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elvis mitchell

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Elvis Mitchell is a film critic for The New York Times and the entertainment critic for National Public Radio's "Weekend Edition." His many essays and articles about the entertainment industry have appeared in GQ, The New York Times Magazine, and Rolling Stone, among other publications. In this interview, Mitchell discusses what Miramax means to independent film, why conglomerates cannot resist the allure of owning a movie studio, and what he calls Hollywood's last "halcyon period," the early 1970s. "[It was] a time where there was real risk-taking involved," says Mitchell.

This interview was conducted in September 2001.

Why are we drawn to the movies?

Why are we drawn to the movies? This should be a separate documentary. ... I mean there's so many different things. You know, we want to see ourselves -- but differently. We want to see these dream versions of ourselves, we want to be surprised, we want to be entertained. I think primarily, especially in this country, we ask that movies entertain us, which seems to be something they're less and less likely to do on a continual basis. ...

When the VCR hit, people thought that was the end of the theater experience, and it wasn't.

It's so funny, whenever there's a new technology introduced, there's always this fear it's going to end entertainment as we know it. When records came around, they were going to be the end of live music. Nobody would ever want to go see live music again. And what people tend to forget, or ignore -- and this happened time and time again -- is that when you're constantly getting to hear music, or own a movie at your house, on videotape or on DVD ... it stokes this appetite. It creates this hunger for more product.

We do want to be diverted, and be interested, and be provoked by popular culture -- by art, if we're lucky. And it's amazing how often people have lost sight of this. With the exception maybe of Napster -- and it hasn't been proven yet that that's really killed CD sales at all -- each technology leads to either more interest or an invention that kind of makes things more interesting. When television came around, we were told it would be the end of movies. Well, then we got wide screen. You can't get wide screen at home on the TV set, can you? No. ... It's always astonishing to me how many naysayers there are about an innovative form of technology that really deepens our experience into entertainment.


How have studios changed over the last 20 years?

... Having been on both sides of the fence a little bit, what kind of amazes me is that movies get made, because there's so much about the business, the film business, the entertainment business, that's ruled by fear. What they seem to want is to be relieved of the necessity of making a decision, which goes like this: If Tom Cruise is in the movie, well, it's going to be a hit. And if it's not a hit with Tom Cruise, well, it's not our fault, because the last five Tom Cruise pictures were hits.

What used to happen in the old days, I guess, is that you had these sort of tyrants, these oligarchs who dictated what entertainment was going to be, who made stars and weren't afraid to do things that would create stardom. And every week in the trailers for these old movies, which I love seeing on AMC or TNT or TMC or TLC -- I'm sorry -- is that you get these things: "A Brand New Star!" ... They were always looking for ways to sort of sell these things as something you hadn't seen before. And that really has disappeared, to a great extent, even in what we're told is the independent film world. They're basically now just genre pictures.

Maybe what really seems now like a halcyon period, the last golden age, would be the early 1970s, which is a time where there was real risk-taking involved. Major moviemakers would go make stuff at studios, because they really felt like they were losing audiences, because John Wayne and all those guys were like about 100 years old by 1969, and you had to do something new and different. People wanted to have a kind of experience in movie theaters they couldn't get, or an experience that made sense to them. That seems to be happening less and less now.

Inside the system, they don't want to challenge people's expectations anymore. Probably the worst thing that ever happened to the movies was the megahit. For over 30 years, the number one movie of all time was "Gone With the Wind," from 1939 until 1975, and then "Jaws" became the number one picture of all time because it was sold on television. Two years later, "Star Wars" was the number one picture, and by the end of 1977, "Close Encounters."

What happened was, when that gap closed up and they thought you can make a big hit movie all the time now, the interest in ... really taking a chance on movies disappeared. And now there's an attempt to engineer salesmanship. They're trying to turn what is essentially a gamble into a science, which is Miramax showed you could make a $100 million art-house movie. ... And what that said to the studios was that, 'Oh, if we pretend we're in the art-house business, the independent business, then we can co-opt that money, too.' just antithetical to what this experience should be. ...

