FRONTLINEthe monster that ate hollywood
homewhat's wrongindiesbroadbandthe monsterdiscussion
michael douglas

photo of michael douglas

One of Hollywood's most bankable stars, Michael Douglas is also a film producer. (His newest production company, Furthur Films, produced "One Night at McCool's" this year.) In 1976, he won his first Oscar for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," which he produced. He then won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in 1987's "Wall Street." In this interview, he talks about the dearth of stars with staying power, the growth in the numbers of independent production companies, and why movies can't find their "legs" today. "There's no time now for a movie to breathe," says Douglas. "Because by the next weekend, there are three, four, five other pictures coming in, each, maybe, who spent an average of $25 million for their marketing alone."

This interview was conducted in June 2001.

You kind of grew up in the movie business. Talk a little about the atmosphere. Did it seem like a small town, like a club?

Yes. It was much more in the old days, although I grew up in New York with my mother. My parents got divorced when I was five. I'd come out all the summers and holidays to visit my dad. And it was much more of a tight-knit community. Probably a lot of it has to do with transportation and communication systems, the fact that movies were made much more on the back lots or down in Palm Springs. So you had much more of a community feeling. I remember going for dinner at my dad's house with Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, or Frank Sinatra, Greg Peck. Everybody was close, a very close-knit community.

One of the things we keep hearing from people is that the studio heads in those days seemed to have a passion for what they did. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Well, as huge as we thought, or even my father thought, the studios were back in the 1940s and 1950s and how powerful they were, it's taken us this amount of time to realize that they were just a little tiny cottage industry. It was filled with predominantly Jews, who'd come from back East, moved out, who had a tremendous passion about making movies, [and] were very, very much involved with the script process.

You also had the complaints about contracting, a contract player being signed to a studio where you didn't have as much control over your career. But you were making three, four, five movies a year. My father has done 85 pictures, I think, to date. I think I've done 28 or 29. So the downside was, yes, there was a lack of control, that the head of the studio would decide and assign people in their stable as to which pictures that you would do. And there was sometimes resistance and competition between them. But you were working all the time.

And, mind you, people kind of forget, because this is almost pre-television -- I was, what, six, seven years old, in New York City -- and I remember it was only CBS and NBC. ABC was just beginning to come on. Forget cable. Forget satellite. So people were going to the movies. They all went to the movies. And that's one of the other dramatic changes that has happened.

You were part of what a lot of people we talk to portray as the last golden age of the studios, that explosion of films in the 1970s. How hard was it, back then, to get a film like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" made?

Well, the so-called "last golden age," in the 1970s, most of those movies were independent films. It's sort of like a precursor to what I think is just about happening now. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," which my father had tried to get made for six, seven years, and I for four, was turned down by every studio. Every studio in the world had passed on it. And it was only after my partner, Saul Zaentz, financed the picture out of his record company, Fantasy Records, [that we] made that picture. Originally, I think our budget was $1.9 million, and it escalated dramatically to $4 million, after all the elements came together. But nobody wanted to make that. ...

You know, "Five Easy Pieces," "Easy Rider" -- those are indie pictures; those were not studio pictures. They had relationships with studio distribution, but they were indies.

What kind of changes have you noticed over the last 20 years or so?

Well, it's hard to remember, to think back. But when I was finishing "China Syndrome" in 1978, I remember me and this lawyer coming out, because there was this thing called video. And I know its hard to realize that video is only 20, 21, 22 years old. So the ancillary markets dramatically increases with the video. And then you had your television sales, your satellite, your pay-per-view, your airplanes. And then your foreign market dramatically has increased in the number of theaters. The world's opened up for films.

It was a very profitable business 20 years ago, and everybody loved it. Since that time, the escalations of the budgets of movies, the escalation of marketing costs, I think has been the most dramatic change, and the lack of any esprit de corps of an industry. There used to be, and still is, the Motion Picture Association of America, which is sort of like the studios' lobbyist group, which was all pretty tight.

Now you've got a bunch of huge multinational corporations trying to cannibalize each other to a fair degree in the movie business. You know, you have to have your movie open on the opening weekend. A picture like "Cuckoo's Nest," could play for week after week with only maybe a 7 percent drop, as opposed to some of the dramatic drops that are now. So it's much more a business.

It was always a struggle between art and commerce. And now, I think, commerce is winning out, big time. We're seeing a dramatic reduction in producers associated with studios. Just today there was in the papers a list, my company included, of the huge number of very prestigious production companies that are not associated with studios directly now. So you're seeing a quarterly profits mentality creeping in, more and more. There's talk of this vertical integration -- acquisitions of all different types of companies under one umbrella. It's a much riskier business now, and so big business is trying to make it much more cost-efficient. We'll see.

So it's riskier because of how expensive films have gotten?

