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Have risk-averse conglomerates squelched Hollywood's creativity? How has the culture of Hollywood changed since the last "golden age" of the late 1960s and early 1970s? Here are excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with Variety editor Peter Bart; entertainment journalist Michael Cieply; actor and producer Michael Douglas; longtime studio executives Lucy Fisher, Peter Guber, and Bill Mechanic; independent producer David Kirkpatrick; New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell; Los Angeles Times reporter Richard Natale; and Sony Corporation of America's chief executive, Howard Stringer.

richard natale
a freelance economic reporter who covers the film industry for The Los Angeles Times

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What's interesting about the business is that it's no longer the movie business. Essentially, people don't make movies anymore. They make spectaculars. ... There's no attention paid to character anymore in movies, there's no attention paid to story anymore. Movies are basically plot-driven, effects-driven. In many cases the effects are the reason to make the movie, and so the story doesn't have any sort of validity apart from the effects. ...

The reason that we went to see movies, the reason we went to see "Casablanca" or even "Jaws," was because the story was really fascinating. The characters were compelling. We sat and ate our popcorn, we sat on the edge of our seats, we cried, we tore our hair out, we laughed hysterically. We don't do that anymore at movies. It happens less and less. We go to movies to be bombarded.

one of Hollywood's most successful actors and producers, he produced the 1975 Oscar-winning film "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"

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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?

Yeah. It was much more in the old days. ... I'd come out all the summers and holidays to visit my dad [Kirk Douglas]. And it was much more of a tight-knit community. ... 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. ...

As huge as we thought ... the studios were back in the '40s and '50s, 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 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 studio's lobbyist group, which was all pretty tight. Now you've got a bunch of huge multi-national corporations trying to cannibalize each other to a fair degree in the movie business. ...

It was always a struggle between art and commerce. And now, I think, commerce is winning out, big time. ... 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.

the editor-in-chief of Variety, Hollywood's most powerful trade newspaper, he spent 17 years as a studio executive

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How's [the movie business] changed over the years?

Oh, I would say it's only changed about 150 percent. ... I mean, it's only in relatively recent years that Hollywood became the playground of multi-national corporations, which regard movies and TV shows as a minor irritant to their overall activity. So, it's become a corporate town. Reduced to one sentence, a very corporate town. It was not a corporate town 10, 15 years ago.

How does that affect the way movies are made?

Well, it affects the decision-making process on movies, because, for example, what big corporations want most is risk-averse pictures. Now, one might say whether that in itself is a completely false aspiration. Because any work of art, or pop art, by definition, is risky. So, you have corporate suits trying to make projects that don't entail risk. ...


The decision-making process for movies has become so complex. ... The best way to describe it is what they call a "green-light" meeting. A green-light meeting is when the decision is made, finally, whether or not to make a given picture.

Now, the green-light meeting, when I first started at Paramount, would consist of maybe three or four of us in a room. Perhaps two or three of us would have read the script under discussion. And people said stupid things, like, "I kinda like this movie." Or, "I look forward to seeing this movie." Inane things like that.

The green-light decision process today consists of maybe of 30 or 40 people. There's one group there to discuss the marketing tie-ins. How much will McDonald's or Burger King put up? There's somebody else there to discuss merchandising, toy companies and so forth. Someone else is there to discuss what the foreign co-financiers might be willing to put up. So, everyone is discussing the business aspects of this film, and it's sometimes unusual for someone actually to circle back and talk about the script, the cast, the package -- whether the whole damn thing makes any sense to begin with. So, I'd say generally, there's no relationship at all between that decision-making process and the one that existed barely a generation earlier. ...

... In those days if the passion of the filmmaker was intense, and the studio liked the script and the cast was interesting, it didn't have to have superstars, and the budget was not outrageous, people by and large were willing to take a gamble on that, on the passion of the filmmaker. Sometimes, like with "Heaven's Gate," you know, the gamble was misbegotten. Sometimes the gambles were absolutely extraordinary and you know, many of those wonderful movies of the early '70s and the late '60s emerged from those gambles, and you'd never see those movies made today.


What's the most dangerous thing, in your eyes, about these giant corporations?

