Hollywood Insiders' Take on Movies

Producers and directors have an open exchange of ideas at a Colorado conference as they debate how their movies are changing America

When Tom Sherak speaks, movie studios listen.

"There is no question that as an industry we are in total free fall," says the chairman of the 20th Domestic Film Group in Hollywood, the studio now offering the summer action film "Speed 2: Cruise Control."

"We can't control ourselves," he says. "The studios are killing each other in the marketplace [with] an insatiable feeling to make big-grossing movies in order to survive," he says.

Mr. Sherak, along with some two dozen other Hollywood executives, directors, writer/producers, and critics, gathered recently at an Aspen Institute conference to discuss the topic "Hollywood: a Design for Living."

Over the four days of talks and informal discussions, three themes emerged. The first centered on the battle between commerce and art in Hollywood: Should big movies continue to explode and assault audiences, or is there room, and money, to be earned from smaller, more thoughtful films about the human spirit?

A second theme centered on the social impact of movies - how they charm, distort, or limit lives and cultures worldwide. Aside from the much-discussed influence of violent movies on youths, one critic, Neal Gabler, suggested Hollywood has created a negative fascination among youths with celebrityhood.

Third, movies have helped trigger the urge to be entertained across all aspects of life, including architecture.

Controversial architect Jon Jerde, in his worldwide projects, says he creates "entertainment experiences" in new kinds of places that alter traditional norms of cities. A city becomes entertainment, just like a movie.

What follows are separate reports on the three themes.

Tug of war between money and art

It's a copycat world for the major studios. The runaway success of "Star Wars" in l977 started the stampede, and action movies are now the formula of choice for success at the box office - and with merchandising, too.

Most "Star Wars" successors - without the moral narrative of Luke Skywalker's saga - thrive on explosions, high-tech wizardry, and indiscriminate carnage. Ideas tend to be absent or burned to a crisp.

Many bemoan the trend, but no well-known studio producer or independent director here took the public pledge to reform.

Sherak calls action films "tent pole" movies that support the entire studio. "Studios need tent-pole movies to survive," he says. "Most movies do not make money, and without tent-pole movies there are no middle-of-the-road movies."

The marketing of $80 million to $100 million movies leaves little to chance. "A movie has the shortest shelf life of any marketable product today," says Sherak.

"By 10 p.m. of the Friday opening of any movie," he continues, "we know within 3 percent of what the weekend [take] is, and within 5 percent of what the total domestic gross will be. It's sad, because it doesn't give the movie a chance in the marketplace."

Such reliance on number crunching is anathema to a handful of independent producers who focus on smaller-scale "art" films driven by character and a strong, narrative script.

If given the time, some lower-budget movies can gain audiences slowly by word of mouth and earn a profit proportionate to those of the blockbusters. Examples are "Babe," "The Crying Game," and "The Usual Suspects."

But unfortunately it doesn't happen often enough for little or big films. The average feature film from a major studio costs $40 million, with another $20 million for marketing. "Of the 209 films released by major studios in l996," says Robert Dowling, publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, "only 37 films [recovered] their marketing costs alone" after the initial box-office release.

All the studios must rely on downstream revenues such as international release, video, satellite, pay cable, and network TV to help create profits.

Veteran Hollywood insiders like director Lawrence Kasdan live out a love/hate relationship with a town where revenues and art seldom hold hands. "Studio politics is number crunching," he says. "[Executives] get embarrassed if they get caught talking about anything but money."

Yet he expects most of the summer blockbusters to fail because of saturation. "This is a cyclical business," he adds. "When most of them fail, then maybe they'll get back to films like 'Driving Miss Daisy.' "

For Lynda Obst - who produced "Sleepless in Seattle" and "The Fisher King" and now produces mid-level films for 20th Century Fox - the balance between art and commerce is clear, but hard to accomplish.

"I'm not in the art part of the business," she says candidly. "I'm in the interface between show and business, and that's the origin of all the cynicism about Hollywood. How dare the bank have an interest in the product? My job is to understand that the bank does have an interest. Enough money is being spent so you can't do this purely for art."