It's riskier in how expensive films have gotten. Television is not an automatic buy. ... The number of films has increased to a fair degree. ... Marketing costs are staggering in terms of what you try for that opening weekend. And that sort of was initiated by, I think, Disney Studios maybe, maybe about ten years ago. ... They basically, almost overnight, tripled the size of their marketing budgets and had some success, and the other studios followed. ...

The so-called 'last golden age,' in the 1970s, most of those movies were independent films. It's sort of like a precursor to what I think is just about happening now. 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,' which my father had tried to get made for six, seven years, and I for four, was turned down by every studio.

As a result, you're seeing many, many of the studios that are laying off their costs. The studios basically, besides developing some material, their strength is distribution. Distribution in any other business is a cost that you incur. You know, in a trucking business, you eat it. In a film business, distribution is a profit center. And so that's what they can control, so now the studios are laying more and more of their budgetary, the risky financial costs of making the movies, on outside sources. ...

Why do you think there's this big focus on the opening weekend?


Because there's no time now for a movie to breathe. Because by the next weekend, there are three, four, five other pictures coming in, each, maybe, who spent an average of maybe $25 million for their marketing alone. So you don't have a chance to find your legs. There used to be something called word of mouth, which would allow a picture to be discovered. And you'd go, "Wow, I'm going to see that." There's so much now. And then you combine that with the incredible number of magazines that are out there. There's a large, large amount of media, all the way across the board, to divert our attentions from movies, whether it's cable, Internet, video games. So our attention span isn't that large anymore.

My mother knows when a film opens in the top five. Did being crazy about the numbers spread to the audience, too?

Well, that's another phenomenon. I mean, I find it very bizarre. You look at most of these companies now, these multinational companies, be they Japanese, or French, Canadian, Australian, English, whatever they might be, some American. The motion picture business, in most cases, represents maybe 3 percent to 5 percent of the gross earnings of these companies. It's nothing. Nothing. Yet it's the locomotive for this whole company.

And they take pride [in] these statistics that have come out, which is all part of the Top 50 lists. You know, every magazine's got the 10 most beautiful, the 10 richest -- it's become a popular device. And the top performing pictures has become an instrumental part and is crucial. They build their marketing campaigns off of it, and they build a lot of their financing for their future projects off their performance, that first week performance.

In your career, you've done a pretty good job of blending big splashy pictures with small and interesting pictures. How do you approach getting something special made?

Well, I try to mix it up. I care about all the pictures I do. But I try to be aware when I think I'm getting a little too esoteric. After a while, I think maybe it might be time to find something a little more commercial. I'm aware of it. I am aware of my résumé. I'm aware of what I've done lately or what I want to mix up. And I take that into the equation with what really means a lot and is more difficult to be made.

But mind you, most of the movies that I've done -- and really I just got early confidence because after "Cuckoo's Nest," which is my first producing picture, which was rejected by every studio, and then to go do "The China Syndrome," which had a very tough time getting made. [I] joined forces with Jane Fonda on that. Then it was "Romancing the Stone." And these are three successes where people have spit in your face and told you you're an idiot. And they [the movies] succeeded.

So that gave me the confidence to be able to fight back a little bit, or to take a punch, to take a hit when they rejected you and say, "Oh, well, you know, I'm sure you know." And then pictures like "Fatal Attraction," which they didn't want to make. That was a difficult picture to make. "Falling Down," one of my favorites. So I've had a long list of pictures throughout my career that have still been very hard to get made.

You kind of raise a paradox -- a bunch of pictures that they didn't want to make that did well. Is there a danger of these big companies being so careful and depending so much on marketing to determine what they make?

Well, I would like to say yes, but maybe it's the time now. I kind of feel like we're in the 1950s a little bit. It feels sometimes a little bit like after Eisenhower and Hula Hoops. ... I think you're seeing a younger generation who's got a good shit detector ... and likes not to think they're being fed by the Man. But in general, it's kind of a silly time. No one wants to think a whole lot. ...

Without sounding like an old curmudgeon, there's a few pictures I see out there. I look at the business they do, and I go look at the movie, and I shake my head and I say, "Man, I feel out of it. I really feel out of it. I don't get this."... But we'll see. It's going to be an interesting time. I think it's a very exciting time, and I feel a little bit like you mentioned the 1970s, I think we're going to see a revolt in terms of independents, strong independent directors. This is not a time for producers. It's a very good time for directors. Studios are thinking they can bypass producers, for the most part. And I think you're going to see possibly a chance for the creation of what United Artists, for instance, used to be like, when it was all about some strong independent talent makers getting together, exclusively, who have their own financing available. Because there's a lot of people out there who would back some responsible filmmakers in creating another alternative, somewhat in the way that DreamWorks did, maybe in a smaller form.

Having the history that you do, what's the most distressing change you've seen in the studios?

