On Film: A Studio Comeback, Record Profits

THE movie world is oddly resistant to forces of change - and oddly vulnerable to them, at the same time. Resistance comes largely from the sheer cost of movies. Filmmaking is as much an industry as an art, and there's nothing an industry likes more than safe, proven formulas.

Yet moviegoers like nothing better than new thrills. This forces production companies to throw caution to the winds periodically, giving a chance to new ideas, new directors, new kinds of storytelling.

The most dramatic recent example took place during the 1970s, when science fiction was box-office poison - until a brave young filmmaker named George Lucas convinced 20th Century-Fox to take a chance on ``Star Wars.'' The result was a new wave of fantasy filmmaking that continues to this day.

During the 1980s, change affected moviemaking and moviegoing in several important ways:

The emergence of independent production companies.

The reversal of this trend, as many ``indies'' faded and ``majors'' reconsolidated their power and continued diversification into publishing and recordings.

The increased popularity of cable TV and video cassettes.

A new emphasis on serious, thoughtful subject matter in films aimed at large audiences - a trend just starting to make itself felt.

Movies certainly didn't get any cheaper to make during the '80s. The average Hollywood picture cost about $8.5 million at the beginning of the decade, and more than twice that amount at the end. But audiences have clearly liked the results: A record $5 billion was predicted for box-office receipts in 1989 alone.

Hoping to cut themselves a slice of that pie, independents sprang up everywhere during the '80s, generating prestigious pictures like ``Kiss of the Spider Woman'' and audience-pleasers like ``A Room With a View,'' as well as forgettable films.

Theaters and distributors weren't equipped, however, to give every promising picture the energetic promotion most movies need. Video stores - increasingly dominated by powerful chains - showed a strong preference for presold hits.

Markets for offbeat movies shrank, even as independent companies' production schedules swelled - resulting in a rash of ``indie'' closings and bankruptcies. Financial and artistic clout in the movie world still have their center of gravity in a handful of major studios, which are themselves owned largely by huge conglomerates. And many studios have started to buy up theaters - regaining a monopolistic control that was taken away from them by court order in the late 1940s.

Looking at the quality of '80s films, the picture is not especially bright. A survey in American Film magazine finds a consensus among critics that technical wizardry tended to displace traditional story values, while some of the most exciting directors of the '70s - such as Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola - failed to fulfill their earlier promise.

These generalizations are not entirely justified, but a look at the top moneymakers of the '80s does show an inordinate number of superficial eye-dazzlers: In five of the decade's years, the most profitable movie came from the fantasy specialists George Lucas and/or Steven Spielberg, and other years were topped by such negligible fare as ``Beverly Hills Cop'' and ``Top Gun.''

The '80s also found room for plenty of pictures aimed at mature, intelligent spectators. Veteran screenwriter Horton Foote made a stunning comeback with ``Tender Mercies'' and ``The Trip to Bountiful,'' ``1918,'' and ``On Valentine's Day.'' French director Louis Malle celebrated the importance of great conversation in ``My Dinner With Andre,'' and literary sources inspired such superb works as ``The Dead,'' directed by the late John Huston, and ``Babette's Feast,'' by Danish filmmaker Gabriel Axel.

Most important, the trend toward thoughtful - and sometimes controversial - filmmaking appeared to be on the upswing as the '80s drew to a close. Spike Lee's explosive ``Do the Right Thing'' dealt unflinchingly with racial problems in the American inner city, while Michael Moore's bittersweet ``Roger & Me'' looked at the effects of corporate decisionmaking on the lives of ordinary people. Both were made by mavericks working outside the Hollywood system. Yet both were distributed by major studios - Universal and Warner Bros. If these movies are harbingers of things to come, the '90s could be a most exciting decade.

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