Even though Ms. Obst believes that Hollywood and the audiences that rush to see blockbuster action films are in collusion - audiences get what they want from studios - she hopes smaller films will flourish too.

"I'm terrified at the prospect that really smart people ... make movies for an increasingly small, art-house audience, and the rest of America gets 'Con Air,' " Obst says.

Mr. Gabler believes Hollywood has designed a system that "boutiques the serious films and absolves itself of the guilt" of producing blockbuster films. "I don't begrudge them making money, but I [do] begrudge them pretending they have to make the kind of movies they make."

Many agree that the linchpin that holds most studios to big-budget films like "Con Air" and helps to keep audiences coming is the star system. Tom Cruise, Nicolas Cage, Harrison Ford, or Sandra Bullock sign on for action films and huge multimillion-dollar salaries, thereby inflating the cost of the movie. In turn, the stars drive the "bigness" of the film.

"The studios have come up with the best formula to make money," says Armyan Bernstein, producer of the soon-to-be-released "Air Force One," starring Harrison Ford and Glenn Close. "If one of them could show the others a different way to succeed, they would all follow the money."

I'm a celebrity, you're a celebrity

After paying $7 for admission, you sit in the darkness of the theater where your feelings are "unzipped" and changed by the power of the movies, says publisher Dowling. "I think movies are the most powerful product of the 20th century."

Millions would probably share that view. In recent years, civic and parent groups, critics, and politicians have debated the impact of films on individuals and society. The industry has been called upon to become more "socially responsible" and reverse what many perceive as Hollywood's slide into excessive sex and violence.

Some point to studies that show that under the cumulative influence of violent and sexually explicit movies, or sometimes even one movie, some troubled people commit acts harmful to themselves or others.

At the conference, however, there was an effort to avoid finger-pointing discussions on movie violence and mayhem.

Gabler asserts that movies are the genesis for something growing far more pervasive: "Movies were born in the confusion of realms between reality and illusion, and this has expanded over the years."

He says this expansion is now a condition in which movies have so penetrated life that "life itself has been converted into a film. Movies are the model for life," he says. "Movies have created their own way of knowing as no other art form has done."

Mr. Kasdan agrees. "The movies and the world we live in have bled into each other in endless and complicated ways - so completely, in fact, it is impossible to separate them," he says.

Gabler gives as further proof the highly visual nature of society today, and the way movies have redefined other media to be more "cinematic" and less literary. Clothes designers like Ralph Lauren create "costumes" to wear. Martha Stewart's "function is to tell you how to design your set so that you can have a better movie," he says. Many restaurants, like the Hard Rock Cafe, are designed to be like sets with exotic atmospheres.

He cites a young man in New York who wanted his divorced parents to reunite and perform for a video so their granddaughter could see them they way they once were, however brief. "A return to a former episode," Gabler adds.

Gabler calls the trial of O.J. Simpson the "biggest-grossing movie" of the last two years because it played out as if following a script.

But most of all, he says, movies have virtually deified the artifice of celebrity. "It may be the single most important thing movies have taught us. This permeates all of American society. Celebrity has taught us the importance of being important, and it doesn't make any difference what you are important for."

Even when Newsweek put Timothy McVeigh on its cover, no orange-suited prison setting was used. "It was a beauty shot," says Gabler, "backlit like a great star would be photographed." Mr. McVeigh was a "celebrity" regardless of what he had done.

Gabler suggests that the result of this emphasis is that millions of young people are "might be's," people who are persuaded by the celebrity of a Tom Cruise, for instance, to be like him not so much as a professional actor, but as a celebrity. "How you do nothing and get known by everyone," says Gabler, "is the ultimate aspiration."

Some suggest that Gabler's analysis is overstated, blaming movies too heavily for cultural shifts reflected in behavior. "You could say because of nature, or something else, so many things have happened," says Mr. Bernstein, producer of "Air Force One," "but it's not necessarily all true."

