A critic prodding Hollywood into higher ambitions

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

``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?

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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.

What keeps more successful creative types like Puttnam from assuming decisionmaking roles?

I think the biggest thing that keeps them out is the agencies. It's very hard for a person running a studio to make movies without the support and cooperation of the agencies. Stanley Kubrick takes his time eking out something every seven years, because they don't want to put up with the creative restraints. A producer has to have some movies that are mainstream - the agencies can squeeze him pretty good. It's a very old-boy system built into Hollywood that's hard to crack.

What's lost in the process?

Films that take looks at social issues, for instance, aren't considered commercial. The controversy over ``Brazil'' was partly its message - the squashing of the individual by bureaucracy. I doubt if ``All the President's Men'' could get made today. ``Platoon'' was made for about $6 million and made $150 million - but nobody wanted that film. Without mentioning names, I know lots of directors who have gotten away from sociological fare and are just grinding out ``Grade B'' Hollywood product because that's all the studios will put out money for.

Is part of the problem the size of the studios?

Yes. At the major studios, they can't really tolerate individuality, as much as they talk about it. They are afraid of not making a profit when it's all over. To turn on the machine requires such a huge commitment that these little films are just not worth their effort. While ``Ishtar'' is out there spending $40 million for name stars, some guy is asking $3 million for something like ``Room With A View,'' which couldn't get any money from a studio.

What are other symptoms of commercialized, institutional filmmaking?

Things like the ``Witches of Eastwick,'' which destroyed a novel by going into their science-fiction, special-effects mode for the last 30 minutes of the film - what the studio machine has geared itself to do as a formula for the last 10 years. There is also the thinking that if 100 percent of the people exiting a theater can't explain the movie in a simple, declarative sentence, that it was too confusing. Books aren't that easy, and nobody complains about a painting if he can't understand everything an artist had to say. But the studios think differently - it's part of the television phenomenon: instant understanding, instant entertainment, instant gratification.

How can things be made to change?

A few things. If you could do away with talent agencies and let stars negotiate their own contracts, you would eliminate the $17 million average cost of a film. And you would eliminate the studios' having casts stuffed down their throats so that they make a movie with the wrong actors - and eliminate other creative decisions getting out of control.

Give studio executives longer contracts - five years instead of three - and make sure their background is filmmaking, not law, advertising, or business. Quit relying on market research and go on creative instincts. Director Robert Altman once told me, ``You can't go out and ask people what they want to see, because what they want to see is what they've never seen before, which they can't describe.'' I would like to see the studios and independent filmmakers all compete fairly for theaters. Even with the proliferation of multiplex theaters, most of them are dominated by the studios.

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