or not, became untenable.

Meanwhile, big stars started to feel their oats as free agents. Jimmy Stewart broke ground with the film Winchester 73 at Universal, where he produced the film, waiving the up-front money for a piece of the profits, and making a nice packet doing it.

Most of the major studios really didn't know how to handle this new way of doing business, and many spent the next 20+ years flailing and coming close to failing, except for United Artists, who thrived under it.

Nowadays everything revolves around stars, whether they have real box office appeal or not. They get massive amounts up front, and if they, or their agents have clout within the Hollywood community they get "Dollar One" deals basically sucking up a chunk of the theatrical revenue before even the studio gets their cut.

As Mr. Moore says it's wildly inefficient, costly, and can often make the difference between profit and loss with a movie. Moore says it would be better if the studios scouted raw new talent, put them under contract and made them stars.

Will it be better?

Well, let's look at the PROS & CONS!


STABILITY: Both actors and the studios could use with the stability of a set regular paycheque and set regular work.

Now if the studios only made feature films then it could be a problem, because they don't make as many feature films as their golden age counterparts, but let's not forget that they also make acres and acres of television every year. So actors who aren't busy making movies can be busy making TV and vice versa.

PROFITABILITY: Even if the studio doles out raises, cash rewards and percentages to their major stars they still won't be shelling out the mega-millions they're paying out now.

LEVERAGE: The studios won't have to take the shit of some major stars and have to call it ice cream anymore. They can just say "Have it your way, but you won't have it that way with us, we'll just do it in house."


STUDIO MANAGEMENT: The old studio system worked because the studios were run by people who were deeply invested in the success of their films and their stars.

These moguls made it their business to know what was going on in every facet of their companies. They were also surrounded by a comparatively small cadre of executives and producers who knew who was ultimately in charge and based their whole careers on the studio's success because it was their success.

Nowadays executives tend to be merely interchangeable cogs in a vast machine rather than a visionary leader with a team of hungry hustlers on the make who are also invested in their vision of success. Executives these days don't see themselves in the business of using stars to sell stories, they see themselves in the business of figuring out ways of keeping people like stars, filmmakers, and investors from getting their share of any profits.

STUDIO TASTES: The people running the studios these days don't have taste. Taste is personal and instinctual, and they're scared of the personal and instinctual because then they might have to take responsibility. So they pawn such things off on so-called "experts" who do lots of "market research" essentially on unemployed people found in shopping malls in the middle of the day.

The problem is that market research rarely reflects what will actually get the most people to buy tickets or watch television shows. Market research can only find the blandest option available, and in the long run, bland doesn't really create stars.

The old moguls went by gut reaction because unlike modern executives, they were not Ivy League MBAs from Greenwich, Beverly Hills, or the Hamptons who look down on the "Wal-Mart Shoppers of Flyover Country." They usually had working class roots and shared many of the same tastes as the wider audience.

Look at most of the successful actors from the dawn of cinema history to today, and you just know that most of them wouldn't pass market research or modern executive muster alone. Ingrid Bergman is too fat with too much of an overbite, Diane Keaton's too skinny, Humphrey Bogart's too ugly, Jimmy Stewart's too tall and stutters, Jennifer Lawrence is too fat for magazine covers, Audrey Hepburn's too short and no one can place her accent, Al Pacino's too short and too ethnic, and John Wayne's not metrosexual enough to sell to the hipsters.

True star power doesn't follow a formula that can be seen and studied. It's instinct, a feeling a performer gives you that says that you should see more of them.

That means taking on a certain level of risk when recruiting and polishing stars. Risk that I don't think the studios are willing, or able, to take, no matter the potential rewards.

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