[In the past] you had different kinds of movies being made by different kinds of studios. A Warners picture looked very different from a Paramount picture. It looked very different from a MGM picture. It looked very different from a Republic picture. It looked very different from an RKO picture.

Now, you go and you see the same people in the same movies. Nicole Kidman is in a Miramax movie this week, but two months ago she was in a 20th Century Fox picture. You don't have that kind of differentiation of expression anymore. And again, if you're trying to make [something that] essentially is a risk into a sure thing, you're going to make the same thing, often with the same people, over and over and over again.

And when something does come out and surprise people, you get something like "Reservoir Dogs," and "Pulp Fiction" a couple years later, first of all what it does is it puts the studios in a position [where] they feel they've got to make what they call "independent film," which is now as meaningless as "alternative music" or "alternative media." They get in that game too, so you have Miramax now being owned by Disney. And when they get something that's kind of scary to them, like "Priest," or even "Dogma," they sell it off because, again, they don't want to scare off stockholders, they don't want protesters at stockholders' meetings. Or they don't want people seeing "Dogma" and then going to protest at Disneyland.

What happened to the shining light of Miramax?

... What Miramax has always been in the business of doing is making money. ... They used to be a [place] that picked up other movies. You know, nobody wanted to make "Pulp Fiction." I was at the studio when "Pulp Fiction" got turned down three times, and that was probably the lowest number of turndowns it got, but it finally got made. But on the other hand, Miramax picked up "The Crying Game," because nobody else wanted to distribute it. In fact, there are stories of people at the studios walking out 20 minutes into it and saying, "I've seen it, there's nothing new in it," and leaving before the big revelation in the first half-hour of the picture. ...

By being able to capitalize on these movies that are being made that kind of flew under studio radar, Miramax put themselves in the position where they were thought of as being the alternative. But now they're as much a studio as New Line, which started off as kind of a mini-major, too, or any of these other places. It's almost like now Miramax needs to have a Miramax Classics Division, where they make the kind of movies we think of as being Miramax pictures.

... You know, when you think of a picture like "Shakespeare in Love," that's a pretty expensive movie. That's not an art-house movie, or what we think of as being art-house pictures now. What Miramax does, really, are mainstream movies with big movie stars in them. You know, "Captain Corelli's Mandolin," that's a Miramax movie. That's got Nicholas Cage in it -- and not the Nicholas Cage who was in million-dollar pictures, but the Nicholas Cage who gets $20 million a movie. ...

... It used to be independents were really adjuncts of studios, like Orion Classics, which is very different from Orion, which itself was kind of a major art-house studio which kept bankrolling Woody Allen and making movies that were really kind of idiosyncratic and visual. They took their [cue] from the old United Artists, which they all came from. And Orion Classics went and picked up all the Truffaut pictures and Godard, all these foreign filmmakers who really couldn't purchase their way into the mainstream.

Then the independents kind of died out in the mid-1980s. And what happened with a company like Miramax, [it] showed that a lot of money could be made. It's the same situation when the studios found out you could make a lot of money and didn't have to wait 30 years to do it. Miramax showed you could make a $100 million art-house movie. Or with something like "Life Is Beautiful," a $50 million foreign-language film.

And what that said to the studios was that, "Oh, if we pretend we're in the art-house business, the independent business, then we can co-opt that money, too." I'm sure I'm not the first person to say this to you -- or the first person to say it today -- but it's now all bottom line, where each division has to sort of produce. And, you know, Miramax is to independent film as Godiva is to designer chocolate; it's owned by Campbell's. It doesn't mean anything anymore.

What's the advantage for a big company grabbing a studio?

What's the advantage of a big company like News Corp. buying a studio, or Sony buying a studio, or for 20 seconds, Matsushita buying a studio, or for 30 seconds Coca-Cola owning a studio? There's still glamour in the movie business. But to me, watching from the outside, it's like these carpetbaggers with their snake oil, charming these suckers into buying the Brooklyn Bridge.

They all come in and throw down a bunch of money, and a year later they're out of the movie business. ... It's all this money just being rolled over and rolled over and rolled over. They all love the glamour of the movie business, but it becomes potentially part of a merchandising arm for these people.

