In the late seventies and throughout the eighties with the studio era dead and buried, Hollywood’s decision makers became executives who care more about making money than creating art. This had been true to an extent in the days of Darryl Zanuck and Louie Mayer but many of the people in charge of greenlighting today’s Hollywood movies have no background in film production or entertainment of any kind and their decisions are based on evaluating markets and chasing trends.
I always make fun of film executives for their complete lack of creativity and how ironic it is that they are in charge of an industry that thrives on creativity. But these are the people who today’s best filmmakers have to sell movies to if they want one of the major studios to distribute their films. As a result, many of the most adventurous movies of the late 20th century came from indie filmmakers.
The indie directors of this period did not usually delve into fantasy or sci-fi but they were storytelling wizards of their own and they included David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, John Waters, The Coen Brothers, Terry Gilliam, Michael Cimino, Oliver Stone, John Sayles and Jonathan Demme. Some of the biggest indie filmmakers gained the most prominence in the late eighties and nineties such as Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith. These directors often made box office hits on small budgets and some indie filmmakers like Jon Favreau even made successful jumps to blockbuster filmmaking.
Meanwhile the Barry Dillers of the world were less interested in taking artistic risks and more interested in chasing sure-fire hits, which led to the current influx of sequels and remakes that first started dominating Hollywood almost as soon as blockbusters existed.
These days movie executives put a hundred projects into development knowing they will only make ten, and only a few of those will likely be box office successes. And preview audiences are often used to tweak the film before it goes into post-production, such is the cautious attitude that discourages risks. The blockbuster mentality meant spending a lot in the hopes of making a lot, appealing to the widest audience possible and subsidizing the less successful or less expensive studio output with the income from their blockbuster hits, which allowed big studios to gamble a bit more on projects with more limited appeal like David Lynch’s The Elephant Man or Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King.
Corporate America’s takeover of Hollywood is exemplified by Gulf+Western buying Paramount, MCA buying Universal, News Corporation buying 20th Century Fox, Sony buying Columbia and TriStar, Time merging with Warner Bros. and Ted Turner buying the MGM, Warner Bros. and RKO film library.
Another new thing that happened following Hollywood’s transition to the age of blockbusters was filmmakers became freelancers with no allegiance to any one studio like in the old days. In some ways allegiance to your agents replaced allegiance to your studio because actors who shared the same agent were more likely to appear in the same movie.
Even Disney, the one major Hollywood studio that was not bought by a major corporation but instead became one, rarely hired contract players for multiple films. Largely because Disney and many of the other studios never make movies themselves anymore. When you watch a modern film today, you rarely only see one opening logo at the beginning of the film, because Disney, Warner Bros., Universal, Paramount and Sony have become solely distributors while the actual film production is handled by other studios like Amblin and Pixar.
This way some companies can focus on production while others can focus on marketing.
The huge commercialism of big-budget films had a huge effect on pop culture, leading to things like product placement (sometimes subtle, sometimes not), distribution licensing deals for home video plus television and cable broadcasting, TV shows based on those films and the merchandising of clothes, toys, games and theme park attractions based on the characters in the films. This kind of thing happens with movies like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers, Spider-Man and practically every Disney movie that gets released.
We are still in the middle of the commercialism hurricane that has engulfed Hollywood to the point where it effects every decision surrounding the film. This kind of mindset that devalues risks and values safe bets is responsible for a lot of despicable decisions about who gets to star in and control these films in terms of gender, race and age.
The default in Hollywood for a long time was to hire white men to make movies about white men for other white men. Which caused a lot of Hollywood films and TV shows to be seen exclusively through the lens of the white male perspective, which meant a lot of stereotypical depictions of black, brown and Asian people and a lot of female characters whose personalities revolved almost entirely around male characters (which wouldn’t be as much of a problem if more women and people of color had control over the casting, writing and directing process). The excuse from executives for Hollywood’s lack of diversity seems to continually be that movies about white people sell better overseas, which even if true would hardly justify the valuing of money over the perpetuation of racism. All to say that there is a serious greed issue in society that blinds people from their moral responsibility, not just in Hollywood but in all aspects of life.
Thankfully you see this attitude slowly changing as studios realize that movie audiences are growing more and more diverse as time goes buy. Hollywood still has a long way to go in terms of true fairness but at least movies like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians have proved that you don’t need a white lead character to headline your movie in order to be financially lucrative.
Where there is a chance to make a lot of money there will always be greed. And with the growth of the movie industry this was always inevitable. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s when the movie industry was starting out, it was only when women and Jewish people started finding success with what was originally seen as a moving picture gimmick that powerful white men began essentially taking over the business side of the film industry. But Hollywood has so much potential to be a truly great place to elevate the voices of everyone and give them a chance to show their stories to the world on the biggest stage in the world. Until then I will continue to celebrate every time I see a sci-fi action film with a person who looks like me (a black man) in the lead. I love the film industry but I love what it COULD be even more.
Thank you for reading. I’ll see you at the movies.