It's big news when a major filmmaker announces that he's fed up with the Hollywood system. It's bigger news when he acts on his statement, clears out of California, and heads for New York to try his hand at another trade.
And it's sad news when the filmmaker is Robert Altman - one of the most gifted directors of his generation, and one of the few independent voices Hollywood had left.
As it turns out, Hollywood's loss will be a gain for stage and television. Immediately after selling Lion's Gate Films, his production company, Altman scurried to the legitimate theater, directing a regional production of two one-act plays by newcomer Frank South. These soon moved to New York, where they are now running at the St. Clements Theater, a comfortable Off Broadway house. Altman is now assembling his first Broadway venture, a drama by Ed Graczyk called ''Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean,'' about several people whose lives were altered by the shooting of the movie ''Giant'' in their part of Texas during the 1950s.
It sounds like instant success in a new medium - a real Broadway show, on his second try. But the restless Altman isn't simply trading one commercial venue for another. He sees the stage as a proving ground for new concepts and ideas. And he has plans for TV activity, too, of an equally experimental sort. In fact, he insists, it won't be TV as we know it at all. It will be something altogether different, a spanking new approach called . . . well, he doesn't know what it will be called. That can be decided later, after he figures out what it will look like and how it will work.
Happily for film fans, Altman hasn't ruled out a return to the wide screen, either. He loves the movies, and wants to make plenty of them in the future. But he insists on making his own choices, with minimum interference from studio bosses and corporate accountants.
''The fiasco over 'Heaven's Gate' changed a lot of things in Hollywood,'' he told me recently, referring to the $44 million loss declared by United Artists after Michael Cimino's huge western failed with audiences and critics. ''The executives are demanding more control than ever, and I'm one of the people who have been damaged by that. I want to make motion pictures, and I intend to. But right now I'm going to broaden myself in other areas. I want to mix my media for a while.''
Why did Altman decide to boycott Hollywood actively, after gaining a lofty reputation with films ranging from ''M*A*S*H'' to ''Nashville,'' from ''3 Women'' to ''A Wedding,'' from ''McCabe and Mrs. Miller'' to ''Popeye''?
It can't be overlooked that his commercial success has not been equal to his critical success. He has been through some very hard times at the box office lately, with such disappointments as ''A Perfect Couple,'' the flop ''Quintet,'' and the disastrous ''Health,'' which has barely gotten into release at all. It's not a track record to please a mogul, and the studio system still has its moguls.
But the skepticism isn't all on their side. Altman has his own pessimistic view of what Hollywood's future will be as long as the current rules hold - with production costs escalating, audiences narrowing, and nobody quite sure what to do about the situation.
''The studios are on a self-destructive path,'' he says. ''They will not survive. And artists won't survive in that system. True, certain kinds of artists may survive in spite of it. But I'm not a Woody Allen who does a consistent sort of work. I may want to do a modest and internal picture at one time, and then move to a sweeping and rather expensive project. So the studios feel they have to pin me down. And if a project doesn't look like it's succeeding on their terms, they want more input than ever.''
It's to avoid being pinned down that Altman has opted out, at least for the time being. He insists he isn't sorry for himself or bitter. He does rant a bit about certain studio executives, but that seems excusable under the circumstances. Most important, he remains enthusiastic about the movie medium, and its possibilities for the future. When he thinks the good guys can prevail for a while, he's sure to plunge back into the fray.
In the meantime, he is busily exploring the stage, where he hasn't worked since the very beginning of his career, when he had a little community-theater experience. He's sophisticated enough to know that ''Broadway can be like Hollywood - with expensive productions, expensive promotions, and the scramble for long runs.'' But he doesn't have Broadway exclusively in mind. ''There's also Off Broadway, Off Off Broadway, workshops, lofts in SoHo - places where things can be developed,'' he says with emphasis. ''You can experiment in settings like that, and these discoveries eventually feed the Broadway stage. It's very exciting. And nothing like it happens in the movie world.''
When he talks about experimentation, Altman doesn't mean artistic gambling for its own sake. Rather, he feels the media have ''a moral, human obligation'' - an obligation the film studios have abandoned - to try out new ideas and give fresh talent a chance. ''The old moguls were avaricious and profit-oriented,'' he says. ''But at least they were smart enough to know they had to develop what they would eventually prey on. The new studio people aren't that smart. You'd never hear of Bogart if he had come along five years ago, because who'd move him carefully from picture to picture and develop his talent and image? Nobody.
''The film companies have forgotten their responsibility to nurture the talent they make their profit from. If I came along with an innovative project like ''M*A*S*H'' today, I know I'd never get it off the ground. Everything is in the hands of accountants now, who look at nothing but the bottom line.''
There's more freedom in the theater world, Altman feels, because there's a wider range of outlets for a broader spectrum of ideas. And he is thrilled about the possibilities of video, a medium that has barely been explored, in his view. It's here that he thinks his special brand of intimate, visionary drama could find its natural home - on pay TV, videodiscs, and cassettes, made not for a mass-market audience that may happen to contain a few true fans, but for the select and specially targeted audiences that will really appreciate them.