A company like Universal... MCA owns Universal Studios. They were partners with USA Networks. They own almost every major record label, what used to be called independent labels like A&M or Motown. There is nothing like an independent voice anymore, but it gives these the promise of making lots and lots and lots of money, which the movie business has never really been built to do.

There wasn't a lot of money in the film business until like 25 years ago. There really wasn't, which is why it was so easy to buy up these studios. But each time they turned and sold, they sold for twice, three times, four times what they were sold for in the past. And I hate to be reduced to quoting, but it really is those who can't remember history are doomed to repeat themselves.

Sony would have Sony platforms to sell through?

Well, yes, a company like Sony has any number of ways ... but so does News Corp. They've got a studio, they've got networks, the Fox Network, they've got two cable outlets. ... So you've got all these different arms to sell this stuff. Then they've got Sky Channel and they've got satellite overseas, and they own TV Guide.

Vertical integration is now, it's like Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers movies. It's these tentacles that encircle the world that ensure a lack of real risk-taking. You think of the early days of the Fox Network, when they couldn't do anything like the big networks did and they struck out. So what did they do? They did something networks weren't doing. They did "Married With Children," they did "In Living Color," the did "The X-Files." And suddenly they've become a player, and that lessens the amount of risk they want to take.

Again, it never ceases to amaze me how nobody learns the lessons of ten years ago, of five years ago. As soon as they become respectable, then they want to be thought of as making these safe choices. There's a great line from the movie "Chinatown" that I always think about in these cases, where John Huston says to Jack Nicholson, "Whores, bankers and ugly buildings all become respectable if they last long enough."

Are the movies changing to fit the current business model?

I don't know if the movies are changing to fit the business model, because that's already happened. What happens is that that business model is becoming smaller and smaller now, or rather the target is becoming more and more specific. What used to be thought of as being the target audience, from 12 to 24, is now a target audience from 12 to 19. The audience that repeats... For them, the movie experience is like watching a movie on videotape, where you just want to see the stuff you like over and over and over again. And so now what multiplexes have become is sort of like "The Night of the Living Dumb." They kind of march from one movie to the next to the next, week after week after week.

There are a record number of movie theaters, of screens, in this country, and yet these [movie theater] companies are all going broke. And each year there are more movies released than the year previous. What do we learn from that? Essentially, there are four or five different movies being made all the time. They get released on a record number of screens. A hundred million dollars sounds like a lot of money, until you realize it's going to be playing on 6,000 screens, which brings down the per screen average. So when you've got that kind of thing happening, then what happens is you're not content with a $100 million gross anymore. You want $150 million gross. And you think, "Well, I guess I got to make a $200 million movie to do that."

And if the formula still is that a movie has to make twice what it costs to break even, because of marketing and stuff, that means on the average, every other movie this summer needs to make $200 million to break even -- and that doesn't happen too often. I don't care how big the grosses are, and that this is a record year as compared to last year, which is also a record year. Movies kind of stall out about $90 million or so, which still sounds like a lot of money to me, it's still a lot of people -- but it's just not the kind of big hit people are looking for anymore.

I think of the example of "Bonnie and Clyde." When it came out in 1967, it was a failure, was a flop. People didn't go. It was half well reviewed, half badly reviewed. And what Warren Beatty did was, he persisted. He cajoled. He begged. He forced Jack Warner, who still was a big principal in Warner Brothers -- he didn't own the studio anymore, but he made decisions, and Jack Warner, in fact, didn't even like "Bonnie and Clyde" -- but Beatty persuaded him to make it, and then Beatty said, "Let's re-release this. Let's put these newspaper ads up. Let's keep buying time."

And by the end of the year, "Bonnie and Clyde" was a big hit, had become a big critical hit again, and people wanted to go. That didn't happen over the first weekend. It took time to build that audience up. And because it played for six months, it became a big Oscar contender. Doesn't happen anymore. You know, a movie comes out now, if it isn't a big hit in its first weekend, then it's finished. And it doesn't matter if people like it, if it tests well. If it doesn't sort of get that living undead kind of tromping in, just sort of shoving popcorn into his mouth and watching it, then it's written off immediately.

