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On the Arts: Hollywood may be on verge of another renaissance

Sunday, April 16, 2000

By Ron Weiskind

Is Hollywood about to enter another golden age?


Ron Weiskind is the Post-Gazette movie editor.


Tinseltown appears to be experiencing one of its cyclical periods of chaos, a process that often results in a burst of cinematic innovation and an epoch of memorable movies.

The most recent such flowering bloomed in the 1970s, spurred by a countercultural phenomenon called "Easy Rider" that routed the hidebound remnants of the studio system. The rest of the country was starting to change, and now Hollywood was forced to follow suit as it puzzled over the stunning success of a film about two dope-smoking bikers.

"Easy Rider" attracted the young audience that Hollywood had largely ignored, having no idea how to court them. That opened the doors to young filmmakers who had been running in place or just getting started.

Francis Ford Coppola made the "Godfather" films and "The Conversation." Martin Scorsese made "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver." George Lucas made "American Graffiti" and "Star Wars." Michael Cimino made "The Deer Hunter." Steven Spielberg made "Jaws" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Peter Bogdanovich made "The Last Picture Show." All of these directors were 35 or younger.

A few old hands made the most of the new freedom as well. Robert Altman made "M*A*S*H" and "Nashville." Milos Forman made "Taking Off" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Sidney Lumet made "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Network." Hal Ashby, who was the most in tune with the Zeitgeist, made "Harold and Maude," "The Last Detail," "Shampoo," "Bound for Glory," "Coming Home" and "Being There."

This was not your movie mogul's Hollywood. Eventually, the studios adapted, the young turks either self-destructed or were absorbed into the system, and the suits took over in time for the Reagan era and a string of soulless big-budget blockbusters, turning art into commerce. "Greed is good," proclaimed Michael Douglas in "Wall Street."

But now the studios are scratching their heads again. Two kids spend $25,000 on "The Blair Witch Project," which builds a mystique over the Internet to a point where big-ticket films changed their opening dates so they wouldn't compete with it, and the movie grossed $140 million. Internet ventures are becoming as important to some filmmakers as producing celluloid. Digital cameras and the Web herald the democratization of filmmaking on an unprecedented scale.

The industry is dealing with other changes as well. Megaplex movie theaters, showing the same movie on several screens at once, allow audiences to see hot titles sooner -- but also burn the movie's earning potential more quickly.

Film itself, the essence of the medium since it first flickered more than 100 years ago, may be supplanted by digital production and distribution of movies. It would enable studios to save a fortune on manufacturing and delivering prints to theaters, which would have to adapt to the new technology.

Meanwhile, studios have become loath to spend the kind of money necessary to produce the special effects-driven franchise pictures that they considered their bread and butter as little as four years ago.

What changed their minds? To a degree, ironically, it was the success of the most expensive movie ever made. "Titanic" cost more than $200 million and grossed more than a billion worldwide. But no one wants to remember how it was considered a likely flop before it opened. That would have been disastrous for the studios that financed it.

So, when the movie triumphed, the studios sighed in relief and began cutting costs. The big-budget "Superman" film that was to be shot in Pittsburgh was among the casualties. Warner Bros. demanded a better script that could be shot more economically. Studios were drawing the line at around $100 million.

Their strategy seemed sound when the so-called sure-thing budget-busting movies "Godzilla" and "The Wild, Wild West" collapsed from their own excess. Audiences felt they had seen the same movie once too often. ("Star Wars: Episode I" cost a mint, too, but was a sure thing.)

And what has Hollywood come to when the studios fall all over themselves to acquire successful purveyors of independent fare such as Miramax, only to have the tail wag the dog when the upstart uses sugar daddy's money to promote "Shakespeare in Love" to an Oscar upset over DreamWorks' "Saving Private Ryan"?

To a degree, the independent ethos has infected the mainstream host. Warner Bros. put out the unconventional war movie "Three Kings." Its director, David O. Russell, was best known for two independent comedies, one of which was about masturbation and incest. Paramount released "Election," a high school comedy for adults that was nominated for a screenplay Oscar. Director Alexander Payne's only previous film was the low-budget abortion satire "Citizen Ruth."

New Line produced "Magnolia," a foul-mouthed film symphony that played the interlocking stories of 11 people in perfect counterpoint. Director Paul Thomas Anderson, 30, previously made "Boogie Nights," a drama about pornographers. USA Films distributed "Being John Malkovich," a brilliant, surreal comedy that cannot be compared to anything else. It was the first feature for director Spike Jonze, 30, who got an Oscar nomination. His previous stock-in-trade: directing rap videos.

And DreamWorks' "American Beauty," a comedy as dark and ominous as a thundercloud, won the Academy Award for Best Picture. So did director Sam Mendes, another first-timer and a Brit with a stage background.

So the window of opportunity is open. The question is, for how long? Disney will produce a movie about Pearl Harbor to be directed by Michael Bay ("Armageddon") with a budget rumored to be in the $150 million range. But it plans to finance it in part by asking crew members to defer salaries, much as a low-budget independent might. And studios have been co-financing risky films for a number of years now --Fox and Paramount took the plunge together on "Titanic."

In a way, though, the new Hollywood renaissance depends on us. Audiences made "Easy Rider" a hit against all Hollywood logic. If we make it worthwhile for studios to keep making films like "American Beauty" and "Being John Malkovich," we're likely to see more such projects. If, on the other hand, we make it profitable for them to keep remaking big, dumb, loud movies like "Armageddon," they will be more than happy to oblige. It's easier to clone junk than to nurture originality.

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