Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Humpday Musings

Same as it ever was? I'm not so sure.

Patrick Goldstein (LA Times Film Industry columnist) ran an interesting column last week comparing today’s Industry troubles and panic in the executive suites with those of the past – 1969, to be specific. His focus is on the similarities between then and now: studios losing money hand-over-fist, A-list talent shocked to find their absurdly huge per-film fees going up in smoke, and a sclerotic studio ownership out of touch with the times, unable to grasp the slippery realities of doing business in a rapidly evolving era.

It's a column worth reading. Goldstein makes some valid points, most of which boil down to the need to nourish fresh creative talent and original approaches unhindered by the bean counters and brain-dead, button-down MBA drones currently running things, along with the eternal mantra that we all must do things faster, better, and (drum roll, please...) cheaper.

Man, am I getting tired of hearing that one...

Still, his point is well taken as far as it goes -- things were bad then, as now, but new blood came along with fresh approaches to cinematic story telling that brought a whole new generation of viewers to the theaters. No reason we can't do the same thing now, right?

Not so fast, Pat. I’d be a lot more encouraged by your little pep-talk if you hadn’t ignored the proverbial elephant in the room: the new digital technology that effectively torpedoed the economic models upon which the business has long been based. The Industry's problems in 1969 were largely of its own making, triggered by a cascade of bad investments in bloated, ill-conceived and overly-expensive productions that bombed at the box office. The VCR -- and the supposed threat such new technology represented (an assumption that turned out exactly wrong, BTW) was still a decade in the future. Anyone then who dared to speculate out loud about a future digital world -- or the black plague of internet piracy that would inevitably accompany it -- would have been laughed out of the room as some tinfoil-hat wearing Area 51 lunatic. In cultural and technological terms, 1969 was the Age of the Dinosaurs compared with today.

We face a radically different scenario, our industry undergoing a top-to-bottom technological revolution of the sort not seen since silent films got run into the ditch by “talkies.” In many ways, this is much more profound revolution, since the existing modes of distribution and monetization (gawd, do I hate that word...) continue to crumble with each passing day. Talkies might have killed the careers of many established silent stars, and initially resulted in plodding, static movies as the once-nimble silent cameras were suddenly encased in bulky sound-proof blimps, but they also gave movie-goers one more reason to flock to the theaters. The digital revolution seems to be doing just the opposite, to the point that it’s no longer unthinkable that buying a ticket to watch a film in a sit-down movie theater might one day become a quaintly retro experience, much like going to a drive-in is today.

Goldstein is dead on target in pointing out the damage done by corporate ownership of the biz, however. Seriously, how many fucking "Batman," “Spiderman,” and "Incredible Hulk" movies can we choke down before the audience begins to projectile-vomit all over the silver screen? How many comic books – er, excuse me, “graphic novels” – can be turned into gripping, multi-dimensional feature films that tell stories people actually care about? I recently heard there's a “Green Hornet” and a “Green Lantern” movie slated to go into production soon. From a business perspective, the beauty of comic-book movies is that they come with a pre-sold audience base -- but how many of today’s target audience has any idea who the Green Hornet or Green Lantern are? And if they have no connection with such green-hued superheros, why would they flock en masse to theaters once these movies are released?

I don’t know. Maybe the corporate droids are right -- maybe they really can keep force-feeding such pabulum into the open maw of an increasingly supine, indiscriminate, and illiterate audience, all the while making a handsome profit. As new technology so often does, the evolving digital revolution may well shape our tastes to create movies and shows very different from what we accept as “normal” today. Maybe we can look forward to hyper-realistic 3D features based on "Grand Theft Auto," or those heart-warming "first-person shooter" video games so popular with our youngest generation.

Geeze, I can hardly wait...

All I know is that movie theaters used to be where the really good stuff was found, while TV was merely an occasionally amusing wasteland -- and that's no longer true on either end of the equation.

In that vein, fans of “Mad Men” – now suffering withdrawal and marking their August, 2010 calendars – who didn’t hear last week’s interview with Matt Weiner on KCRW, really should. It’s a dense, revealing half hour that will help you understand just where Weiner is coming from in his approach to writing in general (and this show in particular) without offering any spoilers as to where the next season of “Mad Men” might be heading. If you love the show, you’ll really enjoy this interview.

Tim Goodman (SF Chronicle’s ace TV critic) has been running a weekly de-construction of each “Mad Men” episode throughout the season on “The Bastard Machine,” his Chronicle blog. These de-cons are consistently smart, perceptive, and thoughtful. I didn’t take to “Mad Men” initially – I missed most of Season One, and big chunks of Season Two – but Tim’s de-cons helped me get into the show and appreciate the depth and beauty of Matt Weiner and company’s work. If you’re not familiar with these de-cons, here’s the season finale -- and as usual, it’s a gem.

And on the subject of writers and writing for Hollywood, Rob Long had two wonderfully biting commentaries in the last couple of weeks: Cave, and Part of the Process. At four minutes each, you won’t lose much of your day tuning in, and it will be time well spent.

Last (and just because it’s Wednesday), here’s a little tidbit that has nothing whatsoever to do with the biz -- a video clip of an ex-soviet military jet buzzing the Santa Monica Pier last November. Why the story languished so long, I can’t say, but the LA Times finally posted the clip on its web site this week. The pilot must have had a totally giddy blast pulling this rather outrageous stunt – and in many ways, the surly, fuck-the-world adolescent buried deep inside me would have loved do something like that – but those two minutes of high-octane fun ended up costing him his license.*

* Be forewarned: the LA Times will see that you endure a 20 second commercial before the clip.


Sis Cesspool said...

I love reading your posts.

Michael Taylor said...

Sis --

Thanks. That's quite a moniker you've got there...

gbroshuis said...

Good post. Love the "brain-dead, button-down MBA drones" comment. Are you ever worried about taking a critical tone? I guess you never mention specific names.

From what you describe, it seems that Hollywood is running parallels with print journalism. Like newspapers, an entire new business model is needed. And also like in the publishing industry, at least with books, they keep just force feeding garbage that has a ready audience. (See Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin making millions on books.)

I too was slow to taking to "Mad Men." In fact, I just started renting the DVDs this off-season. I'm on Season 2 and I'm in love. Each character is so conflicted and has so much depth. I think that's the biggest difference. They actually take the time to develop characters and story lines. They don't cut corners as if the audience has a short attention span.

I think there's still a place for that, even in our video game, comic book world.

Michael Taylor said...

Garrett --

I try not name too many names or be overly critical of anyone who -- if sufficiently riled -- could put my name on an informal but effective blacklist. Most industry bloggers fly under cover of pseudonyms, but they're all a lot younger than me, and thus have more to lose.

Not that I can afford to get blacklisted, mind you...

I do try to call bullshit where I see it, including on the head of at least one major network. It helps that I don't work for his company, though -- and that he richly deserved it. I don't shoot fire arrows at anyone without good reason. Then again, my voice is just the tiny whine of a mosquito lost in the hurricane of Hollywood. The Powers that Be have no idea I'm even alive...

Glad you like the blog. Thanks for your kind comments.