How did we become so fascinated with the weekend [grosses], that we'll only see the number one movie?

It's funny, I guess. It's because it feels like information, all these facts about movies. ... You hear this movie cost $50 million to make, only $50 million. And it made $200 million. And they have to fight to make it. Well, you know, that's kind of fascinating, and in a lot of ways, probably more interesting than the movies themselves. And it becomes a way to sell the picture. "America's Number One Comedy." Or the biggest hit in a month with a vowel in it. Or the biggest hit on Friday the 13th in 1999. There are all of these kind of meaningless sobriquets that are basically ways of saying, if this movie attracts a lot of people, then it must be worthy of our attention. That's what the real attraction has become now, I'm afraid, and it kind of scares me.

Is there a way to overthrow this Goliath?

Well, these movies in the summer of 2001, we had the most amazing string ever, where every week there's a bigger number one hit. Think back to a year in the season of 1999, that summer. "There's Something About Mary" didn't become number one until four weeks into its run. What does that say? That when there's real word of mouth, people will go to the movies. When you manufacture the word of mouth, I think audience fatigue does set in. ...

We don't live with movies anymore the way we used to. And maybe it's partially because they're covered in a way they never were before. And it gets back to the whole kind of conglomorization of all of this. When you've got Time Warner, AOL, whatever else they own -- probably, like, they own Ralph's Supermarkets by now or something -- you've got them with Entertainment Weekly and CNN, and Time magazine, and People, and In Style ... they get to flog movies in five or six different ways before the picture even comes out, and they're often pictures made by companies that they're in business with. Like Warner, or New Line, or the soon to be defunct Fine Line.

And it's so much about inundating us with this information about the picture that you can always feel if you're tired of the picture before you even see it. You're told about how a picture got made, and that everybody in the movie, "We were like a family. We all love working together." But the movie itself just becomes, like, the end product that doesn't mean anything anymore. Why would you care? You're watching the stars; they're walking up the carpet. They're being waved at by Pat O'Brien, who's on "Access Hollywood," which is owned by Fox, which, they're selling a Fox movie.

It was always about salesmanship. Let's not pretend that it wasn't. And the early moguls were basically all [salesmen]. You know, Sam Goldwyn walked in selling gloves. These guys weren't ennobled by their lives in Russia, when they were trying to get Russian literature out of the country and into the Western Hemisphere. They were salesmen.

They found something to sell that hadn't been sold before, and were constantly sort of tickling themselves by coming up with a new wrinkle, a new way to sell a movie, and creating an America that didn't exist, an America where everybody's white and blond and blue-eyed and smiled. They'd make this fantasy world that still feels like the real world, and they're still being echoed in ways that we don't understand anymore. ...

Even in those days, sequels were made in the 1930s. "The Maltese Falcon" had been made three times before finally became a hit with Humphrey Bogart. In fact, that's why it got made, because they figured they'd worn the material out; it's not going to cost anything. "John Huston, who's he? Humphrey Bogart? We'll stick him in this movie. Who cares? Ronald Reagan turned it down. We'll put Humphrey Bogart in it." So it was always about selling, but now there's just so much more at stake than there ever was before, that it's no longer pinching pennies. It's now betting the mortgage on a roulette spin in Vegas. ...

What do we lose when we buy that?

When we go along with this stuff, when we just trundle off with our eyes rolling to the back of our heads to see this week's number one movie -- what we're told is going to be this week's number one movie -- we end up being alienated from finding anything new. What do I hear people complain about most of the time? That when they go to a movie, they're seeing the same thing they saw in the trailer. I hear it more than I ever hear anything else. But the trailer excites them, because the trailer's still a promise of something that we haven't seen before. You know, it's a way of doing something, saying that this movie's got a lot of excitement in it. You can generate a lot of excitement in 90 seconds that you really can't generate in two hours, or in 90 minutes anymore. ...

What happens to the Allison Anderses, [the independent filmmakers], of the world?

