x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Pressure of business: why Hollywood's Golden Age was bo

Corporate ownership has stifled creativity in Hollywood, but it does have some benefits, Tinseltown insiders say.

Irving Thalberg (dark jacket), the producer and
Irving Thalberg (dark jacket), the producer and "boy wonder" at MGM, and the director King Vidor watch a cameraman shoot Lilian Gish, probably for the 1926 movie version of La Bohème.

One person whom you will never hear describe the old days in Hollywood as the "good old days" is the producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr. And with good reason. "I don't believe that stuff about the old days being better than today because I grew up in them," he says. "It was always hard. Showbiz is hard because you are dealing with guesswork." Once upon a time, Goldwyn's father, Samuel Goldwyn, and his film-making contemporaries owned and ran the Hollywood studios with relative flair and freedom.

Now these filmmaking factories are small divisions of major corporations involved in everything from electronics to beverages. Think Viacom, which owns Paramount, or General Electric (Universal), or News Corp (Fox). "Hollywood has never been more corporate than today," says the Hollywood historian Cari Beauchamp, the author of Joseph P Kennedy Presents: His Hollywood Years. "In the old days, these companies were run by people who had built them brick for brick," she says. "Now they are just a smaller part of a larger corporation."

Until the 1940s and 1950s, the studios were relatively free, creatively speaking. Hollywood's "boy wonder" Irving Thalberg and his contemporaries churned out as many as 30 films a year (a huge number by today's standards). This allowed Thalberg and other Tinseltown titans to add into the mix the odd creative picture and to make rash decisions from time to time, unlike their counterparts today. "One major difference is that the head of the studio didn't have to ask permission," Goldwyn says.

Film-making was also easier. "They would make a film in 10 days, then remake it," he said. "You can't do that today with everyone being independent and without stars, writers and directors being under contract." When Thalberg ran MGM, he had about five supervisors overseeing all of production, Beauchamp recalls. Then things began to change. "By the early 1940s, there were 45 producers working there. That was when the bureaucracy began to mushroom," she says.

Fast-forward several decades to a situation where several of the studios are publicly listed companies and corporate culture is considered by some to be out of control. The results can be seen on screen in the boom in blockbusters, the relentless remakes of classics and serial sequels to top-performing films, all of which present less risk. "Frustrations are very high," Beauchamp says. "The less sure you are the bigger the bureaucracy. And today there is just bureaucracy."

Goldwyn says there have been any number of instances when a single film has either sunk a studio or saved it from extinction. "Look at the history of the studios that went under on one picture or kept going by one picture," he says. "Just think of the risk taken with a film like Avatar. It was very gutsy. Those risks are hard to take when there are jobs on the line." Sometimes these leaps of faith pay off and help propel film-making into the future. Avatar is a case in point. "When you are greenlighting one of these films, you are making a major business decision," Goldwyn says. "The studios do not make a film under $25 million [Dh9m]. Then on top of that, you have $40m in marketing."

Such figures can be worth it, considering the potential returns. With a reported budget of more than $300m, Avatar has so far sold $2.686 billion worth of tickets worldwide, beating the previous record of $1.843bn, which was racked up by Titanic in 1997-1998. According to the website Box Office Mojo, when adjusted for inflation, the biggest film yet in North America remains 1939's Gone with the Wind, with sales of almost $1.5bn.

The flip side of the studios' focus on major earners is that few people are willing to make lower-budgeted films in, say, the $10m range. "Everyone wants blockbusters and no one is willing to take a risk with the massive stakes involved," Beauchamp says. "It is far too scary for these people to say yes." One consequence is that more and more filmmakers today are self-distributing films, self-financing films and using new channels such as the internet or mobile phones to release their movies. To Goldwyn, this doesn't sound too different from the beginnings of independent filmmaking, which he witnessed as a child.

"Remember, my father was an independent producer," he says. "To make his next film he had to borrow the money from the bank and had to pay it back. When my father paid off a picture, it was a celebration in our house. It was like paying off a mortgage. It wasn't just about lovely people running around." He adds: "I think that it is freer than it ever was. Studios are corporate but it is just so different from before. When you go back in time, the studios were vast operations that were vertically integrated and owned the theatres and everything. Now they are run by companies that do other things."

And he remembers when things were stricter: "There used to be a saying that 'you will never work in this town again'. Today, no studio has the power to blacklist you."