Well, I think the biggest danger of Hollywood becoming a purely corporate town resides in the creative process. It really hasn't been demonstrated, at any level, by any major corporation, that it can nurture what is euphemistically called "creativity." In other words, do artists, do writers, directors, whatever, wanna work for big companies? Do they wanna put up with the mega-company decision-making process?

she has been a top executive at MGM, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Columbia TriStar, and Sony Pictures, and has been behind such films as "Jerry Maguire," "Men in Black," "As Good As It Gets," "Gladiator," and many others.

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How have you seen the culture of Hollywood change since you've been working in it?

When I started it was the mid '70s and it was much more of a sort of fun time to make movies. That was when a lot of really amazing directors were either starting off or just had done some of their prime work. I was lucky enough to work for Francis Coppola for two years, around the time of the release of "Apocalypse Now," when he bought the little studio, Las Palmas Studios. It became Zoetrope Studios, and I was head of production there. And to compare that time to this time, our studio was fully artist owned. Our building had Jean-Luc Godard, David Lynch ... I don't know if it could exist exactly now, when everything is so much more multi-national, big conglomerate owned.

In those days, my first job was as a reader for United Artists, and five guys ran that out of New York. ... Those five guys decided what movies to make and they made them because they liked them. Period. And they didn't even watch dailies, because they bet on talent, and thought if we respect you enough, we read the script, if we respect your work, go make a good movie and we'll see you later. And from that point of view came "Rocky," "Annie Hall," "Cuckoo's Nest" -- it was one good movie after another. ...

It was a community of people that really liked movies. Which is one thing that's very different, which is the managers now a lot of times are business people, and they need to be because the amount of money changing hands is so much more extreme than it was 20, 30 years ago.

... It makes people fearful of trying new things because the pressure is so big and people do usually prefer what they already know to what they don't know. And certainly people who are in the decision-making seats feel safer making decisions about known quantities as opposed to unknown quantities. So the rolling of the dice has become a much more limited game, I would say. And more often in the early days, or my early days ... people could take a gamble for $4 million or $10 million, and if it worked, fine, and if it didn't work go do the next one. And now there is the nut of making a movie that could cost $100 million and $100 million to open it. That's a $200 million gamble, that's a lot different than a $5 million gamble or a $4 million or a $1 million.

he has covered the entertainment industry for 17 years, first for The Wall Street Journal and more recently for Talk magazine and

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Creatively, in the '70s, it was a wonderful, crazy, rock-and-roll kind of business that created movies that you loved. The whole cycle of films that came out from 1969 into the '70s, films from "Easy Rider," and "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," and you know, everybody knows the list, the stuff that you love. It had been sort of creatively wonderful, financially a disaster. ...

Starting in 1978, '79, two things happened. Cable was invented. You know, HBO created it's own revolution. Just about the same time, the video cassette recorder came to the United States. Everybody took the movies home. That took a few years to have an impact on the business, but by the time you hit 1984, very rich guys, very big bankers ... suddenly realized that there was enormous value in the libraries that had been created. ... They could project out the impact of cable, of video, and say, "Hey, we can resell every movie that's ever been made." ... Money flowed like a tidal wave into this business. That's when the takeover hit. That tidal wave of money started a long, long trend that completely transformed what the movie industry is. ...

Everybody's looking for the next revolution, but the next revolution may not be as dramatic as the revolution that unleashed that tidal wave of money. So what's happening now is kind of a routinization of business behavior. ... [The conglomerates are] trying to kind of tame [the studios] and figure out how to get them into a mode where you can rely on them, or you can get predictable amounts of profit out of them year to year. And that's really what kind of sets the tone for the movie industry now.


How is that changing the kinds of films we see?

Well, it changes it a lot. ... There's a tendency to move toward what is already pre-sold, what the public already knows. Because what corporations need to do is sell predictability. I mean, their greatest fear is an unpredictable cycle. ... They love earnings management, they love to know where they're going. And in the movie business, the only way you can begin to manage earnings that way is to trade on what's already worked. And so it really makes risk almost impossible.


What do you think the biggest impact of these giant corporations getting involved in the business has been?

Well, it's the end of creativity. I mean, there's just no question about it. To be a movie executive is not a creative job. You are really in a commodities business, you are really managing an enormous, glamorous commodity now. There are exceptions out there, but the last thing that you're going to do is kind of roll with your gut. ...

formerly the president of Paramount Pictures, he has gone on to produce such independent films as "Big Night" (1996) and "The Opposite of Sex" (1998)

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What are the studios to these giant companies?