... For independent directors, who have been pushed out of the picture, I guess there's cable. Allison Anders made a movie, "Things Behind the Sun," that caused some stir at Sundance [this year]. It was a very personal picture she had been trying to get made for a long time, and eventually it was going to run on Showtime, and she said that she's thinking, well, maybe Showtime's a place for it to go now. Because, in the end, you make a movie, and even if you're an art-house director, if you're an indie director, you still want people to see it. I mean, you want a smarter audience who can understand what it is you're trying to do. And now cable has become the kind of narrow-casting that we are told art-house theaters used to be. ...

But if you don't want to do that, if you're Jim Jarmusch, you just make your movies, you find your money, then you hope that somehow, somebody's going to want to pick it up and exhibit it. And that's the question. Do you want to be Jim Jarmusch? Or do you want to be what a lot of indie directors want to do now, which is to use a small movie as a calling card so you get to make a bigger picture?

For a long time, the indie world was basically the Triple-A club for the major studios. And the most recent and big example of this was Steven Soderbergh, who wanted to make little pictures ... that cost no money, but it was stuff he wanted to do. And now he is right in the middle of the mainstream and lifting quotes from Jean-Luc Godard in pictures like "Erin Brockovich" or "Traffic."

So that goes to show that people still want a different kind of experience, and they will respond to that, when they're given the opportunity. And we can hope that that's what studios will continue to do to some extent -- go to film festivals, look for these little directors who offer some kind of promise, and eventually co-opt and debase them into making movies for the mainstream. ...

Do you think the green-light process now is much different than it was when you were [inside the studio]?

The way the movie commissioning process is probably different from literally the seven months I worked at the studio, which even I've forgotten by this point, is that there's even less of an interest in taking a chance than ever before. You hear stories like these studios only spend so much money to make a movie. That's it. End of conversation. And they're going to make that movie. If this star doesn't want to do it, then this star will do it for that same amount of money. That's what's happened now.

And maybe there's still a few figures around from the 1970s, guys like ... Mike Medavoy, who now has his own company that supplies movies to Sony, where he used to work as a studio head. But these guys, too, are making these movies that are the same as everybody else's. Mike Medavoy, who championed guys like Woody Allen and brought these films when he went from being an agent to running a studio ... got to work with clients like Philip Kaufman and these guys who made these really idiosyncratic, distinctive pictures that said something and came out of a specific sensibility.

I guess he feels like, if you want to be in that game, then you've got to [have] a certain amount of money in your pocket to show you can play the game, so you've got to make movies like "Vertical Limit," which is the kind of picture his company made. Or, you know, Alan Ladd, Jr. with the Ladd Company, and produce "Braveheart."

At a certain point, you marginalize yourself if you don't want to be in the middle of the game. Yet when Alan Ladd was giving untried or loser filmmakers, or filmmakers who had something to say, a chance to do stuff when he was running Fox, what was one of these pictures he gave a chance to? 1976, "Star Wars," which got turned down by Universal, because they thought it was this goofy comic-book movie. ...

Did you see "Evolution?" ... I was wondering if you found it cynical.

I don't know. I don't think "Evolution" is any more cynical than any other movie. Is "Evolution" any more cynical than "Ghosts of Mars?" No. These are movies that these guys want to be hits. Ivan Reitman might say that "Evolution" is a less cynical movie because he tried to make it into a kind of an upbeat comedy instead of this dark alien movie, literally a remake of "Alien," where these things sort of land and burrow into the planet and take over the earth, which means it's stolen from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

He wanted to try and do something different. He wanted to make the movie he can make. Are his movies about reaching as many people as possible? Absolutely. Would he be ashamed of that? No. Did Ivan Reitman come from the sort of the B-picture de facto underground of the 1970s, making movies like "Stripes" and even, like, "Cannibal Girls?" ... These really cheesy little movies that weren't about anything except amusing an audience? Yes. But even Ivan Reitman came from the left and now inhabits the center of the target.

At some point, you want to play a full room. It doesn't matter who you are. The danger is the way you want to get people into that room. And so given the chance that you find the picture, you want to, like, shove it down their throats -- so it's coming out of their eyes and their ears and every other orifice we can't say on public television, so they feel like it's a part of their being and they have to go see it anyway, because it's a part of the world -- and then they see it and they're disappointed by it, and they become further and further sort of alienated and removed from any kind of excitement about the process.

