Monday, 5 January 2015

Hollywood Babble On & On #1207: Random Sick Thoughts

Welcome to my first blog post of 2015.

Sorry, it's so late, first came the holidays, which were really busy and frantic, then came gastroenteritis. I will spare you the awful details, let's just say it was nasty.

Anyway, I'm feeling better and ready to pass off some random thoughts…


While I was sick a cable channel ran a Portlandia marathon. I had only caught snippets and individual sketches before, and found what I had seen funny, and since I wasn't going anywhere I decided to dive into the show head first.

First thing I thought was that Carrie Brownstein's work was well worth the hype, the second thought was that she and co-creator Fred Armisen had the most purely natural comedic chemistry I've seen in a team in ages, and the last thought was that this was the gentlest satire I had seen since the days of SCTV.

Too many satirical comedy vehicles see themselves as a battle tank, crashing through barriers, destroying, obliterating, and decimating their targets. That's because too many comedians, especially on television, see themselves not so much as performers, but as advocates. They cannot have fun with the foibles of the people they like, they must use comedy to crush those they hate, see them driven before them, and hear the lamentations of their women.

Portlandia reminds me of SCTV in that it while SCTV made fun of television, movies, and show biz, there was a lot of affection for their subject matter. The creative core of Portlandia, Armisen and Brownstein, have a lot of fondness for Portland, its people, and its place as a perpetually quirky 1990s never-never-land. There's no attempt to make a point, or to destroy anyone, they just want you to laugh.

You don't really see much of that these days. Maybe because to do it, the bit must be about the performance and not about the performer.


While I was ill I was also doing a lot of reading. One book is Thomas Schatz's The Genius of the System, about filmmaking in the golden age of the Hollywood studios. One story about MGM stuck with me as an illustration of what I call keeping the eyes on the prize.

MGM was created in the mid-1920s when theatre conglomerate Loew's Inc. merged the large, but struggling, Metropolitan Pictures, with the powerhouse Goldwyn Pictures, and upstart Louis B. Mayer Productions. Mayer's company was purchased not because of its big library, or physical assets like studios and theatres, but because of the men who ran it: the titular Louis B. Mayer, his New York based deputy Robert Rubin, and the boy-wonder producer Irving Thalberg who had started as a senior executive at Universal almost right out of high school.

Mayer handled all business negotiations, as well as distribution, marketing, and corporate administration, Rubin handled relations with the theatres, the banks, and their parent company, while Thalberg found the material, and put everyone and everything together to turn it into a movie. To keep these three as happy employees of Loew's Inc. their contract dictated that they split 20% of MGM's profits between them. Mayer got 53%, Rubin got 27% and Thalberg got 20%. 

This unprecedented deal came about because the trio were running a tiny company that was making top grade product for the coveted "first run" market, successfully competing with exponentially larger studios. The folks running Loew's thought was that if this trio had bigger resources to work with, they'd do even bigger things.

They were right. MGM very quickly became a juggernaut fighting off competition and even the Great Depression. Everyone recognized that a key player in the studio's success was young Thalberg, since it was his skill at picking material and nurturing talent was essential to keep the hits rolling out. This was when Louis B. Mayer made what many today would call a crazy move.

He cut down on his own share of the MGM profit package by 10% and gave it to Thalberg. Essentially giving the youngster a raise of at least $250,000 a year, a king's ransom in the early 1930s.

Now at the surface it seems crazy generous, and it was.

It was also the smart move.

Thalberg was the key reason their profit share package grew. If the boy wonder had a bigger stake in it, then he would be more inclined to keep it growing even bigger. There was an element of risk to the move, but Mayer didn't reach the top of the movie business without being a risk taker. He saw talent, and made the right move to nurture it for the good of the company, its stakeholders, and yes even himself.

It's enlightened self-interest at its best.

Ironically it's exactly the sort of thing you would never see a modern studio executive even contemplate. They have no stake, even emotional, in the companies they run, they're just functionaries picked more for their backgrounds from elite schools, and their ability to spout corporate jargon, than their abilities as administrators and filmmakers. If a young whippersnapper turns out to be a hit machine, the first instinct of the modern executive is to oust them for fear of losing their own position to the wunderkind. 

Crying shame, it might solve a few of the problems that currently plague the industry.

That's what I thought of while I was off sick.


  1. Glad you're back D and thanks for an excellent piece!

    I submit that the bankrupcy laws for large corporations are out of balance. Sometimes a company has to disappear completely to clear the field for new blood. Instead, to minimize the disruption to the employees - or more likely to put a "safety net" under high paid executives who don't need it but are politically useful - the law keeps the dinosaurs around.