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Sunday, August 12, 2012
If it seems I've spent half my time writing about dead people lately, you're not wrong. One by one, the icons that had such a huge impact on the film and television industry while I was stumbling towards adulthood are now slipping into the next realm. Andy Griffith, Ernest Borgnine, and now Richard Zanuck passed in recent weeks, and of those, Zanuck's death came as the biggest surprise.* He was considerably younger than the others, and from all accounts, appeared to be in great shape -- but in a town where image is everything, appearances are often deceptive by design.
I never met, worked with, or knew Richard Zanuck, so there's no personal connection here. I did, however, sit glued to my seat at the Century 21 theater watching "Jaws" in the summer of 1975, and despite the big rubber shark, loved every white-knuckle, teeth-clenching moment of that Zanuck/Brown production.
Back then, the names Richard Zanuck and David Brown always seemed to be at the top of the news from Hollywood. While the studios gagged on their own constipated, creativity-killing institutional bureaucracy, Zanuck and Brown formed one of the more successful independent producing teams of that era. This felt like the natural order of things to me, a young man still dreaming of working in the movies at the time, but this production team might never have come together had Zanuck not been fired from his job running 20th Century Fox. His thanks for reviving the once-floundering studio was to get the boot from his own father, Darryl Zanuck, the man who hired him in the first place.
Hollywood is full of sons and daughters who took the family name for a brief Industry joy-ride ride before plunging into obscurity and/or rehab, but Richard Zanuck made the most of his own silver-spoon upbringing. Having learned the business inside and out during his years at Fox, he had the knowledge to become a really good independent producer. Zanuck thus felt secure following his own solid instincts rather than bow to the fickle dictates of focus groups, and used his clout to shield writers and directors from interference by the studio clowns.
Perhaps the most famous Zanuck/Brown release was Jaws, which opened so strong and made so much money that many blame it (along with "Star Wars" two years later) for creating the modern era of the summer blockbuster -- the "tent-pole" hit the major studios now consider essential to their survival. Thus the endless stream of comic book movies and "Transformers" garbage that swamps our theaters every summer, targeted directly at the febrile imaginations of 14 year old boys.
Patrick Goldstein wrote a nice appreciation of Richard Zanuck's life and career for the LA Times. It's a good read, but one thing neither Goldstein nor anybody else ever mentions in discussing the huge success of "Jaws" is that the week it opened (in a then-unprecedented wide release), both Time and Newsweek magazine hit newsstands with lurid cover art that provided invaluable promotion for the film. That might not mean much nowadays, but back in the Stone Age pre-internet era of the 70's, "Time" and "Newsweek" were huge; every family I knew subscribed to one or both. The instant I laid eyes on the Time cover above, I was hooked -- no WAY would I miss that movie, and millions of others had the same reaction. I have no idea if it was Richard Zanuck or some genius in his marketing and promotions team that orchestrated this freebie promotional blitz, but it worked exceedingly well.
Although "Jaws" would certainly have been a hit anyway, the bold new strategy of opening a movie big -- in more than 450 theaters -- combined with a massive promotional blitz (much of it supplied by Time and Newsweek), helped revolutionize the movie business, for better or worse.
And now all of us who work in Hollywood live with the consequences.
Although Richard Zanuck might have been the last great producer of his era, I'm sure there are others at various levels of the industry following his creative lead. Stifled by fear and their own bloated corporate infrastructure, the big studios are increasingly out of touch with the heartbeat of our culture. At this point, it seems all the Big Boys can do is crank out one CGI comic book spectacular after another, along with a smattering of low brow comedies that aren't very funny.** Obsessed by focus-groups, the corporate hive-mind will never be able to answer the needs of those who want to see good, thoughtful movies and television... and that means there's still a place for strong, knowledgeable producers committed to doing good work. Whatever you think of him, producers like Harvey Weinstein may be the template -- if there is such a thing -- for the modern incarnation of Richard Zanuck. This interview on KCRW's "The Treatment" offers an interesting and revealing look inside the mind of Harvey (who was no doubt on his best behavior), and whatever his faults, he sounds like a producer who knows his stuff and cares about making good movies. I'll take him at his word, given his body of work, and leave it to others who actually know the man to set the record straight.
So the torch is passed again, as one generation fades to black and another rises to take its place in the spotlight. In Hollywood, as elsewhere, the Big Wheel keeps on turning...
* Celeste Holm also passed away recently. In a short-but-snappy interview with NPR, she offered the following description of Darryl Zanuck: "He was short, so he wanted to be tall, and made very good pictures because of that. But a lot of good things have been done for the wrong reasons."
** Seriously, can anybody tell me why the hell Vince Vaughn still gets paid to appear in anything on screen?