There’s something rotten in Hollywood, and it starts with the sign. An essay by David Thomson

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2011

A few years ago I was up by the Hollywood sign, or as close as you can get. It is a wild place, a reminder that Los Angeles sits on the edge of desolate country with violent faults in the ground. The letters are enormous and sited in steep, unstable terrain, miles from any road. In 1932 an actress, Peg Entwistle, threw herself from the sign. The plunge made her name, and still no one can work out how she struggled up the rugged hillside, found a ladder, and reached the top of the H.

Never mind murder mysteries now. I was up there with a film crew. It was another programme on the history of Hollywood, and the director wanted me talking with the sign in the background, to lend “colour” and “authenticity”. But the wind was too strong for recording, so I chatted with the crew, people who do picture and sound for hire in LA. How’s business, I asked. “Fair,” one said, bleakly. When was the last great time? 1994-95, they said, the O.J. Simpson moment, when every crew was doing double-time. That was a turning point, they said, smiling at thoughts of the mad glory, the first reality show, a new kind of movie that millions followed all the way from the chase to the verdict. “That show”, one of them said, “brought more money into LA than ‘Titanic’.”

Hollywood judges itself in two ways—grosses and awards. What was once a couple of evenings out has swollen into a season, a campaign. This year, there were two particularly striking moments. At the Golden Globes (the awards show mounted by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association), in January, the host introduced the president of the association by saying that he had just assisted the venerable gentleman off the lavatory and helped put in his false teeth. In February, at the Academy Awards, two directors went up to accept Best Documentary for “Inside Job”, and one of them leaned into the microphone and said that America had suffered a great crisis of financial fraud, for which not one executive had yet gone to prison. “And”, he added, “that’s wrong.”

Two outrages spilled over Hollywood’s red-carpet assurance, one frenzied, the other calm, yet somehow time managed to pass without anyone having convulsions. All the hired designer gowns stayed on the great ladies. The Golden Globes host was the British comic Ricky Gervais, whom you may not see in that role again. The director of “Inside Job” was Charles Ferguson. Gervais’s remark drew a gasp of wonderment and nervous laughter. Ferguson received a conscientious round of applause; you could sense a few executives in the room telling themselves, “He can’t mean me! Can he?”

My impression was that he did mean them, and while he graciously urged the “show” to carry on, there is a feeling in America that our hallowed show business is now as hard to find, or hold, as the idea of Hollywood. The system doesn’t bother to make enough Hollywood movies any more. It doesn’t know how to, and the audience would hardly recognise them if it did.

Oh, I see, you may be saying, this is another of those pieces about the movies being dead? Well, yes and no. As a matter of fact, in 2010, there were two “mainstream” movies—by which I mean movies aimed at a lot of people—that knocked me out. “Toy Story 3” is an old Hollywood picture, about what time and memory do to us. It’s from Pixar, in Emeryville, in the Bay Area—a family studio, a cosy workplace and a throwback to the past, yet hugely successful. It made people laugh and cry. Then there was “Inception”. I know, some felt it was too confusing, too full of special effects. As one who had never much liked Christopher Nolan’s films before, I thought this one was dazzling, light, unexpectedly funny, and filled with the wonder of what some effects can do in the service of a touching, humane story.

But the lesson of those two hits is not all we might like. The overwhelming drive in the mainstream film business now is to make blockbuster animated films, preferably ones that can be cloned—repeated, reheated and sold in packs of two or three or six, like fizzy drinks. Another is to base films so much on special effects that the audience is always seeing something it has never seen before—like the earthquake rippling along the runway in “2012”, challenging John Cusack’s plane to get off the ground in time. In short: make movies that have as little to do with the photography of life, faces, real places and ordinary action as you can manage. Meanwhile, a new video game, “Call of Duty: Black Ops”, grossed $1 billion in six weeks. That is about 10% of what all theatrical movies together manage in America in a year. And it’s not just America: my grandson, at school in London, says other kids won’t talk to you if you’re not into “Call of Duty” and its kill-counts.

When the American film business became international, it moved towards what it believed was material for the 18-24s with franchising prospects: violent, cruel, cool, self-interrupting. The executives listened to the marketeers, and the film-makers had to decide whether to go along with them. The alternative was to go independent, or try television. Both of which meant a drastic cut in income.

A generation of directors who thought they owned the business as kids in the 1970s had to decide whether to stay part of it or be artists. Steven Spielberg is the only one who may still be able to convince us he’s both: we will see with “War Horse” and “The Adventures of Tintin”. Francis Ford Coppola has gone back to being an artist, while moonlighting in wine and eco-villas. George Lucas exists in the gloom of his own big business. And Martin Scorsese is something of a wreck, trying to have it both ways, making music documentaries (George Harrison next) and television (“Boardwalk Empire”), and still directing movies without firing on so many cylinders (“Shutter Island”). Mostly born in the 1940s, they are of an age still to be our great directors, but they have yielded to a generation of new kids who do what the money demands. You see, we don’t have great directors any more. The computer makes our movies. Its efficient anonymity is the new style: look at the anonymous figures and the metallic sheen of “Black Ops”. That style, a kind of subtle fascism, haunts our films, from “Black Hawk Down” to “Battle: Los Angeles”.

