A brief history of cynicism in American Film

OK, this is really just my take on how Hollywood got into its current situation of cynicism. It’s essential to understanding what’s going on now. Basically, it is the story about how money ruined everything.

The seeds of the cynicism started in the 70’s when some seismic shifts hit Hollywood. The studio system died, corporations started buying studios, the costs of films started to rise, but the one I want to focus on is the start of the blockbuster.

Before Jaws, films were not expected to make that much money. Before Star Wars, no one had really seen the potential of how much money could be made from a film.

The filmmakers who created the blockbuster generation were genuine film geeks in a way that their predecessors were not.   Of course, Spielberg and Lucas are at the front of  pack here, but I’m not blaming the cynicism on them at all – even if, judging from their films, they’ve become fairly cynical themselves.

These guys made phenomenal films which struck a cord with people, and created the blockbuster.    Unfortunately, these films weren’t easy to match.  Besides Spielberg and Lucas, no one seemed be able to get their numbers up there.  But they kept trying and they kept trying by imitation.

They copied the idea of using lots of special effects.  They copied the adventure/fantasy/sci-fi story lines.   Most of all, they copied the release strategy: open in as many theaters as possible and watch your competition drown.  And they mixed some star power in, just in case (something that Spielberg and Lucas generally avoided).

The side effects of this were that they had to spend huge amounts on M+A, stars became more expensive and to justify all those expenses, the films had to cost more.  A lot more.

They were successful, financially.  The tentpole film became a staple until, as it is now, that’s basically all they make.

The trouble is that they were successful because they were so good at marketing and distributing.  They became less good at making films.  Somewhere in the 80’s they began chasing a formula.  There were a few out there, sometimes under different brands, and sometimes they weren’t too bad, but this was where the cynicism crept in.  This is where the “high concept” became the rage.  This where the one page sheets started with a logline like: it’s Pretty Woman meets Top Gun, or something like that.

One of the popular formulas was basically the Rocky model, where a character faced impossible odds, but succeeded in the end in some sort of contest: think Flashdance, or Karate Kid, but there were a lot of them, believe me.  These things performed over and over again at the box office.  They were fun, uplifting films, sure, but they also didn’t cost too much and they we positioned to dominate at the theater.

But as the formula became stale, the studios kept making the films.  And people kept going because they had no choice.  When VHS came along, it pretty much killed the repertory theater, so if you wanted to see a film, your choices became more limited.  At about this time, Reagan started loosening the rule that studios could not own the distribution channels.  So a few different events combined, with the end result being that Hollywood was able to shove pretty much anything down the throat of the American consumer and they would buy it.

(This happened in the music business too.  The distribution, and the ability of the record companies to dominate the radio, gave them total control.  But as soon as competition opened up, via the internet, consumers were ready to jump ship overnight.)

So there were two problems.  One was that studios could put anything out, as long as it looked like something they were familiar with.  The other was that quality wasn’t as important as concept.  The end result was that the studios made films that they thought the audience wanted, but because the audience bought any dreck they put out, because they had no choice, the studio thought the audience was a bunch of cretin retards with eight bucks in their pocket.

I hope you can follow the logic here.  A process that was once driven by passion and love of cinema – and accepted by those who appreciated it – became dominated by a love of money.  Film became created backwards.


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