If you thought the language in my last blog was offensive, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Today, I’m going to focus on a single obscenity: “corporation.”
I should wash my mouth out with soap.
But I simply don’t know how I can discuss the concept behind the word without using the word itself.
The thin of skin, the faint of heart, the delicate of constitution should sign off right now. To those of you who remain, I offer my heartfelt apology.
I’ve long been convinced that corporations are born brain-dead.
Brain-dead and destructive.
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen them take over a thriving business and quickly drive it into the ground by ignoring local knowledge and experience and, instead, issuing dunder-headed directives from headquarters.
Then, of course, there are the corporate raids, where they’ll absorb a company, strip it of its assets, and then discard it. The landscape of the financial world is littered with the bodies of these once-thriving enterprises.
Those who doubt me should take a look at The Corporation, an eye-opening documentary which points out that corporations exhibit all the characteristics of criminal psychopaths and which examines their pathological pursuit of profit.
What has this to do with Hollywood and the movies?
In the past…
In the past, the studios were run by entrepreneurs. Cohn, Fox, Mayer, Zukor, Laemmle, Goldwyn, the Warners—they knew movies. After all, as Neal Gabler has so brilliantly observed, they invented Hollywood.
They knew movies. They knew story. They knew the stars and how to handle them. Above all, they knew the business.
They knew the business and they knew it was a business of risk.
Sam Goldwyn risked everything he had, including his home, every time he made a film.
Harry Cohn worked by hunch, by impulse, by the seat of his pants. Instinct (informed by years of experience) told him when to take a chance on a story, a star, a director.
And that is what all of them did. They took chances.
It was this roll-of-the-dice, go-with-your-gut stance that got them through the great watersheds in Hollywood history—the coming of sound, the rise of the unions, the consent decrees that stripped them of ownership of the theatres, the competition from television, even the appearance of the auteur director.
Then, in the late seventies and early eighties, came the corporations.
TransAmerica swallowed UA. Gulf and Western devoured Paramount. Kinney Parking consumed Warner Bros. Tracinda bought, stripped, and sold MGM many times, nearly extinguishing what had once been the brightest of all the Hollywood lights. And so it went until, at last, General Electric, the world’s largest corporation, absorbed Universal.
What difference did it make?
Well, first of all, ignorance replaced experience.
I used to complain to my producing partner, Donna Dubrow, that the guys running the studios could just as easily be manufacturing Universal Widgets or automobiles from Detroit. Her response? “No, Dan. These guys couldn’t sell used cars let alone make new ones.”
The corporate heads, in their wisdom, hired former agents, show biz attorneys, and Harvard MBA’s to run the studios—all of them afraid of losing their jobs, all of them seeking security in the most insecure of all businesses.
Risk-averse like the corporations themselves, they embraced the star system. Why? Stars, in theory at least, guaranteed their films would open. Put a star in your movie, and, they were convinced, you’d get an audience for it.
Put Dustin Hoffman together with Warren Beatty, and you get Ishtar—one of the most expensive disasters in film history.
Put John Travolta in his personal tribute to Scientology, and you get Battlefield Earth.
Put Eddie Murphy in one of his pet projects, and you get Pluto Nash.
Well, you get the picture.
The corporate parents and their studio-head drones did not.
They so believed in the star system that there were willing to pay the stars anything they wanted.
They wanted a lot.
Five, ten, fifteen million and more…up front.
Then you had to add thirty percent “for the shit,” as production manager Tom Joyner once described the perks that come with being a star.
You leased John Travolta’s private aircraft to carry him back and forth to the set. You hired Bruce Willis’ brother as a producer. You put Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gym equipment in a thirty or forty foot container and sent it off to the location shoot in Mexico. You gave Demi (fondly known to production managers as “Gimme”) Moore the sun, the moon and the stars.
Then, of course, there was the back end. You wanted the job security that supposedly came with the presence of a star, you offered that star a percentage of the gross!
Not the net.
There is no net.
Because according to studio bookkeepers, no movie in the history of Hollywood ever made a profit.
Even lowly writers like me got percentages of the net.
But the stars got part of the gross…with the result that they made money, big money, even when the studios lost their corporate shirts. In fact, some of the stars got such a large hunk of the gross that the studios often lost money on what should have been big successes.
The more the stars cost, the more movies cost. Under corporate leadership, the budgets of movies bloated to unprecedented levels.
The higher the budget, the bigger the risk.
So those risk-averse corporate captains eventually turned to their marketing experts for salvation, and the marketing people quickly became more powerful than the production people. Their research told them that their target audience was fifteen year-olds here in the States and uneducated peasants in third-world countries.
What kind of movies appeal to that target audience?
Teen sex comedies.
Bloated action films based on “graphic novels” or young adult fiction and directed like video games.
And of course, those old standbys of cinematic art, horror films.
I’m forgetting the safest bets of all—remakes and sequels.
As for character-driven dramas…or, for that matter, any kind of adult-oriented fare, fugeddaboudit!
Forget about new classics in the vein of Vertigo, Citizen Kane, The Grapes of Wrath, The Godfather, or Chinatown.
The corporate studios just aren’t going to give us this kind of fare.
The only hope for the future of film lies in cable and the Internet.
You doubt what I’m saying?
Take a quick glance at last summer’s movie list.
Better yet, go see the umpteenth remake of Superman or the second sequel to The Hangover. You’ll be risking premature brain death, but as I said earlier, the movies are—or at least should be—a business of risk.
Of late, the studios have found a way to reduce the risk even more. They’ve discovered that the kids today—that treasured target audience—don’t care about stars.
As a result of this revelation, they no longer pay the salaries and percentages they once did.
One would think that film budgets have, as a result, declined precipitously.
The kids don’t care about stars.
But they do care about special effects.
And guess what?
Special effects cost even more money than stars.
Hollywood today reminds me of a fifties horror film called The Monster That Challenged the World. In it, a giant slug threatens to destroy earth as we know it.
I probably should have entitled this piece The Corporations That Challenged Hollywood. It is, after all, an account of the way the giant slugs of the corporate boardroom have, in their ignorance and fear, wrought havoc on the only world I’ve ever cared about—the world created by those risk-taking European Jews who made the movies I’ve loved from childhood to this day.
And that, my friends, is the story of how “corporation” came to be the filthiest word in film.