The most distressing change? Well, the toughest thing I'm seeing is, which I hate, is coverage. I'm seeing less and less people being willing to step out. I see the responsibility of a producer being passed down to developments and readers. No one wants to assume the responsibility of developing the material like they did, somewhat, in the old days. And I see these readers' reports and material and it's like they've all been reading each other's reports. And it's a sort of homogenized version of -- God forbid you really step out and say something about the material, you might get slapped. It's been a little bit debilitating.

If you can just be an audience member for a minute... What do you think the takeover of these companies has meant for the kind of shows we see?

I don't think we've seen the result yet. ... I hope we don't lose the passion, [that] the filmmakers keep their passion. And that scares me the most, in terms of testing and the marketing campaigns and scores -- that it just becomes so homogenized, that we lose our voices.

But saying that, I'm actually very optimistic about the independent world. Digital cameras have allowed an ability for so many more people to find out about their own filmmaking capabilities. And I think we're just less than a decade away from a digital world, which is going to open up a lot of opportunities, the least of which is going to be distribution, because there won't be all those big film cans being passed around.

If you were making this show, what do you think would be important for us to talk about?

Ah, very, very good question. Well, I guess the point is there's a reason why you're making this show. In other words, something is troublesome, or people aren't aware what's going on. And I think there's been a dramatic change in our industry in the last few years. It remains to be seen. Maybe this'll be the advent of a rebirth of European filmmaking. ... We'll see. But I think it's worth exploring that area.

And basically, the globalization of entertainment in general... I mean, there's another company out there, who, if they have their way, will have a worldwide satellite network. And there's issues of anti-trust, I have to believe. And I think they're going to start popping up their ugly head pretty soon.

How is globalization affecting the way people approach making films?

We've become a much smaller world because of MTV, for one. You go around the world now, kids look the same. They all look the same, because they're looking at MTV, and whether we like it or not, our culture is our biggest export -- that being the entertainment business. It used to be the airline business, but now our largest export surplus is the entertainment business. And that is going into every nook and cranny, combining that with the Internet. So I don't know the end result. I didn't take any classes in economics. But it will be interesting to see how this all plays out. ...

What keeps you excited?

A good script, a good story. I've been in developmental hell for a couple of years now. And I think everybody just goes through it just trying to find good material. That's another area that is of some concern -- writers -- and the amount of assignments that they're taking on and overlapping. It's hard to know when they're really being honest with you, when they're really being passionate. They've become pretty good actors themselves. A lot of the salaries -- I'm not one to complain about my salaries -- but writers' salaries have dramatically increased. ...

Has it changed your strategy as a producer at all, or are you still looking for what excites you the most?

I have to trust my instincts -- they've gotten me this far. I work on projects that I like, because that's the only way to keep my energy going. If I try to satisfy somebody else, it won't last that long. That said, I've had a few curves thrown at me in the last few years, about marketing and marketing campaigns, and I'm nervous about it. I find this whole area a little more uncomfortable, because there is no time. If you like to make quirky pictures or a little off-center, like I do, there is no time for an audience to find a movie. And then if you make a quirky picture, they're not the easiest to market.

So I don't think I've changed, although I'm sort of going full circle back to independence and a more autonomous route. I'm looking for outside financing. I've decided, in my own philosophy, that I should be responsible for the development of the material. The material is still the soul of this business. It's the heart of this business. This is what brings everybody together, that piece of material, the director and everything else. And after that, then you go after trying to find your talent, be it director or actors.

Did it seem that when you were starting and guys like DeNiro, Nicholson, those kind of guys, that they were supported by a bunch of small pictures that allowed them to grow as an actor? Do you worry about that?

Well, a little bit. The big difference I remember is that the transition from television to feature films back then was very hard. You had a couple of... Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen were a couple of people who had done television series and then came over. In my generation, there weren't many that were able to come over from television. Now, given this vertical integration, the sooner they can find anybody who's hot off a series, they're trying to get them in pictures.

And the truth is we have yet, especially among the actors ... we have yet to have our new stars. There's a lot of promotion for a lot of people, but short of Tom Cruise, who now is 38, 39 years old, I don't know. There's a lot of names being bandied around, but there isn't anybody yet who's really kind of risen up, who's shown they've got the chops to carry a career for more than two, three, four years. So we'll see what happens.

Do you think the opportunities are still there to develop your chops, or do you think it's a little harder?

It depends where your heart is. The whole thing is if you want to be a movie star, or you just want to be a better actor. I always say to people, if you want to be just a movie star, then the odds aren't good. If you love acting and sort of work at it and develop it, you at least have a good time along the way. And then maybe something really great will happen for you that'll surprise you.

home · introduction · what's wrong with this picture · indies are dead...
dreaming in broadband · anatomy of a monster
interviews · links & readings · discussion · video excerpts
press reaction · tapes & transcripts · privacy policy · credits
frontline · wgbh ·  pbs online

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Solitary NationApril 22nd

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS