In Hollywood, there has been much talk of high concepts, little talk of storytelling. Yet what 1985 taught, if nothing else, is that high concept doesn't necessarily mean high grosses, and that people are hungry for good oldfashioned storytelling, for scripts that are really written.
The most heartwarming event of the year was the success of "Back to the Future," 1985's biggest hit (with more than $186 million in grosses), for it meant, at long last, vindication for "the two Bobs," the screen-writing team of Bob Gale and director Bob Zemeckis. Zemeckis and Gale had long been two of the best screen writers around, but movies like "Used Cars" and "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" failed to catch on. When the two Bobs finally clicked, though, it wasn't because of the special effects (though they used them), nor the performances (though Christopher Lloyd was uproarious), but because they had written a script that meticulously prepared its gags, that built its laughs and that always put story at the service of character.
And it stood out, and people appreciated it for standing out. This wasn't exactly a year for strong narratives, the worst being "Rocky IV," a movie that didn't just have a bad script but, apparently, didn't have a script at all. Once you get through with the clip-out rock videos, the training montages and the fight itself, "Rocky IV," only 85 minutes to begin with, is roughly a 15-minute movie. The continuing popular success of Sylvester Stallone remains the most puzzling development of this, and seemingly every, year.
It's possible that Hollywood undervalues strong screen writing, but it's also possible that the dearth of well-written scripts reflects a larger, more ominous trend in the culture.
The great screen writers of the '30s -- men like Ben Hecht, Robert Riskin and Herman Mankiewicz -- grew up worshiping the written word. Newspapers, magazines and, most centrally, the short story, composed their training ground. But the young writers going to Hollywood today could give a fried fig about the written word -- their heroes are film directors or, worse, rock stars.
More lamentably, they don't even seem to care very much about film. As Stanley Kaufmann wrote a month ago in The New Republic, he recently polled a class of his film students, asking how many had ever seen a film by Godard; a half dozen raised their hands, and they had each seen one. In the '60s, Kaufmann remarked, the students would have thrown their chairs at him.
By all accounts, 1985 was a disaster for the movies. According to the estimates of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), theatrical admissions (the number of tickets sold) dropped for the first time since 1976 -- 10 percent from 1984. At the same time, the cost of producing the average studio film rose roughly 10 percent, from $14.41 million to $15.8 million.
The stock villain for the drop in ticket sales, inevitably, is home video -- cassettes and cable. And it's probably true that videocassettes and cable have made the audience more selective -- a movie has to be special for them to go out and see it. But they have also generated greater interest in the movies than ever before.
The total number of moviegoers actually rose 3.6 percent this year, from 115 million to 119.2 million -- in other words, more people bought fewer tickets, a development that might plausibly be credited to home video. The best evidence of this kind of impact is the reversal of the old sequel rule, which dictated that a sequel would be lucky to do two-thirds as well as its predecessor. In 1985, though, "Rambo" did almost twice as much at the box office as the original, "First Blood," probably because people had seen "First Blood" on videocassette and cable in the intervening years.
The better explanation for a bad box office year is that the movies released by Hollywood this year just weren't much good. As Jack Valenti, president of the MPAA, told a convention of exhibitors earlier this year, "The box office is down in 1985 for one simple reason: We didn't have enough attractive films in the marketplace."
And the movies weren't very good because the response of a studio executive -- faced with the possible loss of great sums of money -- is to hedge his bets. Instead of taking risks, he takes insurance. The form of the insurance is the "presold movie."
The essence of the presold movie is that someone could look at a newspaper ad and know exactly what he's getting. It's a strategy of caution that allows the studio to predict a minimum of box office (a Chevy Chase movie, say, will do at least $20 million in grosses). Perhaps more importantly, it's a way for the cautious studio executive to fob off some of the risk on the equally cautious exhibitor, who's more likely to cough up a fat guarantee in advance if he thinks he knows what he's getting, or on cable or independent videocassette companies, who will "prebuy" a familiar product.
Out of roughly 100 studio films released in Washington this year, at least 40 were presold, either because they were sequels (there were 10 this year), star vehicles (for example, Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Commando"), products of the Spielberg factory (four), based on popular Broadway plays (four) or bestselling books (nine), or drew their characters from a board game ("Clue") or a set of dolls ("The Care Bears Movie").
Another species of presale is the movie targeted primarily at teen-agers, of which there were roughly 30. The logic behind this presale is that this audience will go to see anything, as long as it jiggles or whizzes enough.
Certainly, you can identify with the studios -- no one wants to lose $15.8 million dollars, or more. But the strategy of the presale just doesn't make much sense. For starters, the very elements that presell a movie tend to drive up its budget. A new Universal project called "Legal Eagles," for example, will star Debra Winger, Daryl Hannah and Robert Redford, and be directed by Ivan ("Ghostbusters") Reitman, all of which guarantees it a certain amount of box office. But the movie's budgeted at $35 million, which means it'll have to be one of next year's biggest hits just to break even.
