The clash of Old and New Hollywood, Part Four.
Nov 27, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 11 • By BRIAN C. ANDERSON
One thing's for sure: with some notable exceptions, New Hollywood never caught fire with the public. As the movies embraced the counterculture in the late sixties and early seventies, weekly attendence plummeted below 20 million, down from over 35 million just a few years before (television had siphoned the rest of the Golden Age's 90 million or so regular filmgoers). And despite a swelling U.S. population, weekly attendance wouldn't get close to 30 million again until the mid-1990s, when Hollywood began to downplay consciousness-raising and started entertaining again--and entertaining kids, especially. As Edward Jay Epstein explains in The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood, the true genius of the industry's post-studio-system future was Walt Disney, a Midwesterner who never felt at home on the West Coast.
With Mickey Mouse in the twenties, Disney found an inexhaustible profit pool, argues Epstein: "children at play at home and around the world." Disney could tap this colossal market by licensing the animated characters from his movies to book publishers, toy manufacturers, and scores of other industries. And because his cartoon figures needed little verbal elaboration, they could also reach a global audience. Walk into a toy store or fast-food restaurant and see how quickly Hollywood has embraced Disney's model. Merchandizing tie-ins are omni present, ranging from action figures to video games. The global audience is now as vital as the American one, and gravitates toward special effects that downplay verbal complexity. The home video market, another source of licensing profits, is now larger than that of movie theaters, and will get larger still as more Americans lug home those wide-screen high-def TVs. Theater ticket sales now make up less than 15 percent of studio revenues.
One striking fact about many contemporary youth-targeted movies, which often lack New Hollywood's sophistication, is how they tend to hark back to the MGM era in their values. Drawing on age-old heroic archetypes, box office giants like Spider-Man 2 and The Chronicles of Narnia focus on the struggle between good and evil, extol self-sacrifice and martial virtues, and come down on the side of Truth. Looking to younger audiences has made sense for today's movie business for another reason, in Epstein's view: Since the studios can't rely on automatic turnout in the theaters, they must generate a unique audience for every movie on its opening weekend. The chief means of doing this is massive television advertising, targeting the demographic most willing to get out of the house on weekends: kids, especially teens. The ad campaigns usually cost more than the studios' box office take--and actors get paid a lot more these days, driving production costs higher still--so licensing becomes even more essential to profitability.
So what about all the Good Night, and Good Lucks that Hollywood has been rolling out? They don't usually pack 'em in on opening night, and Edward R. Murrow doesn't lend himself to an action figure. How do such films get the green light? Epstein argues that Hollywood functions according to a social and political logic as well as an economic one: Elite filmmakers want to make money, but the desire for recognition from peers and critics is also important. To win a big award and cocktail party kudos, a "hard-hitting" film exposing Big Oil machinations will get you a lot farther than, say, Finding Nemo. The New Hollywood spirit survives, albeit diminished, in today's industry.
Yet the future promises a momentous shift, perhaps even--after the Golden Age, New Hollywood, and the Empire of Licensing--a fourth moviemaking era. Thanks to new technology, the cost of producing independent movies diminishes by the month, and the web provides a distribution network that doesn't require budget-busting ad campaigns. So we could soon see more of Thomson's "grown-up" cinema. And the politics of some of these movies may surprise. A small, vibrant moviemaking right is emerging, centered around the annual Liberty Film Festival, film mogul Philip Anschutz, and a growing group of conservative and libertarian screenwriters and documentarians. Instead of the right habitually reproving Hollywood, we might see a new cinema that artistically reflects--rather than crudely imposes--a different, nonliberal, worldview.
That would represent a big step forward in reclaiming popular culture from the left.
Brian C. Anderson, senior editor of City Journal, is the author of South Park Conservatives.