Almost 30 years ago, the film historian Thomas Schatz wrote his influential book, “The Genius of the System,” in which he argued that Hollywood’s Golden Age-era studios weren’t the impersonal, creativity-killing dream factories of legend and lore. Instead, Schatz posited that each studio’s stable of stars, directors and technicians — guided by shrewd moguls — helped create films with distinct visual styles and storytelling motifs.
Schatz’s hypothesis didn’t supplant the auteur theory — which holds that the director is the sole creative author of a film — as much as take a place alongside it, as a nuanced way to understand cinema both as an artistic enterprise and an industrial practice. Just as we can admire a film with the obvious artistic signature of an Orson Welles or an Alfred Hitchcock, we can recognize and appreciate the gritty, torn-from-the-headlines aura of an early Warner Bros. film, or the cosmopolitan sophistication of a Paramount picture.
The genius of the system has hovered like a baleful ghost over the past few months, which by most lights has been a bummer of a summer in Hollywood. The studios are sweating over some expensive, high-profile flops, wondering what went wrong with such “sure things” as “Alice Through the Looking Glass” and the “Ben-Hur” remake nobody asked for. Even nominal successes have come with an asterisk: “Batman v Superman” and “Suicide Squad,” both produced by the DC Comics shop at Warner Bros., might have earned more than a billion dollars combined, accounting for the increasingly lucrative foreign box offices, but with astronomical production and marketing budgets and scathing reviews from critics and viewers alike, they’re winners only in the most marginal, face-saving sense of the word.
Even with those foreign audiences shoring up movies such as “X-Men: Apocalypse” and “The Legend of Tarzan,” it feels like Hollywood is in a slump, which has been attributed to any number of factors, including a fatal case of sequel-itis and an absence of bankable stars. Both those diagnoses point to a larger philosophical problem at the studios, where executives continue to labor under the misapprehension that they’re “business guys,” not filmmakers.
In fact, they need to be both, perhaps now more than ever. In recent years, the studios have decided the best way to minimize financial risk and maximize profits by looking to their own libraries to reboot, remake and spin off — the cinematic equivalent of poking around the attic to see if there’s anything worth spit-polishing and painting to make new(ish) again. Intellectual property, whether in the form of past movies or the rights to novels, comic books, TV shows, video games and — heaven help us — iPhone apps, has become the dominant purview of studios, which have depended on adaptations for their material since their inception.
Where the fatal misunderstanding occurs is when the studio executives believe that simply repurposing preexisting material with a built-in fan base is enough. If this summer proves anything, it’s that aesthetic values such as meaningful stories, psychologically complex characters, risky casting and directorial vision are no longer properly consigned solely to idiosyncratic “art” films. They count just as much when it comes to the mission of the most bottom-line-oriented studios. And as they develop their own thematic approaches and signatures — depending on whether they see their mission as exploitation or stewardship — the studios’ IP management has become its own form of auteurism.
This year has been a case study in that hypothesis, for good and for ill — the latter at the hands of Warner Bros., which by most lights has botched its stewardship of the DC Comics realm, delivering the dreary, ham-handedly depressing “Batman v Superman” and an incoherent, obnoxiously derivative “Suicide Squad.” Both suffered enormous drops in audience their second weeks in theaters, suggesting that the studio is pushing even DC’s most loyal fans to the breaking point.
To diagnose Warner’s problem, one need look no further than chief executive Kevin Tsujihara, who at a 2014 stockholders meeting announced at least 10 movies based on Superman, Batman, DC’s Justice League, Harry Potter and the Lego toy line that would be rolled out through the year 2020. Although most of the titles Tsujihara mentioned came with directors attached and a few with stars, it was clear that none of them had a finished script. It should surprise no one that the movies themselves have reflected the studio head’s own cart-before-the-horse thinking: Story? Character? Vision? Details, details. If we build it — even as an afterthought — they will come.
Tsujihara has come in for blistering criticism of his lack of attention to the creative execution of Warner’s slate, but he’s by no means the only studio executive struggling to manage the properties under his care. After countless lackluster attempts to reboot their “Spider-Man” franchise, Sony still can’t seem to capture the verve and genuine emotion of Sam Raimi’s 2002 original. Universal trotted out a “pre-visualized” trailer for the video-game adaptation “Warcraft” at Comic-Con before production even began on the film, which was near-unanimously loathed when it came out this summer.
So far, the studio that seems to be taking its auteurist potential most sincerely to heart is Disney, which has scored home runs with its most lucrative IP cash cows: “Star Wars” and the Marvel Avengers universe. (Three of the top five movies this summer are Disney’s — “Finding Dory,” “Captain America: Civil War” and “The Jungle Book.”)
Working with such insightful filmmakers as J.J. Abrams, Joss Whedon, and Anthony and Joe Russo — as well as its reliably excellent subsidiary, Pixar — the studio seems to comprehend more often than not the importance of solid scripts, adroit, humanistic direction and perhaps most important of all, bold, perceptive casting. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Mark Ruffalo and Chris Evans prove that these movies didn’t need stars as much as they needed fine actors who were ready to be stars. That calculation isn’t a matter of financial projections or four-quadrant focus groups, but gut instinct and artistic taste (both of which, it bears noting, Abrams also brought to his Paramount reboot of “Star Trek”).
There’s no doubt that luck has played a part in Disney’s success; the company stumbled badly, after all, when it made “Alice Through the Looking Glass” a Tim Burton sequel that forgot to include Tim Burton. And even the smartest filmmakers may not be able to overcome a comic-book genre that seems to be on the verge of exhaustion.
Still, Disney’s history of caretaking for its collection of beloved stories and characters, and as an atelier for some of the industry’s most gifted artists, suggests that its leadership innately understands how intangibles such as voice, vision and point of view go into movies of lasting value. Rather than assign the cinematic equivalent of widget-makers to write and direct their flagship projects, they’ve hired filmmakers culled from the world of indies and film festivals: Ava DuVernay for “A Wrinkle in Time,” Ryan Coogler for “Black Panther,” Alex Ross Perry for “Winnie-the-Pooh” and David Lowery for “Pete’s Dragon.”
These moves bode well for the studio, which in return will get movies it can be proud of, and for audiences who deserve more than a generic fight scene from Column A and a chase scene from Column B when they go to summer movies. As studios morph into IP managers rather than incubators for genuinely original ideas, they’ll either embrace their auteurist potential or they’ll become the equivalent of hacks; in that case, the system won’t be to blame, just a failure to recognize that genius still counts for something.