And the formulas that worked before pale quickly -- that was the experience with the teen movies this year, most of which were box office failures, with the notable exception of "The Breakfast Club," which, for all its conspicuous failures, at least tried to be different. Similarly, Spielberg's assembly-line "The Goonies" performed disappointingly; by the time "Young Sherlock Holmes" came out six months later, with its "Indiana Jones"-style Egyptian death cult and "E.T."-style flying bicycle, audiences appeared to have caught on, and the movie flopped altogether. (Unfortunately, a formula that ought to be revived -- the Western -- failed too, as "Silverado" and "Pale Rider" performed indifferently at the box office.)
A classic example of the deal determining the movie, instead of the other way around, is one of this year's biggest clunkers, "A Chorus Line." The makers of the original musical struck such an advantageous deal with the studio that, in order to make its money back, Embassy had to turn what should have been an intimate, low-budget movie into a splashy, overproduced disaster.
Music has become another way for the studios to glean extra income, as well as to presell their movies, and again, the sound-track album determines the movie, rather than vice versa. Apparently, Jim Bridges became so preoccupied with building rock videos into "Perfect" that he didn't realize that he was squashing his own movie's pace. Similarly, when Taylor Hackford built an album full of Top 10 hits into "White Nights," it never occurred to him that the music was wholly inappropriate to a film about a ballet artist and a tap dancer.
In this way, big budgets almost guarantee bad movies. Good movies are risky, and, given the high cost of production, it's a risk that no one can fairly be asked to take. The result is that a number of good movies never get made. Luckily, "Prizzi's Honor," one of the best films of 1985, became feasible when Jack Nicholson (a box office draw) came aboard. The biggest disappointment of the year came with the cancellation of another Nicholson project, a sequel to "Chinatown" called "The Two Jakes," due to personality conflicts on the set; Dino De Laurentiis offered to revive the movie, but understandably balked at the $25 million price tag.
The answer isn't the Jacob's Ladder of bigger budgets, but smaller budgets.
The cost of the talent, the director, the writer and stars (known as the "above-the-line" costs) remains the largest element of a production budget. Costs could be cut easily if the people making the movie took smaller fees in return for a larger piece of the profits. The most inspirational event of the year was Martin Scorsese's "After Hours," which, whatever its shortcomings, was a polished piece of work by a major director and cost only $4 million. It can be done.
The best way to cut the cost of talent, of course, is to take a flyer on unknowns. Roger Corman flew high for years by raiding the film schools and hiring people like Scorsese, Francis Coppola, Jonathan Kaplan and Ron Howard, giving them their first big break and little else (he paid Howard $5,000 to direct "Grand Theft Auto"). In 1982 and 1983, angry with the extortion of the powerful agencies and their star clients, Paramount went out and made seven movies for under $7 million and came up with hits like "Flashdance."
The cost of labor has to come down, too. Unions, with all their double time and triple time and "golden time," can drive a budget through the roof -- that's what happened in 1984 on "The Cotton Club." The unions, on the other hand, would argue that, as Hollywood has made fewer movies, a union member has to make more money on each one. But if Hollywood made cheaper movies, they could make more of them, which in turn would make it possible to make cheaper movies, since the cost of labor would drop.
Other savings can be had: Phasers and phantasms cost a lot of money, sometimes half of the total production budget, yet the lesson of flops like "Explorers" and "Lifeforce" is that nobody's really interested in them anymore. And overhead must come down. There's something amiss when the head of 20th Century-Fox, Barry Diller, is paid $3 million in salary, not including bonuses, interest-free loans, stock options and assorted perks. There's also something wrong, in a smaller way, when first-class air fare is de rigueur and every star or director on a publicity tour is lodged in New York's Parker Meridien or the Carlisle.
But people in Hollywood aren't interested in stretching the medium, they're only interested in stretching the limos.
Some argue that the survival of Hollywood is irrelevant; that it's a wounded elephant beyond saving, and that the real hope for the movies lies with the independents.
Across the country, independent production companies are cropping up or expanding, as close as Circle Productions here in Washington and as far away as Island Alive in Los Angeles. De Laurentiis bought Embassy this year and announced plans to release 10 pictures in 1986, and a full slate of 14-15 by 1987; Cannon already has 20 films in the can for release next year. What they lack in money and muscle, they make up for with promises of creative control and a real piece of the profits. Working without studio-size overhead, often shooting their films in right-to-work states, they can make films on the cheap in a way the studios, it seems, cannot.
Two of 1985's best films were the product of small, independent producers and distributors. Joel and Ethan Coen raised the $1.4 million they needed for "Blood Simple" by badgering small businessmen in their home town of Minneapolis, invading their homes and offices with a 16mm projector and a trailer of images from the movie they planned to make; they then released it through Circle Releasing. Jim Jarmusch got the $100,000 for "Stranger Than Paradise" from a West German producer named Otto Grokenberger and West German television.
