A critic prodding Hollywood into higher ambitions
In the history of film, there hasn't been a worse decade for quality, creativity, or individual vision in movies than the 1980s, according to Jack Mathews, a movie critic, journalist, and author of the the book ``The Battle of `Brazil,''' published earlier this year. Mr. Mathews is a Los Angeles Times film columnist who covered the battle that ensued when ``Brazil'' director Terry Gilliam and Universal Studio head Sidney Sheinberg disagreed over the editing of this controversial film. A longtime film commentator (in the Detroit Free Press and USA Today, as well as the L.A.Times), Mr. Mathews decided to publish his account as a classic example of the clash between commercial interests and artistic vision. In a Monitor interview, Mathews was asked why he believes movies now are worse than, say, 20 years ago.Skip to next paragraph
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``At the top I would put that they operate like the toy business - with the need to answer stockholders with quick profits and noticeable, short-term dividends. That means the system is obsessed to the point of fanaticism with hitting commercial home runs, starting with ``Jaws,'' ``Superman,'' ``Star Wars,'' and a few others that have generated countless clones, sequels, and knockoffs. There has been a lack of original thinking hiding behind the conservatism of duplication, to the point where there is no longer room for films that are different.
Who is most to blame?
The key reason is that businessmen occupy decisionmaking roles that should be occupied by artists, filmmakers, and those interested more in the creative process than in making money. Talent agencies have become involved to drive up the cost of films by making one star's participation be contingent on a host of others. That begins to straitjacket those on the artistic side, as well. Competition from video, cable, and network movies adds to the pressure of getting big success each time out.
Would you like to see a reorientation in the mainstream film industry or the rise of a sub-industry?
Actually they are interrelated. The success of independent films and those I call boutique filmmakers - those who made ``Platoon,'' ``Kiss of the Spider Woman,'' ``Room With a View,'' and such - will push the studios in that direction. There is room for the large studios to do four or five of the more serious movies I'm talking about - seriously inventive, or new or original films. I'm not asking for 100 percent turnaround, but 10 percent experimentation would be nice. We're eventually going to get so high-tech at home that the audience will be big enough to support these projects in video sales.
Don't those three films prove the process has already begun?
Not yet. Because a $20 million hit off a $4 million investment [``Spider Woman''] isn't enough to pay for electricity. So there's no reason for Universal and these others to get after them just yet. I don't think any of them regrets the fact they passed up on those two movies [``View,'' ``Spider Woman''], which they all did. But they begin to regret one like ``Time Bandits,'' which they all passed on but turned $5 million into $50. Now you're talking a significant amount of income.
What's stopping major studios from taking a few more chances?
Today a guy comes in to run a studio with a three-year contract, and it's going to take 18 months before his first movie is out, and it's got to do business or he's out the door. It makes for incredible conservatism. That has been the cycle for the last 10 years. The bright spot on the horizon was David Puttnam [``Chariots of Fire'' and ``The Mission'']. [Puttnam resigned as Columbia Pictures chief in September.] He's an acknowledged high-quality filmmaker, producer and director. We haven't felt the impact of his films yet. But if they are successful, Hollywood will begin to duplicate them. Oddly, I think the vast number of people in the industry were voting against him; they didn't want him to prove them wrong after all these years.