Whether or not the Gabler analysis is wholly accurate, many parents and critics are concerned that today's movies focus too little on stories that emphasize hard-won strength of character and genuine achievement. The drama of physical force and sexual violence is the easy alternative.

Yet almost all filmmakers reject the notion of any kind of restraint in their films. "Filmmakers should not have to be socially responsible," says Albert Hughes, one of the two Hughes brothers who made "Menace II Society" and "Dead Presidents."

"If you don't like these movies, don't go see them," he says. Hollywood appropriately devised the movie rating system as an early-warning system.

"As awful as some incidents have been, we cannot censor ourselves because there are people who are unstable," says Bernstein. "Those people can't force movies and TV and novels into taking care of them. Those people have to take care of themselves."

Entertainment is life, and a city is fun

How far does the power of movies and entertainment reach? Architect Jerde says all the way into changing the purpose of buildings and cities. He attempts to lift the sense of awe, delight, and engagement out of the experience of going to the movies and splicing them into cities.

"What we are doing is designing places that have experiences in them," he says, "which means, in effect, we are designing time. The minute we did that we became moviemakers."

Mr. Jerde is chairman of Jerde Partnership International in Venice, Calif. His controversial building projects worldwide are driven by "visceral reality," a concept he says enhances the reality of place by anchoring it in entertainment values to attract an "audience."

Jerde calls it "amping up a place."

Others call it movie-spinoff, polluting architecture.

Whatever the description, his vision contributes to the nation's postwar march toward a culture filled with entertainment - with theme parks and entertainment centers, and merchandising tie-ins everywhere.

More than $250 million was spent cross-promoting "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" with companies like Burger King, Tropicana, and Kodak. Movies are so influential that companies want their names connected before the film opens.

And audiences want to continue a movie's entertaining experience with T-shirts or other items with a name or design on it. Warner Bros., with 170 retail outlets, averages about 450,000 visitors to their stores each day.

"After 'Field of Dreams' came out in 1989," says Mr. Dowling, publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, "some 60,000 people visited the playing field in Iowa in the first few months."

Connecting this sense of broadened entertainment with a new "place" for entertainment, Jerde built Universal City Walk in Los Angeles, a 425-acre pedestrian promenade mixing retail stores, cultural elements, restaurants, and entertainment with eclectic architectural elements.

Other similar projects are under way in a dozen countries.

Jerde adds dashes of "reality" as if he is enhancing a movie set, with deliberately aged paint on some buildings and candy wrappers stuck in the terrazzo flooring to appear discarded by other strollers. In City Walk, a faux beach is lapped by waves triggered by a machine.

Jerde's critics abound, even within the movie industry.

"I get upset when City Walk is the model for a new urban center," says Michael Tolkin, who wrote and produced "The Player," an Oscar-nominated film. "The idea of a political meeting space taken over by a consumer-oriented meeting space," he says, "seems to fulfill the fantasy of a city rather than living in a real city."

With his approach, Jerde clearly preempts the evolutionary pattern of a traditional city that shapes itself slowly by political and community decisions. He redefines "real." He creates a bigger-than-life scale and at the same time hopes for the community intimacy of a shopping area.

Jerde also conceptualized and designed the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in l984 and built the $625 million Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., the largest retail and family entertainment complex in America.

In Las Vegas, he has built a domed light show covering three city blocks, with a pedestrian and gambling mall underneath it.

"Jerde [creates] fabrication," says Craig Hodgetts, an architect who has designed entertainment theme parks for Sony, MCA Universal, and Walt Disney. "But it holds together - like feature filmmaking when $100 million is at stake and you have to put the [film] together in the most consummate way all at once and make it work."

Jerde contends that flowing through this enhanced reality is an audience that supports businesses, and depending on location, revitalizes urban centers or makes suburbs more social and less isolated.

But the emphasis on entertainment worries other architects. "Everything is being driven by entertainment now," says Deanne Berman, an architect from Chicago, Ill.

"The marketing world is so afraid we aren't going to come out of our houses to buy anything, that we have to be entertained and lured," she says. "And the only way to get us out, they think, is to give us stimulation."

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