The picture business likes to tell us, and itself, that it is doing very well. In the first decade of this century, America’s annual domestic box office pushed over $10 billion ($10.89 billion for 2010). But $10 billion, you realise now, is not so great. And in the small print you find that in 2010 1.37 billion tickets were sold, whereas in 2002 it was 1.58 billion—so in eight years, 13% of the audience has melted away. In the 1940s, as war ended and families were reunited in the dark, the figure was 4 billion tickets a year. And the population of America was half what it is now. That’s what “mainstream” once meant.

In that light, our venerable Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, now in its 80s, looks a little shaky. It has two physical incarnations: the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre on Wilshire Boulevard for tributes and events, and an exceptional research library, named after Margaret Herrick, the first librarian at the Academy, and an invaluable source for film historians. There are wistful hopes for a proper movie museum—something LA has never had. Mainly, it puts on the big show, the Oscars telecast. The bulk of the Academy’s revenue (about $70m a year) comes from that one show, and its audience has been wilting.

A smaller portion of the public is going to movie theatres, and Academy voters find it harder to believe in “mainstream” pictures. Think about this list: “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, “Gigi”, “Ben-Hur”, “The Apartment”, “West Side Story”, “Lawrence of Arabia”, “Tom Jones”. Those are the Best Picture winners from 1957 to 1963. Never mind how good they were then or seem now, those films were all made in the confidence that every cinema-going adult might see them.

In the early 1990s, the pattern just held: “Dances with Wolves”, “The Silence of the Lambs”, “Unforgiven”, “Schindler’s List”, “Forrest Gump”, “Braveheart” (miss a year, 1996) and “Titanic”. There is more violence in those films, more darkness, which made it harder for two or three generations to enjoy them as a family. “Schindler’s List” was too distressing to be a family film, but it was a gesture from Spielberg (both Arthur and Merlin to the industry then) that said, This is Important and This is For You All—much as “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946) turned on that word “our”, and the feeling that a movie could embody a shared experience.

In the year I missed, 1996, Best Picture went to “The English Patient”, a radical departure—a challenging novel (by Michael Ondaatje) ingeniously rendered by Anthony Minghella, but a picture that had no intention of saying, “This is for everyone”. It had the inward complexity of an Antonioni film. As a movie that resembled a novel in its impact, yet still took the top Oscar (plus eight others), it proved a marker. Ever since, there have been only three plausible, mainstream Best Pictures—“Gladiator”, “Chicago” and the third “Lord of the Rings” picture. The other winners have been edgier, more independent, less accessible: “Shakespeare in Love”, “American Beauty”, “A Beautiful Mind”, “Crash”, “Million Dollar Baby”, “The Departed”, “No Country for Old Men”, “Slumdog Millionaire”, “The Hurt Locker” and “The King’s Speech”.

In 2010, fearing audience slippage on a perilous scale, the Academy tried to broaden its appeal. It expanded the shortlist for Best Picture from five to ten nominees and spread the word to its 6,000 members that popularity might be a defence of the institution itself. It had high hopes because 2009 had produced “Avatar”, which had raked in about $2.7 billion, far more than the previous biggest picture, “Titanic” ($1.8 billion).

The Academy responded by voting for “The Hurt Locker”, a war movie seen by one American for every 50 who went to “Avatar”. Who do you think we are, the voters seemed to be saying—mere movie fans?

This year, a fuss was made in advance about an Oscars show aimed at the young demographic that is deemed crucial to the business. The hosts, James Franco (aged 32) and Anne Hathaway (28), were supplied with self-referential jokes. “You’re looking lovely,” he told her, in time-honoured fashion. “And I have to say,” she replied, “you’re looking very tailored to a young demographic.” The upshot was that the American TV audience fell again, from 41.7m to 37.6m, with a 12% slump in the 18-49 age bracket. In 1998, the year of “Titanic”, it was 57m, so more than a third of the viewers have drifted away. At this rate, the Oscars show can’t last.

Plenty of people prefer their movies on DVDs now—though even those numbers are plunging, and as physical objects give way to downloading, the assumption has to be, as with CDs, that the number of takers will fall. Kids are watching movies in places many members of the Academy have barely heard of: on computers, on pads and pods and phones and pulses (have you got a pulse yet?). They’re watching on screens they can hardly see. So they keep them on the way they keep the light on. They’re not quite looking any more, and the consequence is that movie narrative is slipping away.