... There was a great cartoon in The New Yorker about eight years ago, where there were 100 guys sitting around a round table, all in suits, all with grey ties, and looking at each other, and said, "Let's green-light this, boys." You know, before it was one guy, now there's a hundred people around the room. And in order to be able to get those hundred people around the room, and I'm speaking metaphorically, you need a star, you need a homogenized piece of entertainment, action-adventure, comedy, something that is not particularly edgy, particularly sophisticated, that everybody can feel comfortable with, that is not making a political statement, that is not making a racial statement, but is basically just good, fluffy entertainment.

elvis mitchell
a film critic for National Public Radio and The New York Times

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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 gonna 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. ... 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.


[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. And now, you go and you see the same people in the same movies and, you know, Nicole Kidman is in a Miramax movie this week, but two months ago she was in a 20th Century Fox picture. I mean, 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 gonna make the same thing, often with the same people, over and over and over again.


Maybe what really seems now like a halcyon period, the last Golden Age, would be the early '70s, which is a time where there was real risk-taking involved. ...

Peter Guber
former studio chief of Columbia Pictures and former chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures, he is now the chairman of Mandalay Pictures

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What was the atmosphere like in the late 1960s and early 1970s?

... It was a cottage industry, it really was. When I came to Columbia [in 1968], Warner Bros. was a 400 million dollar company. That was the cost of "Titanic," with prints and advertising worldwide. The whole company was 400 million dollars. And films were the business of the business. ... There was nowhere else that the features went after their theatrical run. A little bit with network television and some syndication packages. And international was called foreign then. It was foreign to most of the people in this business -- it was that place across the ocean where the films played after nobody here was really interested in them. ...

It seems like so many great pictures came out of that time. And from the studios. Why do you think that was?

Well, in the early '70s the whole revolution was that there were new conversations and new voices that were being listened to in these companies. ... They were trying out new people. People that came from commercials. People that came from all walks of the film (what I call) training business. And as such, when you have so much unconvention, you have a lot of new ideas popping up and people willing to take chances on it.


Obviously you saw something and adapted in a way that other people didn't. What did you see? What kind of changes did you feel you had to make?

I think the changes that you make trying to survive and prosper from the late '60s into the year 2000 are more of attitude than aptitude. I think many people keep their aptitude -- their abilities, their capabilities, talents and insights. But the attitude, the willingness to embrace new voices, the willingness to allow yourself to be curious rather than become critical -- as you get older you can become critical instead of curious, and that kills the passion. It kills the energy that fuels the momentum that creates the process that gets the projects made. ...

You cannot be risk-averse. And younger people tend to be more willing to take risks, more prone to lean forward. As you get older and you become the incumbent in the process, in the institution, you begin to defend your incumbency and then new challenges come along and take away your ground.


A lot of people we've been talking to say that over the last few years films seem to be getting simpler and simpler. Do you think there's a danger in overmarketing and playing things so safe that you can wear out the audience?

This is a very difficult question ... it's a dangerous question. ... I'm not sure. I'm seeing it from an older person's side. But some of the stupidest films [that] ever could be conceived have enormous grosses. I mean, they're unbearable. Now that's to me and my sensibility. You know, maybe I'm too old, maybe I'm too educated, maybe I'm too thoughtful, I don't know what I am, but they are plain out terrible. ... Not that I haven't on occasion made films that are terrible. I have. ... Or haven't made films that had some dumbness to them. I have. But that's not what I'm aiming for.

And I think your question is, "Is that what's happening now? Is the success of those films causing companies to aim at that?" And the answer is, "Yes." And the reason why is that greed and avarice were invented in Hollywood. And so the bigger target, closer up, are those kind of films. ... So my question always is ... "What was the design going in?" Were you aiming, as your question suggests, were you aiming at that lowest common denominator? That cheapest possible audience? That basest possible value? Is that the target of choice? And that's a very honest question and it deserves an honest answer. And I think the answer is, yes. If they believe they can make more money at that, that's where they'll aim. In the main. Because they are, after all, public companies. The shareholders don't want to know what the product was, they want to know what the profits are.

bill mechanic
chairman and CEO of Twentieth Century Fox Filmed Entertainment from 1994 to 2000, he is now an independent producer

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What kind of changes have you see in the business?

