If Hollywood made a movie about Hollywood, this year would be the crisis point when the bruised hero wonders if she can really save the day. Summer 2017’s box office was the worst in more than 10 years, and the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault accusations are just the latest embarrassment as the industry comes to terms with its treatment of women. But the reasons that Hollywood reached this nadir are shrouded in errors and myths.
Last year, a University of Southern California study of diversity in entertainment concluded that “the film industry still functions as a straight, White, boy’s club.” Women directed just four of last year’s top 100 hits — though the grim number hasn’t discouraged aspiring female filmmakers, who constitute half of the students at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.
A century ago, ambitious women had better reasons to be optimistic about a moviemaking career. In 1916, the highest-paid director in Hollywood was a woman: The passionately political Lois Weber shot 18 films that year, including the pro-birth-control tearjerker “Where Are My Children?” During the silent era, women wrote the majority of films. (Two-time Oscar winner Frances Marion penned a staggering 325.) Editing department jobs were “held almost entirely by women,” according to a 1926 article in the Los Angeles Times. And the first wave of female stars invested in their success by founding production companies, often helming their own films without credit. When Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin drew up the papers in 1919 to form United Artists, Chaplin was awed that the 26-year-old actress and mogul “understood all the articles of incorporation, the legal discrepancy on Page 7, Paragraph A, Article 27, and coolly referred to the overlap and contradiction in Paragraph D, Article 24.” As the agent and screenwriter Beatrice deMille, mother of Cecil B. deMille, put it in 1912, “This is the woman’s age.”
It didn’t last. As movies transitioned to sound, the major studios coalesced into a male-dominated structure that slashed female jobs in every branch. “Women entering the industry now find it practically closed,” Weber said in 1928 — words that have echoed for nine decades.
An actor’s first Hollywood goal used to be to score a studio contract — and their second was to get out of it. Ryan Murphy’s “Feud” rehashed the tension of Bette Davis battling Jack Warner, who never forgave her for condemning his “contract slave system.” Studio bosses were paternalistic and punitive. Louis B. Mayer propelled teenage Judy Garland toward an addiction to cigarettes and diet pills. Rita Hayworth called Columbia’s Harry Cohn “a monster.” Her ex-husband Orson Welles agreed, with the caveat that he liked Cohn anyway, “in spite of the fact that he bugged my office.” As Kim Novak told her biographer: “You are no longer a person. You are a property.”
Actors understandably railed against this system for controlling their lives, but when studio contracts became scarce in the early ’60s, many found that their careers suffered without shepherding. The alternatives, even today, could be worse. Without a steadying hand and a steady paycheck, Davis — in “Feud” and in reality — hustled for schlock parts and supporting theater gigs she once would have refused. Novak, too, realized that “the movies they were offering weren’t great,” and she moved to Big Sur, Calif., to paint. The generation behind them was on its own. As the studios’ personal investment and security evaporated, young actors took their talents to TV. Box office revenues plummeted. Hollywood spent the 1960s in financial free fall.
Eventually, Hollywood made itself over into corporate conglomerates that favor big opening weekends over lasting star power. Few actors have been able to build themselves into a brand. Even Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, the highest-paid actor in the world, has yet to prove he can anchor a successful movie that isn’t an established franchise. (See: “Baywatch ,” “Hercules .”)
The 10 biggest hits of 2017 sound wearily familiar. There are four sequels (“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” “Despicable Me 3,” “The Fate of the Furious,” “Logan”), three franchise spinoffs (“Wonder Woman,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” “The Lego Batman Movie”), one reboot of a TV miniseries of a best-selling novel (“It”) and one live-action remake of a cartoon (“Beauty and the Beast”). The war movie “Dunkirk” rounds out the list. “Hollywood is in a creative funk,” declared box office analyst Jeff Bock, echoing a very wide range of critics.
But Hollywood has always been obsessed with established properties. The technically innovative D.W. Griffith wasn’t even the first director to adapt “The Clansman,” the novel rejiggered into “The Birth of a Nation.” By 1915, “Alice in Wonderland” had been remade three times. L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” inspired seven films before the Judy Garland classic. Tarzan fans were fed 41 jungle flicks in 52 years, a pace bested by Rin Tin Tin, who shot 28 films in less than a decade. (After his death, his son Rin Tin Tin Jr. starred in 14 more.) Think seven superhero movies in 2017 is overkill? Imagine living in 1957, when studios released a staggering 61 westerns.
Someday, this seemingly ceaseless superhero wave will recede, as did sword-and-sandal epics, beach party trifles, disaster flicks and animal-attack thrillers before.
This year, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” made $333.1 million domestically on a $175 million budget. “It’s a big win for Sony in our second-highest opening of all time,” said the studio’s distribution chief. Variety hailed it as “a box office overachiever.”
But the truth is that a movie needs to make at least twice its production budget just to break even. Marketing added $140 million to the cost of “Homecoming,” thanks to TV ads. What’s more, domestic theaters siphon off about 40 percent of the take. “Homecoming” earned $546 million abroad, but American studios see an even smaller percentage of that money. China’s film industry, the supposed savior of our expensive blockbuster underperformers, keeps 75 cents of every dollar. These hurdles, plus creative accounting, are why “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” could sell close to $1 billion in tickets and yet claim to have lost $167 million.
This past week, Martin Scorsese declared the film critic aggregation site “hostile to serious filmmakers,” adding, “Even the actual name Rotten Tomatoes is insulting.” “Hercules” director Brett Ratner blamed it for “the destruction of our business.” When “Baywatch” drowned after being chained to a dismal 19 percent “fresh” score on the site, the Rock went on the attack, tweeting: “Critics had their venom & knives ready. Fans LOVE the movie.”
Rotten Tomatoes has been online since 1998, but it’s the villain du jour in part because the ticketing site Fandango bought it in 2016 and began to post its scores on the same page where people can buy their seats. Click online to nab a pair of tickets for the “Flatliners” remake, and behold its 4 percent “fresh” rating. Would potential audiences still spend money on tickets? (They didn’t.)
Still, Fandango is in the business of selling tickets. This year, high Rotten Tomatoes score helped turn $5 million darlings such as Jordan Peele’s daring, race-confronting horror flick “Get Out” (99 percent ) and Kumail Nanjiani’s interracial, hospital-set romantic comedy “The Big Sick” (98 percent ) into wildly profitable hits. In fact, every film in 2017’s top 10 has a thumbs-up score on Rotten Tomatoes. Forget critic-proof hits — these are critic-protected. Instead of destroying Hollywood, Rotten Tomatoes could prod it to make better blockbusters and take risks on more low-budget, original films from newcomers such as Peele and Nanjiani.
What objections to Rotten Tomatoes actually mean, New York Times critic A.O. Scott told the Ringer, is: “We’re startled to see that people aren’t as stupid as we thought they were.”