HOLLYWOOD HITS 100
Hollywood: the name is immeasurably larger than the place. It conjures up a wide-screen sky stabbed by searchlights, lines of white limousines stretching into a world with no horizon. Hollywood’s physical existence—one patch in the Los Angeles urban quilt—is spelled out by 60-foot letters mounted on a hillside. But in the end it remains a mythical realm, as elusive as Aladdin’s cave, defying the intentions of those who would possess it. The first who tried was Harvey Wilcox, a real estate agent and prohibitionist from Kansas who, on Feb. 1, 1887, subdivided a 120-acre tract of cactus-studded land covering the centre of what is now Hollywood. This Hollywood celebrates its official centenary. Wilcox’s wife, Daeida, christened Hollywood, borrowing the name from a friend’s Chicago country home. The holly bush does not even grow in Southern California—making the name a fitting anomaly for a place devoted to the artificial cultivation of dreams.
Crisis: Like nearly everything else in Tinseltown, the centenary has been largely fabricated. Hollywood’s first movie studio did not open until 1911. But in a town that thrives on celebrating itself, fact rarely interferes with legend. The centenary celebration, which began in February, resumes this week with a series of celebrity luncheons, polo matches, a Hollywood 100 Pro-Celebrity Tennis Classic—and a ceremony naming Bob Hope Hollywood’s citizen of the century.
While Hollywood basks in its myth of immortality, a movie industry that has long outgrown the town’s geographic boundaries is facing a mid-life crisis. Sidney Sheinberg, president of the huge conglomerate, MCA Inc., which includes Universal Pictures, told Maclean’s: “I’m not convinced that this town—in the metaphysical sense—can adjust to the world of the future. There’s a premise that somehow we don’t have to compete with the real world. That is ridiculous.”
Hollywood’s grandeur has faded considerably since its golden age, when a few dozen studio bosses ruled the silver screen. Huge conglomerates have swallowed the major studios, and pinstriped lawyers have replaced cigarsmoking despots. The new executive breed displays obsessive concern for marketing. While they continue to gamble huge sums on movies tailormade for established stars, they are reluctant to take their own artistic risks, choosing instead to act as bankers and distributors for more adventurous independent producers. Meanwhile, the independents routinely defy Hollywood’s conventional wisdom by showing that movies do not require a budget rivalling the GNP of a small Third World country to conquer the box office. The Oscar-winning Platoon, which has grossed $180 million, was independently produced last year for just $8 million.
Superpowers: Still, through sheer financial clout, the major stu dios-Universal, Para mount, Columbia, Warner Brothers, Orion and Fox-remain the superpowers of cinema. Extending their reach through the expanding web of TV technology, the studios remain one of the most pervasive forces in Western cul ture, sending Holly wood's images to
screens large and small from the Arctic to the Amazon. Even when a foreign import like Australia’s Crocodile Dundee seduces a Canadian audience, it is a Hollywood distributor who has dictated the cuts, and who reaps the box-office rewards.
Hollywood’s economic influence extends beyond the screen to mass-market empires of records, tapes, books, clothes, computers and toys. But the big-budget motion picture remains its most glamorous product. And the typical studio executive still clings to a stubborn faith in high-priced productions, although they are becoming increasingly unwieldy. Ishtar, Columbia’s $50-million comedy starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, has inspired such headlines as “Ishtar Ishtuck” with its lame performance at the box office.
Surge: In fact, more than half the budget was spent off the set—$18 million on salaries for director Elaine May and her two stars, and $14 million on promotion. Despite that, Ishtar grossed a modest $5.8 million in its opening weekend last month—just ahead of The Gate, a $5.5-million horror film produced and shot in Toronto.
One reason that Ishtar’s boyish but aging stars may have failed to deliver their box-office potential is that their generation is spending less time going to movies. The proliferation of television and home video has cut into the traditional theatre audience, where the youth market now rules—the type of moviegoers who helped Beverly Hills Cop II
gross $55 million in its first week.
Attendance in North American movie theatres now averages 22 million a week, compared with a peak of nearly 90 million in 1946. Yet the movie business is more profitable than ever. Garth Drabinsky, the Toronto-based president of the Cineplex Odeon Corp. theatre chain, predicts that 1987’s boxoffice grosses will surge past the $5.5billion record set in 1984. And most producers are now reaping as much revenue from TV and video cassette
sales as from theatrical showings. Said Drabinsky: “The industry is in very healthy shape. It has weathered this doom-and-gloom nonsense: the expansion of video has only served to facilitate production.” The secret to Hollywood’s survival is its capacity to control new technology—and talent. “Every film-maker in the world is curious about Hollywood,” says Montreal director Denys Arcand. “It’s full of people making deals, with their attaché cases full of concepts. At my hotel the swimming pool was surrounded by fat men sitting by their phones.”