Undeniably, there is a growing appetite for American independent films, created in part by the partial collapse of quality foreign film production. In Washington, foreign films were largely a disappointment in 1985, with prominent foreign directors like Andrzej Wajda, Eric Rohmer and Wim Wenders delivering inferior work, and such messes as "Camila," "Goodbye, New York," "L'Addition," "Peril" and "Dance With a Stranger" marring the screens. In one of the year's scandals, Jean-Luc Godard's "First Name: Carmen," one of 1985's 10 best films, could only squeeze out a three-day booking at the Biograph.
But a number of the best films of the year came from abroad: Maurice Pialat's "A Nos Amours" (France), Shohei Imamura's "Ballad of Narayama" (Japan), Emir Kusturica's "When Father Was Away on Business" (Yugoslavia) and Percy Adlon's "Sugarbaby" (West Germany) all enjoyed good runs here.
It was an even more barren year for documentaries, with the exception of George Stevens Jr.'s lovely homage to his father, "George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey," and Claude Lanzmann's 561-minute remembrance of the Holocaust, "Shoah," the film event of the year.
Most of the appetite for independent (as well as foreign) product stems from the continuing expansion in the number of screens, a phenomenon that can be observed, in microcosm, here in Washington. In the past two years, the K-B theaters chain has doubled the number of its screens to 45, including the K-B Foundry and K-B Paris, which opened this year. Circle, similarly, has gone from 28 to 70 screens in the past five years, including this year's new Circle 5-6-7, and plans to add another 22 by the end of 1986; the Key Theatre in Georgetown expanded from one to four screens.
This development is, at best, ambiguous. While the new screens at the Key have brought Washington the kind of movies that might not have gotten here in years past (such as "Shoah"), the Foundry and Paris are hardly movie palaces; the Paris, in particular, has one house that, if you should happen to sit toward the back, can make you feel that you're at your local tavern watching a 13-inch TV from the wrong end of the bar. And the Circle 5-6-7 has obstructed views that would do Fenway Park proud. Circle, on the other hand, should be applauded for this year's renovation of the Ontario and particularly the Avalon, which with its new big screen and state-of-the-art sound may now be the District's prime venue.
More importantly, the small independent films that these new screens might cater to (they sometimes do and sometimes don't), however desirous, will inevitably be on the fringes of the movie business. The studios remain the best way to promote and distribute feature films. Even a specialty film like "Blood Simple" probably would have done better at the box office if it had been given a major release; in fact, the Coens' next film, "Raising Arizona," while it will be produced by Circle, will be distributed by 20th Century-Fox. And once independent producers rely on the studios for distribution, it's questionable how significant the move to independent production can be, more questionable still whether it is on balance a good thing.
Roughly half of the studios' output comes from what are technically independent producers, with the studios acting only as distributors. And while many of the best films of 1985, like "Prizzi's Honor," "Plenty" and "Lost in America," were independent productions picked up by the studios, so were many of the worst. When "Heavenly Bodies" is developed by Producer's Sales Organization and then picked up for distribution by MGM, it's hard to contend that independent production is, ipso facto, a good thing. When Peter Guber and Jon Peters can usher in, in the same year, "Vision Quest," "The Legend of Billie Jean," "Clue" and "The Color Purple," it's hard to see independent production as the vehicle for a unique sensibility, or, for that matter, any sensibility at all.
The problem with independent production, in short, is that it can't really flourish completely outside the studio system; while, in the current context, it's become a way for the studios to subcontract their entrepreneurial spirit to others, where what's needed is a more entrepreneurial spirit in the studios themselves. Part of the problem is that the head of the studio isn't really the head of the studio anymore, but a middle-level bureaucrat in a larger conglomerate. Paramount's Frank Mancuso, for example, is essentially a division vice president of Gulf & Western, just as Guy McElwaine, the head of Columbia, takes his orders from the parent company, Coca-Cola.
This year, a host of gunslinging entrepreneurs came to Hollywood in force. Ted Turner put in his bid to buy MGM, a deal that should finally be consummated next year; Rupert Murdoch bought 20th Century-Fox lock, stock and barrel from Marvin Davis. Throughout the year, there were rumors that Steven Spielberg and Sid Sheinberg, his longtime studio mentor, would buy Universal away from its parent company, MCA, a deal that may go through in the coming year.
And the Bass Brothers, late in 1984, bought Disney and installed half of the old Paramount team, Michael Eisner and Jeff Katzenberg, atop the moribund studio. In the year's most promising development, the Basses showed themselves willing to spend money, and Eisner and Katzenberg began re-creating a facsimile of the studio system, not with stars, but with screen writers, hiring a number of them to long-term contracts.
As 1986 begins, the hottest question in Hollywood is whether the Disney strategy will work (although Disney executives plead that they'll need till 1987). Unquestionably, though, they have the right idea. For screen writing is at the core of the movie-making process, and more than anything, the death of the screen writer is responsible for what happened to movies in 1985.