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Just when I thought it was safe to say I enjoy the occasional blockbuster, Slate has asked us to discuss whether Spielberg and Lucas "killed the movies." It was a topic raised a few months ago by Louis Menand in The New Yorker and in reviews of the British critic Tom Shone's lively pro-Hollywood book Blockbuster—which is a sort of counterargument to Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls that the most extraordinary era in American cinema (the late '60s and early '70s) ended with Jaws and Star Wars. Biskind found this a major bummer; Shone mostly thinks it's cool. (I'm simplifying.) For the most part, I cherish the '70s but can hardly blame Spielberg or Lucas for capturing the imaginations of vast numbers of people. We can all agree, however, that life for moviegoers (and moviemakers) was never the same.
For a depressing reminder that the sums of money at stake are insanely different 30 years later, consider a couple of paragraphs from this story in USA Today:
Mr. & Mrs. Smith rang up an impressive $51.1 million this weekend, according to studio estimates from box office tracker Nielsen EDI. The debut is the best for Pitt and Jolie and was more than $10 million above most analysts' expectations.
But it wasn't enough to end the industry's attendance slide. For the 16th straight weekend, ticket sales fell behind last year's pace, the second-worst ticket sales slump in Hollywood's modern history.
Holy &*%$#. A movie opens with $51.1 million (!!!), sits on the top-10 list beside a film that has made hundreds of millions (Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith), another that's on track to clean up (Madagascar), and another (Cinderella Man) that's so far performing below expectations but is certainly Oscar bait (assuming Academy voters can reconcile Russell Crowe's assault with a deadly telephone with his peaceable pugilist Braddock)—and Hollywood is in a slump???? And this is reported matter-of-factly????
My first impulse was to write, "The stakes are so high it's a miracle that any studio, star-driven movie is any good"—which reflects my bias that the best films go out without too much interference from Hollywood executives. But one could easily argue the other side: that the stakes are so high that a movie like Mr. & Mrs. Smith is probably a lot better than if it had cost a lot less to make. Think if Arthur Hiller instead of Doug Liman had been at the helm…
You were a critic before and after the changeover (with a break in between to work in the industry), so your anecdotes might be more illuminating than mine. But here are two conversations I remember most vividly. In January 1988, I was at the Sundance Film Festival, where producer Gale Anne Hurd was on the jury. She couldn't believe what she was hearing from Hollywood about the cost of Die Hard. For one thing, Bruce Willis had been paid $6 million. Unprecedented! And for a television actor! Of course, certain infamous super agents took this as their cue to demand more and more money for their clients: Two years later, even Willis' wife, Demi Moore, was earning $12 million a picture (and those pictures were bombing).
The other anecdote involves Elvis Mitchell, who had a job at Paramount in the early '90s. One day he told me, with a little sneer, that executives there referred to Star Trek as "the franchise." I laughed derisively. The franchise! A franchise is a McDonald's, a True Value Hardware! Movies aren't franchises! Less than a decade later, the term "franchise" was used openly. A top executive at Warner Bros. earnestly explained to reporters that he wanted the studio to be in the franchise business exclusively—hence Batman, Harry Potter, etc. It reminded me of another story I heard, that in the '90s a studio conducted an expensive marketing study to determine which kinds of films were the most consistently profitable—the theory being that then it would only make that kind of movie. Months later, the answer came back. Yes, there was one type of film that did consistently better: sequels.
Let me change gears here. I want to tell you about the day I saw Jaws—the first day it opened in 1975. I was 15, staying at my friend Richard's house on Long Island, and we headed to the theater (not a multiplex) with a third friend, Craig. There were still tickets, but the line went around the theater twice. Despair. Then the ballsy Craig casually strolled up to the third guy in line, pointed at the marquee, and said, "Richard Dreyfuss—you see him in American Graffiti? He was great. I love that movie." The two chatted for a minute about American Graffiti and then Craig said, "Hold my place a sec, will ya?" and waved us over. I was cringing as Craig, Richard, and I became the fourth, fifth, and sixth people in line—but it was better than having to sit in the front row. When we got inside, we planted ourselves dead center in the huge theater, the perfect spot to experience the full kinetic effect of the film and yet be totally aware of the crowd. And so I guess, in a strange way, I owe my prime seat at one of the great nights of my moviegoing life to George Lucas (and Craig).
Jaws is still one of my favorite movies. I didn't know I could be manipulated like that—so wittily, so teasingly, in a way that made me laugh at my own fear. (The only Hitchcock film I'd seen in a theater was Frenzy, which was too sick to appreciate in the same vein.) What clinched it was that unbelievably brilliant sequence that begins with a high-angle shot of Roy Scheider dropping fish entrails in the water as shark bait. He was resentful; he said to Shaw and Dreyfuss, "Why don't you guys come down here and shovel some of this shit?" And we started to laugh—he said "shit!" heh-heh—and then the head of the shark appeared in the water (no music, no foreshadowing), and I felt my mind detach from my body and my laugh turn into a shriek and merge into the collective shriek of everyone in that huge theater. I literally shook for the rest of the movie: Every cut by the late Verna Fields had me poised to leap out of my seat. (I really learned to appreciate editing from Jaws.)
Many of the reviews were blandly favorable or even negative. (I remember in TheNewYorker Penelope Gilliat's "Don't bite.") So much for critics. That summer, Jaws was almost all I talked about.
It wasn't quite the same for Star Wars—the destruction of the Death Star was nowhere near as satisfying as Scheider's climactic, "Smile you sonovabitch!" BOOM!!!!! But I was blown away by the first minute—by the illusion that a spaceship was passing over my head. Go Dolby! (Or was it already THX?) And I admired the way Lucas cobbled together an original galaxy out of so many used genre parts. I wore out the John Williams double-LP soundtrack that summer, too.
Lucas and Spielberg were both hip, '70s moviemakers. They were pals with Coppola and that crowd. Lucas had given us the aforementioned American Graffiti, which I loved, and Spielberg was clearly a master. Who knew that studios would pursue Jaws and Star Wars ever after—and that there would then be a spate of shitty outer space and monster movies?
My vote for the archvillain of the changeover is Don Simpson, the auteur of Flashdance, Top Gun, and other Go For It movies for dimwits. As Pauline Kael said of the latter film, "It's not selling anything, it's just selling. … It's a commercial for itself." The high-powered Paramount executive Simpson ushered in the most dire period in American movies, the mid- and late '80s, marked by copycat teen and Go For It movies, with only a handful of American directors managing to turn out significant works. (And those that did—like David Lynch with Blue Velvet—often did so only by first accepting more commercial assignments.)
Now, at least, there's a thriving independent film movement that began as a wail of despair in the face of this wall of crap. There's also a different caliber of studio-processed blockbuster, with talents like Sam Raimi, Bryan Singer, and Christopher Nolan turning out the superhero pictures with more intelligence, commitment, and seriousness of purpose than ever before.
Whether they're worth that much intelligence, commitment, and seriousness of purpose—let alone money—is another question.