Friday, January 3, 2020
The collapse of the studio system and the Hayes Code ushered in a new golden age of filmmaking. Freed from the bonds of censorship and producer interference, a new generation of directors seized the new freedom and began making the type of films that their predecessors could only dream about. Under the studio system, directors were just another cog in the machine; forced by contract to make whatever they were assigned. The 1970’s ushered in a new era where directors could fully realize their visions.
Not everyone in Hollywood was happy about this new freedom, however. Many holdovers from the original golden era bemoaned the new films as vulgar, disgusting and obscene. They predicted that the public would eventually revolt against Hollywood and motion pictures would become a thing of the past. This obviously proved to be untrue, but the rift between old and new Hollywood would continue.
While adult themes would permit Hollywood to make cost effective, profitable pictures that would attract mature audiences, it was still willing to make big budget blockbusters that could get massive audiences into theaters. The film that would usher in the modern day era of blockbusters was Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. The film was a sensation, setting the stage for lavish, special effects laden movies. The film’s success showed that a sane balance between big budget films and quieter movies could be found.
Today, Hollywood seems to be at another crossroads. After Martin Scorsese’s recent comments about super hero films pushing out the quieter motion pictures, some media outlets seized upon his statements and gave them extensive coverage. Is Iron Man ruining the motion picture industry?
The answer is arguably no. The current state of motion pictures is more likely affected by the recent “peak television” phenomenon. Basic cable and streaming services are producing massive amounts of television shows that feature the sort of mature content that could only be found in motion pictures just ten years ago. Cable television has always been free to show whatever it wanted, but with the exception of premium channels, it never took advantage of this freedom. In the last ten years, however, basic cable has tested the waters by including profanity, nudity and adult themes in its programming. This has reduced the audience for these types of theatrical releases. Why go to a theater when you can get this type of programming at home with the push of a button? Faced with this situation, the studios are merely repeating history; offering moviegoers something they can’t quite replicate at home. Will this be sustainable this time? Only time will tell.
Thursday, January 2, 2020
With potential censorship issues resolved, Hollywood went back to work making motion pictures. The golden age of Hollywood and its studio system was on its last legs. This time the threat came from television. Today, nearly every major studio produces both films and television series. In television’s early years, however, major studios refused to produce programming for television. After all, why would they want to arm their mortal enemy? As studio titans worried about how they could protect their turf from this nefarious device that provided free programming in people’s houses, one titan decided to embrace television and use it to his advantage- Walt Disney.
Mr. Disney originally stood with his fellow studio heads in spurning television’s advances. However, he had big plans to diversify his company’s business and he saw that television could assist him with that. Walt Disney was certain DISNEYLAND was going to change the way families vacationed together, but he needed money and to get the word out about what he was building in Anaheim, California. ABC provided him with both. This initial “betrayal” angered Hollywood’s other moguls, but the sound business reasons for Mr. Disney’s decision would setup his company to become the behemoth it is today.
Other studios, reluctant to follow Disney’s lead, chose to start making films that television couldn’t compete with. Utilizing the full sized theater screens, Hollywood was soon awash in huge, budget busting spectacles. The most expensive and notorious of these films was Cleopatra, which almost took down Twentieth-Century-Fox. Obviously, this was not a sustainable way to deal with the upheaval Hollywood faced. So how could the studios provide a more cost effective way to get people out their houses and into theaters to see their latest films? To put it bluntly, tits and ass.
Adult themes couldn’t be shown on television, but maybe it would be possible to show them in a theater. The studios just needed to come up with a replacement for the aging Hayes Code. Thus the current rating system was created. This would allow filmmakers to depict themes that were unthinkable with the Hayes Code. The rating system would give a clear guideline to the public about what to expect from a film, opening the world of cinema up to new visions. Would audiences warm up to adult themes? They would.
One of the early successes of “New Cinema” was Easy Rider. The film was a massive success, making millions of dollars on a shoestring budget. Hollywood saw the future and it was edgy, auteur driven and in the eyes of old Hollywood- profane.
Wednesday, January 1, 2020
After embracing MGM’s movie making process that would ensure a steady stream of motion pictures for the world’s theaters, Hollywood settled into an unprecedented period of profitability. The studios began concentrating on building up their actors and actresses into super stars. While the studio publicity machines wanted to put their performers up on pedestals, they also wanted them to appear like everyday folks who were just like you and me. This would prove to be a more difficult task than creating the industry itself.
A string of celebrity scandals would bring scrutiny to the studios and their films. Congress and local governments threatened to enforce strict censorship on the studios. Would the censorship survive constitutional scrutiny? Probably not, but the studios weren’t willing to risk it. In response to the scrutiny, the studios banded together to enact strict restrictions on themselves. They hired a conservative, Republican politician to enforce this new voluntary code- Will Hayes. These new restrictions would chase Mae West into a decades long exodus from Hollywood; if she couldn’t make the innuendo filled movies that she loved, she didn’t want to play along.
All of the major studios agreed to have their pictures approved by the Hayes Office and the vast majority of theaters vowed to never show unapproved films. This would succeed in getting the government off their backs.