Paramount hired script doctor David Geiler (Alien) to overhaul the Quebec director’s The Decline of the American Empire script for an American remake. Hollywood, explains Arcand, “has an enormous capacity to absorb
Immortality: From its early days, the town has attracted outsiders like a magnet. The pioneers of its movie industry included immigrants such as Britain’s Charlie Chaplin and Hungary’s Adolph Zukor. In the 1920s about a third of its directors were foreign-born, and some key figures hailed from Canada (page 38). Hollywood’s glamor galvanized the world. When Toronto-born Mary Pickford and husband Douglas Fairbanks visited Moscow in 1925, a million people turned out to greet them. And at home, developers erected monuments of imperial grandeur along Hollywood Boulevard. Mimicking ancient wonders, they constructed the town’s ornate Chinese and Egyptian theatres. The opening subThe Last Command summed up the town’s obsession with ersatz immortality: “Hollywood, the magic empire of the twentieth century! The mecca of the world!”
Meanwhile, the studio bosses ran the movie industry like born-again pharaohs. Darryl F.
Zanuck of Twentieth Century Fox surrounded himself with dictating machines—his bedroom, his office and his editing rooms were all wired to receive his orders around the clock.
David O. Selznick made his staff work 24-hour shifts, and commandeered a 14-writer team to script his 1939 production of Gone With
the Wind. Such major literary talents as F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner became cogs in screenwriting assembly lines—or, as studio boss Jack Warner once described his contract writers, “schmucks with Underwoods.”
It was an industrial revolution of the imagination.
Traumas: The Hollywood dream factory reinvented the world in its own image. Manufacturing miracles, tastes and passions, it created a mass faith. When Cecil B. de Mille’s The Ten Commandments (1923) portrayed the parting of the Red Sea with shimmering blocks of Jello, de Mille had to inform the anxious public that no horses had drowned the process. When
Clark Gable stripped off his shirt to reveal a naked torso in 1934’s It Happened One Night,
American undershirt sales plummeted by 50 per cent. At the end of the Second World War,
Look magazine reported,
“In every country liberated by Allied arms, the first civilian demand was for food; the second was for American movies.”
Postwar Hollywood reeled through a series of traumas. During the late 1940s it became a target for anti-Communist attacks. A blacklist of liberal actors, writers and directors harmed thousands of careers. In the 1950s television cut into theatre attendance and film production declined. The studios tried to compete by producing bigger movies for wider screens, while carving a niche in TV production. In the 1980s, Hollywood adapted to another threat, home video, by making it a new market for feature films.
Studio heads no longer create and destroy stars with the flick of a cigar. Stars—and their lawyers—are now themselves deal makers. But under the rule of such conglomerates as CocaCola Co. (Columbia) and Gulf-1-Western Inc. (Paramount), the leading studios have become what Paramount chairman Frank Mancuso calls “full-service entertainment companies.” The support of a conglomerate, adds Mancuso, “gives a financial stability that didn’t exist before.”
Paramount, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, is the only big studio left within Hollywood’s municipal boundaries. Behind the walls of its 55acre lot, Mancuso, 53, sits behind a marbletopped desk in an office once occupied by Zukor and de Mille. But his background is marketing rather than filmmaking: in the 1970s he worked for Paramount’s Canadian branch in Toronto. Mancuso took over the head office in 1984, and last year Paramount triumphed as the box-office leader, with four of the top 10
movies, earning over a billion dollars and an estimated $150 million in profits. Mancuso says that by signing longterm contracts with successful writers, directors and stars like Eddie Murphy, he has “enhanced the studio system.” The oldest and largest studio is Uni-
versal Pictures, which belongs to MCA Inc.— Hollywood’s most formidable entertainment conglomerate. Universal has produced some of the biggest blockbusters in movie history, including Jaws and E.T. And Uni versal-Television, which makes Miami Vice, is considered TV’s largest production company. MCA also owns major stakes in the music business, book publishing, toy marketing and retail and mail-order sales—and 48 per cent of one of the largest theatre chains in North America, Drabinsky’s Cineplex.
