While the faces of those in power are more or less the same, the face of Hollywood itself changed quite a bit during 1990. Here are a few ways in which the past 12 months revised the way the game is played in this town:
For starters, the game itself is now owned by newcomers and former outsiders. The purchase of the giant MCA Inc. by the Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. was clearly the big-money story of the year in Hollywood. It put one of the giants of the movie industry in foreign hands and, almost as crucially, paved the way for the eventual exit of MCA chief Lew Wasserman, who for decades has wielded power and earned respect like no one else in the movie business. Combine this with Italian financier Giancarlo Parretti's purchase of MGM/UA earlier in the year, plus Sony's previous acquisition of Columbia Pictures, and the big question in many boardrooms around town has become: Will the new foreign owners want creative control, or will they entrust the creative decisions to the Hollywood executives who've spent years figuring out what makes a movie work?
Of course, 1990 also showed that despite their years of experience, many of those executives really don't have a clue as to what makes a movie work. At the box office, it was the most confounding year in memory: In January, nobody would have predicted that virtually every big-money sequel, action film and "sure-fire" blockbuster would do disappointing business, while the big winners would be a pair of romantic comedies and two kids' movies. And yet while "Dick Tracy" and "Days of Thunder" and "Back to the Future 3" floundered, the off-the-wall hits just kept on coming. First there was "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." Then "Pretty Woman." Then "Ghost." Then "Home Alone." At the end of the year, the Hollywood Reporter figured out that 1990's biggest movie star was Julia Roberts (who'd never been the star of a movie before this year), the biggest male star was Richard Gere (a has-been, thought many), the next-biggest males were "four guys in turtle suits," and onetime heavyweights like Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, Eddie Murphy and Warren Beatty were out of the top 10 entirely.
It was also a year in which furor over indecent art and obscene music had repercussions in the film community, but in a strange way: Where other fields were criticized for not policing themselves, the movie business took flack for policing itself too aggressively by stamping X ratings on movies that didn't deserve the stigma. The Motion Picture Association then found a novel way to deal with the problem, changing the rating from X to NC-17 and acting as if that removed the stigma and made everything okay. But no sooner were adult-themed movies suddenly "respectable" because they'd been rated NC-17 instead of X than the crusaders who spoke out against morally suspect art and music began lambasting Hollywood for removing the stigma from works they thought ought to be stigmatized. Meanwhile, porn producers made matters worse by doing what the academy said they wouldn't do, lining up to get the new rating and make their products "respectable."
And finally, at the end of the year a Los Angeles Superior Court judge handed down a ruling that may eventually transform the way Hollywood does business. In the second stage of the Art Buchwald v. Paramount Pictures trial over the authorship of and profits from the movie "Coming to America," Judge Harvey Schneider last week ruled that Paramount's contract with Buchwald and producer Alain Bernheim was an unlawful "contract of adhesion" that was "unconscionable" in several areas. At issue is the way Paramount added up its overhead and other expenses before dispersing any money to parties who've been promised a share of the net profits. Using Paramount's figures, the movie, which has grossed about $360 million worldwide, has yet to turn a profit. Paramount, which says the ruling itself is "unconscionable" and plans to appeal, uses the same type of contract as virtually every other major studio. If the ruling is upheld and Hollywood's way of counting its money has to be altered significantly, it could be one of the most profound changes to happen not just in 1990, but in many years.