Slickness as science

New book by Denton academic traces origins of the Hollywood blockbuster

A devil's advocate might point out that Hollywood has always been greedy and cynical and hellbent on milking every last dollar from consumers. A film like 1939's Gone with the Wind, for instance, exhibits many characteristics Wyatt pegs as high concept: it has a relatively simple plot, it's based on a bestseller, and it's backed by all the production values and star power a studio can muster. And the producer who masterminded it, David O. Selznick, even drummed up months of frenzied free press coverage by conducting a search for an unknown to play Scarlett--a search that was purely a marketing ploy, since he'd already picked out his star, Vivien Leigh, from a pool of several established stage and film actresses.

There are smaller examples of marketing phenomena in old Hollywood, like Clark Gable stripping off his dress shirt in It Happened One Night to reveal that he wore no undershirt, which sent men's undershirt sales plummeting; and the voracious demand for leather jackets after Marlon Brando wore one in The Wild One.

Wyatt says the difference is one of degree, and of process. "The difference is that Hollywood now attempts to predict, create, and control those other markets beforehand, where they used to spring up naturally. The example of Clark Gable and his undershirts illustrates how moviegoers create a phenomenon by watching a movie. But studios now plan these phenomena in wring every last dollar they can from every big movie they make.

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