Predatory: In the industry, MCA is known as the Octopus, and its ten-
tacles extend all the way to the White House. In a recent book, Da?'k Victory: Reagan, MCA and the Mob, U.S. author Dan Moldea documents the FBI’s investigations into MCA’s predatory practices and explores the company’s close ties with President Ronald Reagan. When Reagan headed the Screen Actors Guild during the 1950s, he granted MCA a blanket waiver which allowed it to both hire actors as a studio and represent them as a talent agency. Moldea alleges that MCA later helped Reagan become a multimillionaire through lucrative land deals, and managed his 1965 entry into California politics. Writes Moldea: “The standing joke in Hollywood was that ‘MCA even had its own governor.’ ”
MCA headquarters is known as Black Tower, an austere steel-and-glass structure in the heart of the 420-acre
complex known as Universal City. The city includes 36 sound stages, two hotels, office blocks, outdoor sets ranging from frontier towns to European streets, an eightlane bridge spanning the Hollywood Freeway—and a lake.
MCA President Sidney Sheinberg presides over his empire from a spacious office on the building’s top floor; his uncluttered desk is a small oak antique., identical to many others at MCA—the legacy of the company’s founder, the late Jules Stein. Stein’s collection of 18th-century English antiques and fox-hunt engravings still serve as the uniform, but incongruous, decor throughout Black Tower.
‘Scary’: Sheinberg, 52, a Texan-born lawyer, admits that he has never picked up any of the rare books on his office shelves. His passion is business. “MCA is a uniquely entrepreneurial company,” he says, “Entrepreneur. I use that word so frequently that people make fun of me. But it’s not a catchword. I really mean it.” Studio entrepreneurs seek the megahit like a holy grail: for Sheinberg, the true blockbuster transcends entertainment. Witnessing the first audience preview of E.T., he recalled, “was a kind of communal dramatico-religious experience.”
But the escalating cost of creating heaven on Hollywood’s earth is a perennial source of anxiety. For every megahit, there is a megaflop. And production executives rarely stay in the same job long enough to bear the blame for failure. Canadian director Norman Jewison (Agnes of God) says that the big studios “are all run by uptight, ambitious, earnest executives. They go from one studio to another, a professional executive class that keeps spinning through a revolving door.”
Agency lawyers are now the real power brokers in Hollywood. Negotiating custom-made movies for their superstar clients, they often usurp the studio’s traditional role by packaging deals that include director, writer and star. Mark Litwak, author of Reel Power, says that lawyer Michael Ovitz, head of Creative Artists Agency (CAA), is “the most influential person in Hollywood.” Writes Litwak: “While he never gets a screen credit, everyone who matters in the industry knows who he is.”
Star salaries negotiated by Ovitz
and his colleagues can make production costs soar. The budget of Carolco Pictures Inc.’s Rambo III is estimated at nearly $50 million—almost half for Sylvester Stallone’s salary. Suggests Drabinsky, “What if all of a sudden Stallone loses his favor with his audience? It’s at the point where things get a little bit scary.” Even at MCA, master of megahits, Hollywood’s extravagance arouses concern. “This community has gotten into many, many bad habits,” said Sheinberg. “I’m seriously concerned that this business will end up being exported—look at the volume of production going on in Toronto.” Independent productions, once confined to the art-house fringe, now compete with studio movies as regular items on the multiplex menu. Last year independents turned out more than 350 films worldwide, up 60 per cent from the previous year. And one leading independent producer, Britain’s David Puttnam (Chariots of Fire, Local Hero), became chairman of Columbia Pictures last year. Puttnam—appointed after Columbia’s Ishtar was already under way—
has vowed to cut costs and avoid formula film-making. Puttnam has also challenged Hollywood’s practice of using teams of writers to overhaul scripts to a studio’s specifications. “I’ve never changed writers,” he says. “If the writer who was originally right for the project can’t do it, then the film won’t be made.”
Rude: One Canadian writer whose script passed through Hollywood’s mills intact is Arlene Sarner, who, with her husband Jerry Leichtling, cowrote Peggy Sue Got Married. Directed by Francis Coppola and starring Kathleen Turner, Peggy Sue was Sarner’s first attempt at writing a film script—but it was accepted almost at once. “After the success of Peggy Sue,” said Sarner, “we were flavor of the month.” In the past year the couple turned Stephen King and Peter Straub’s novel The Talisman into a script for producer Steven Spielberg, wrote a TV pilot, and declined several offers to custom-design scripts for stars. Said Sarner: “You get asked to do a movie for Madonna, a movie for Eddie Murphy—then they want you to develop a script for Madonna and Eddie Murphy.”
Stardom is still the ultimate commodity in Hollywood. The stars are Ameri-
ca’s unofficial royalty, with a divine right conferred by the rude democracy of the box office. Over the years, Tinseltown may have surrendered its imperial glamor to businessmen—but as it turns 100, it bravely keeps up appearances. It can still claim to be a place where dreams come true, a bottomless wishing-well of Western culture. “The wonderful thing is,” says Sarner, “no matter what I can think of in my wildest imaginings, they can create it. You can’t do that anywhere but Hollywood.”
BRIAN D. JOHNSON