The biggest change is you're just getting this conglomeratization. ... The world of business and the media conglomerates are just getting bigger and bigger and usurping all different things, even though they don't care about these things that they're amassing. So giant corporations own these little, to them, these little studios and television production companies. And they really don't care about the movies or television shows that they're making. They only care if they make money. The old paradigm of "if you make something good, then it makes money" is completely secondary to "don't stick out and [you'll] make money." And I think it's driving the creative content into a terrible place.

How does the corporatization affect the studios as they approach a film?

... It affects the studio boss. ... It's one of those things where it's inevitable that you're going to lose. It's inevitable that you're going to make a movie that, despite your best intentions, the public says, "We don't want to see it," and you're not going to return your investment on a picture. That's been true for the history of movies. Nobody has ever defied that basic law of gravity.

The old paradigm that the movie business ran on -- despite all the changes, all the technology, all the markets over all the years -- is still true: that your hits have to pay for your losses. And so what happens is people are afraid of the losses more than looking for the hits, and you start cutting off edges on movies. You start saying, "It has to have a happy ending." Well, the story is going in a direction where the correct ending may not be literally a happy ending. And the audiences look at it and go, "Well, it's stupid. How could that happen at the end of this picture?" And around the world, they have a different term for it. You know, the international [movie-goers see it] and say, "It's too American." And it means in a way that you've sold out, and there's no creative truth to the product.

The corporatization of the studios is affecting what we see?

Absolutely, absolutely. There's no question. Everything's played short term. Nobody's looking at what's going to live on. They're worried about, how do I live on? ... How do I avoid getting fired?

The media's part of it, because it calls so much attention to executives. You know, in the past, who cared? ... Today, people like myself [are] in the news way too much, including right now.


Is it harder making the kind of movies that you want to make?

Yeah. ... People are in your ear saying, "It can't work, it can't work, it can't work. Don't do this, don't do this. Too dangerous, too dangerous, too dangerous." I think you have to have a lot of resolve.

chairman and CEO of Sony Corporation of America since 1998, he had a distinguished 30-year career as a journalist, producer and executive at CBS

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I think for studios, we've got to be able to convince a lot of people, including directors and writers, that it's OK to aim high. There is the obsession with ratings, just as in television. Similarly in the movie industry, the obsession with box office makes people very nervous about being risky on the culturally exalted end. And everybody begins to feel that they know what the audience wants. And what the audience wants, they believe, is sort of mass entertainment. It does make it sometimes hard for writers to aim high.


When you've had a bad year at the box office, and everybody is telling you you've had a bad year at the box office, and you had a couple of stinkers that lost $50 million ... sometimes the box office is a bit of a stranglehold on your psyche. ...

The pressures are there because, as you know, movies have sunk studios. "Heaven's Gate" sunk United Artists. We're all aware that if we throw $150 million to $200 million at a picture and it's an outright disaster we'll live with it. So in fairness, I would say ... give me a small picture every time. The risk isn't so bad. Chances are I might create something artistic and valuable. So we have to have something for all tastes, and give directors and writers the chance to spread their wings in different arenas. And if you don't, if your fear of the box office clouds your judgement, then you'll never produce great movies. You've got to get past that moment when the people running your studio are so afraid of failures, after perhaps experiencing them, that they play it safe. Then the cycle goes on and on. ...

If you look back at all the movies that were ever made -- we have hundreds and hundreds of films in our vaults, many of which you would never want to see again -- the movies that seep into your memory, whether it's "Casablanca" or "Lawrence of Arabia" or "The Best Years of Our Lives" or "Citizen Kane," these were the best of movies in their time. They were not standing at the head of a long chain of artistic triumphs. There were disasters in the past just as there are today. But it is a balance that we have to strive for. And it does take a kind of courage on the part of everybody involved to say, "It's OK to aim high. We'll share the consequences of failure." ... And my attitude has been, I would rather grow through failures, to seek toward success with executives whose core vision I trust, and find a way to some nirvana beyond the flush of box-office mania and so forth.

And I believe that's possible.


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