I'm still excited by the prospect of movies, what I think movies can be. I love going to film festivals where you can see stuff that you have no expectations about. I'm like everybody else. I try not to read reviews before I see movies, because I don't want the whole picture given away. If I can help it, as much as I love seeing trailers, I try not to see them, because the pictures are going to be given away.

So you go to a film festival, and you see a movie like "Memento," which is a lot of fun. Got turned down by everybody, or people won't even offer so much money for it. And, what happens? "Memento" has now made $25 million, a huge independent hit. So now Chris Nolan's making an Al Pacino movie for Warner Brothers. Again, it doesn't matter who you are -- well, for the most part, it doesn't matter who you are -- you want people to see your movies.

You make these movies so that they can be enjoyed by an audience -- that communal experience we talked about. You want a room full of people there to experience this movie and get the joke or maybe not get the joke, and that thing you wrote in your room by yourself two years ago that you, like, begged and borrowed and stole money to get made, three years later, people are enjoying it and arguing about it and asking what that ending meant and if the movie means what I thought it meant. That's what excites filmmakers, and that excites me.

Peter Guber [head of Mandalay, former head of Columbia and Sony Pictures] suggested broadband, by linking the artist with the audience, and doing away with the middleman...

So doing away with Peter Guber...

Are you as excited about it as Peter Guber was? ... Do you think it's going to be the same guys in control?

... What broadband is potentially offering is a chance, I think, to make cheap movies. What I'd love to see broadband be is something like the New Wave, because the great thing, now that major directors are using digital technology to make films, you've got something that links George Lucas and Barbet Schroeder and the Polish brothers, to using the same means to get a movie made. That excites me, because what it's saying is there's a new technology that is making this democratic. ...

If you make a movie for $200 -- and eventually you'll be able to do that -- the technology that bankrupted Francis Ford Coppola with "One From the Heart," everybody has access to now. You go out and by a Sony Vaio -- which means in the end, you're still dealing with Sony, doesn't it? ... But you go out and by a Compaq, and the camera not made by Sony, or, it doesn't matter, you're making a movie you want to make. You can do that now. And this technology's going to sort of, I hope, free things up. I hope we don't get an AOL version of somebody controlling, or making us feel like access to broadband is basically sort of manipulated solely by them -- even though it's not really all AOL, but everybody feels like it is. ...

I think what big-deal producers hope is that it's a way to sort of scout talent cheaply, in the way the film festivals are. So you're basically buying somebody who's made nine or ten films for no money, and then you're going to give them a chance to make your big-budget movie that has nothing to do with the reason you made movies in the first place, and then you'll be disgusted and go back to broadband. The great thing about a guy like Steven Soderbergh is he wants to go back and forth. I mean, he doesn't want to be limited. And he brings sort of the prerequisites, or rather, he brings the tools of independent filmmaking into the mainstream. ...

What always fascinates me is now how quickly what feels like the independent voice is just subsumed into the middle. It took hip-hop a long time to find purchase in the mainstream, and now it's everywhere. It's part of everything. In a way, the studios are still afraid of it because what are really sort of the last independent voices are filmmakers of color, and women. I mean, women aren't the minority, although you wouldn't know it from the movie business, it's still controlled by white men.

What I'm hoping these new technologies will do is have that Eurasian lesbian filmmaker make this movie that comes out of her, that's a part of her subconscious, that overtakes the country, that excites us all about the possibilities of dreaming somebody else's dream through broadband. And then she gets to make her big-deal movie, or she makes this movie for the Internet, or digitally, that gets bought up by somebody and spills over the world, that takes over everything.

That's what I want to see happen. That's what still keeps me going to the movies every week. That's what sends me out to film festivals, is waiting to hear that voice that I haven't heard before, that hasn't yet been infected by the idea of getting a major movie star to ruin her dream, because this movie star's not going to want to do what she wants to do, but she's got these actors we've never heard of before. That's what still thrills me about this, that you can't corrupt everything yet.

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