Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Where in Hollywood's History Are We?

The studios are in trouble. The industry is in trouble. The movie theaters are losing patrons to new technology in droves, having been too slow to change with the times. Trying to hold the line, filmmakers are resorting to technological gimmickry instead of making better films, wasting its resources on spectacle and pageantry. The most exciting films are being made in other countries, by emerging film industries in exotic places. It's 2012, except maybe it's also 1952 again.

Hollywood tends to go through boom and bust periods, and as the movie industry has gone through its latest round of painful contractions and lost a lot of its cultural cachet, there have been many observers that have looked to the past for insight. The more hopeful ones, anticipating an upending of the studio system and a new wave of American filmmaking, have suggested that the current age is analogous to the 1960s, when Hollywood was churning out overly manufactured, expensive musicals and biblical epics, but "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Easy Rider" were right around the corner, ready to usher in a decade of more challenging, more artistically ambitious filmmaking.

If we want to make those kinds of comparisons, I think we're about a decade further back in time, in the early 1950s. It was the 50s when television became a major threat, and when the studios experienced a major financial bust at the end of WWII after new regulations decreed that studios and exhibitors had to cut ties. Many studios closed, and whole categories of films like newsreels and serialized shorts disappeared. A huge amount of talent transitioned to television productions. Meanwhile, the business of making films became a fight to lure patrons back into the theaters, often with event movies. It was in this era that films transitioned almost totally to color, when widescreen became widely used, and we had the first wave of commercial 3D films.

The '50s were also the decade where nothing particularly interesting was going on in Hollywood movies. There were a few major auteurs working in Hollywood, and some memorable genres like musicals and film noir were flourishing, but the really exciting stuff was post-war Italian neo-realism, the emergence of Japanese cinema with Akira Kurosawa, and the beginnings of the French New Wave. You did see some of their influence in Hollywood films, but nobody was willing to make anything too politically pointed or controversial, especially since this was also the era when Hollywood was shrinking under the scrutiny of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Okay, you have to stretch to make some of those parallels work, but my point stands. Hollywood is in a bust period right now, and I think we're closer to the beginning of it than the end. The studios are still raking in record returns from their slickly produced blockbusters, and though we've been seeing some notable flops and some major systemic shifts on the business end, Hollywood really has no reason to stop making the kinds of movies it's been making for the past thirty years. If tastes are changing, so far it has been slowly and predictably. The internet may be upending the theatrical distribution system, but we're still only in the early days of transition and the full impact of the new technology isn't yet clear. We're due for further declines before we can talk about a rebound.

And I do see the declines coming, even though I think they'll be slower to materialize than people think. There are a lot more mitigating factors these days, more sources of revenue that Hollywood can tap into in order to sustain itself. And yet, the warning signs have been obvious for a long time. Theater attendance is shrinking. Ticket prices keep going up dramatically. 2012 is supposed to be a record-setting year, but some financial analysts have pretty bleak projections for 2013 and beyond. The bottom has fallen out of the home media market. The risk-averse studios are making fewer and fewer films themselves, mostly co-productions, and rely on acquisitions to fill their release slates.

The void creates opportunities for young filmmakers to come to prominence, for the mainstream to be exposed to some new voices and some new ideas, but only if audiences prove to be receptive. That's the biggest piece of the puzzle that I think is still missing. There's plenty of discontent with the current state of American cinema, but no outright rejection. Plenty of film fans are turning to indies and foreign films for more substance, but not the average moviegoer. It might be a very long time before this generation gets sick enough of sequels and remakes to revolt against them. It might take another tumultuous era of social cataclysm, like the 60s.

But right now? I don't think we're quite there yet.

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