The Soul of Movies

December 15, 2010

Watching the final episode of TCM’s epic “Moguls and Movie Stars” series last night, I was struck by the very moment that movies themselves lost much of their heart and soul.

In Chapter 15 of Bringing Back The Old Hollywood, I talk about the transition from The Old Hollywood to The New Hollywood beginning way back in the late 1940s but becoming complete when all the studios had been bought out about major international corporations:

“So, in essence, the huge bulk of the corporate takeover and transition of the major Hollywood studios occurred over a very short period of time, 1982-1995.

And that is the time period during which The Old Hollywood finally morphed itself into Brigadoon and decided to enjoy a temporary leave of absence. Not for forever.Not even for a hundred years. Just for a while.

Like the ill-fated New Coke, The New Hollywood has become something very different from the Old Hollywood. Corporate. Sterile. Derivative. Devoid of glamour, imagination, and innovation, fueled by marketing tie-ins, endless repetitions of what worked before, and a relentlessly myopic focus on teenagers and adults under thirty. And mired in a financial model that is now acknowledged even by Hollywood insiders as being irretrievably broken.”

What struck me again last night was how the departure of The Old Hollywood was hastened by the deaths of the founding moguls of the film business and how devastating their deaths were on the soul of the industry itself.

As the great visionaries began to pass from the scene in the 1950s and 1960s, the business literally lost its rudder and began its drift into the threatened extinction it faces today.

Without the singular vision, power, and passion of its founders, the business wandered into an era where costs exploded and the power in the industry shifted 180 degrees from the studios to actors, directors, and agents. The shift was so dramatic that one film literally caused a studio to shut down.

The cost overruns of Cleopatra were so monumental that 20th Century Fox actually closed and fired its entire work force for several months. The film had originally been budgeted at $2 million but eventually cost about $44 million which would be over $300 million in 2010 dollars. The slippery slope for Cleopatra had begun when Fox was so desperate to sign Elizabeth Taylor to star in the film that she demanded and received a staggering $1 million fee. While that might not seem like much today, back then it was a true “queen’s ransom.”

Delays raised that total to $7 million, which would be about $45 million in 2010 dollars.

None of the founding moguls would have allowed that kind of insanity to happen. Ironically, the spectacular failure of Cleopatra led to a belief that studios should no longer finance films themselves, a decision that in turn led to a further dilution in the power of the studios. In fact, the studios descended into such disarray after the death of their founding fathers that most of them were forced to even sell off their legendary back lots.

More than anything, this magnificent TCM series has reinforced my knowing that we must indeed bring back The Old Hollywood before it’s too late to save movies from extinction.

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