It’s been a bad summer for the movie industry. It’s been a bad decade, for that matter. And it’s going to get worse unless Hollywood executives change their ways.
There has been endless speculation among Hollywood executives about the reason for the decline in theater attendance, accompanied by endless pulling of hair and gnashing of teeth.
They blame technology. New technologies, like HD flat-screens with Blu-ray players and digital cable, have had an impact. Movie theaters are scrambling to install Omni-max 3D projectors so that they can offer something not available at home. That’s nice, but it’s just a band-aid.
Then they blame the bad economy. That’s always a convenient whipping boy. Even without overpriced pop and popcorn, fifty bucks is a lot of money to pay to take the wife and 2.5 kids to see a flick. You don’t do that every week when the bank is foreclosing on your house.
Hollywood can’t stop technological progress or fix the economy. But, if they want to fill their theaters, one thing that they can do is make better movies.
Long ago, Hollywood lost sight of a simple fact: A movie is a story told on the screen. Got that, Hollywood? A story! Making better movies means telling better stories.
During the Golden Age of Hollywood, from the thirties to the mid-sixties, studios ruled and studio executives treated everyone like chattel: stars, directors, and screenwriters alike. That changed in the New Hollywood era during the late sixties and seventies. Brash young directors who knew how to appeal to the baby boomers were given a free hand.
The New Hollywood directors won a power struggle against writers. They wrote their own scripts or mercilessly re-wrote other people’s scripts. Famously, Ring Lardner, Jr. was so appalled at the changes that Altman made to his M*A*S*H script that he pulled his name from the credits. He was far from the only writer who was appalled to see the release of a movie that hardly resembled his original script.
This is completely different than live theater. A playwright can get a court injunction to close a play that varies from his script by even a single word. In stark contrast, a screenwriter has no legal recourse against a director who mangles his words beyond recognition.
Sometimes screenplays are improved dramatically by the director’s revision. Compare the original screenplay of American Beauty to the final movie, for example. But the long-term effect of routinely trashing screenwriters’ work has been devastating.
Instead of screenwriting being a creative art, it has become assembly-line drudge-work. Screenplays are nothing but grist for Hollywood mills to grind into tasteless pap. This summer, the typical Hollywood movie has been a sequel or an adaption of a comic book or video game. Screenplays are written to conform to the specifications of studio executives and market researchers and then turned over to directors and editors who serve the same masters.
Hollywood believes that people don’t mind seeing weak stories based on simple-minded premises and driven by witless, utilitarian dialog to a predictable conclusion as long as it is tarted up with a celebrity star, breathless, bloody action, or oodles of gorgeous computer-generated visual effects.
They are half right. And they get half the audience that they should. People will go see Avatar for the CGI. But they’d rather have seen it with a decent story, not with a childish plot that serves only as a crude hanger for hours of splendid visual effects.
In the New Hollywood era in the late sixties, cinema was edgy and television was crammed with mindless pap. Today, television has Glee, Dexter, and Mad Men, and the movies offer us Vampires Suck.
The New Hollywood is long gone and it looks like Corporate Hollywood will remain in control until it’s forced into bankruptcy. Pity. I used to like going out to see a movie.