Slickness as science

New book by Denton academic traces origins of the Hollywood blockbuster

When fans of old Hollywood complain that modern feature films are too darned commercial--that they've lost the personality and passion that made films emerging from the old studio system so pleasurable--they are often reminded that there's no such thing as the Good Old Days.

Movies are, and always have been, a business. They sell abstract products--wish fulfillment, sexual fantasy, violent escapism. But they're still products. That we find art in them with any regularity whatsoever is fairly amazing.

But as Justin Wyatt, who teaches film history at the University of North Texas, points out in his new book, High Concept, the last 20 years have seen a telling strategic shift in Hollywood--one that just might give the nostalgics among us a perverse kind of validation. Wyatt's book is subtitled Movies and Marketing in Hollywood. It claims that while movies never were artistically pure, unspoiled, and uncommercial, the industry has managed to expand the financial side of the business so thoroughly that feature films are now more product than art. Even the old studio system, with its rampant greed, jealousy, ego wars, and bureaucratic infrastructure, still thought of movies as entertainment.

The new Hollywood, Wyatt says, thinks of films strictly as commodities--salable concepts, often vaguely developed, that can be transformed into multimedia octopi, with tentacles that reach into theatrical exhibition, cable and network TV, video and laserdisc production, sound tracks, posters, T-shirts, books, even toys.

Ever since the end of World War II and the rise of television, says Wyatt, the film industry has looked for new ways to milk consumer dollars from its products, making stabs at merchandising and pouring progressively more and more money into advertising and promotion. This impulse has slowly pushed the idea of simple, accessible narrative storytelling--which formed the philosophical core of old Hollywood, even at its most shallow and corrupt--to the margins.

In the 1970s, a string of megablockbusters exploded onto the pop culture scene--films like Jaws, which Wyatt says marks the beginning of the new Hollywood, Star Wars, Saturday Night Fever, Grease, and Superman. Since then, says Wyatt, the industry has poured more time and energy and resources into figuring out what kind of film will reap similarly astronomical rewards.

This led to an emphasis on style over substance, and to films like Flashdance, The Hunger, Top Gun, Batman. Such films were more concerned with selling a look, an attitude, an idea of a movie than with strong storytelling. They were brought into existence because the people who bankrolled them thought they could serve as linchpins of massive marketing and merchandising campaigns.

Wyatt knows about this firsthand. He's a 31-year-old Canadian emigre with degrees in economics and television studies. Prior to entering academe, he worked in Los Angeles during the late '80s for a prominent market research firm, National Research Group. Over the next two years, he and his colleagues systematically analyzed how much movies made, how quickly,and for what reasons, then peddled their conclusions to studios, which used them to devise more profitable ways to make and market features in the future. "It was quite interesting," he says. "After a while, though, I had to wonder, 'Do I really want to spend my life thinking of just the right way to market Revenge of the Nerds 2?'"

Wyatt doesn't simply blast the new Hollywood, though. He sees artistic value in some of the movies he dissects--particularly films by British emigres like Adrian Lyne, Alan Parker, and Ridley and Tony Scott, who packaged American films with a slick, glossy, sensual feel that crossbred techniques from experimental movies, music videos, and TV advertising. But Wyatt keeps his critical distance and rarely makes explicit value judgments about a movie's overall worth. He explores recent blockbusters from both an aesthetic and economic angle, arguing that in today's Hollywood, marketing now drives art, not the other way around.

"The book grew out of an attempt to deal with a very commercial kind of Hollywood filmmaking that critics were apt to just write off," says Wyatt, now in Manhattan, where he's on leave to research his second book, an examination of the economics of independent filmmaking. "The book is an attempt to deal with this kind of cinema seriously, to figure out where it came from and why there are so many examples of it in theaters--to try to determine what sorts of forces determine what we see when we go to the movies."

Wyatt devotes plenty of space to the notion of "high concept" moviemaking. The term, which gives the book its title, refers to an idea for a movie so simple that you can reduce it to a single sentence, like "A big-screen version of Batman, with Jack Nicholson as the Joker," or "Welder by day, dancer by night" or "Three guys try to kill a shark that's terrorizing a New England resort town," or "A married guy has a one-night stand with a dangerous woman who refuses to leave him alone."

The simpler an idea is, the more easily it can be sold to wide audiences, the greater the chance that the movie can rake in a gigantic opening-weekend gross, be easily described on a video box or laserdisc jacket or TV listing, and adapted to sell soundtrack albums, T-shirts, and other tie-in items. ("I like ideas, especially movie ideas, that you can hold in your hand," Steven Spielberg once admitted. "If a person can tell me the idea in 25 words or less, it's going to make a pretty good movie.")

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 advance...to wring every last dollar they can from every big movie they make.

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