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Culture Warrior: George Lucas’s Problem of Mass Appeal

By  · Published on January 31st, 2012

A week and a half ago, Anthony Hemingway’s Red Tails was released. On the surface, the film breathes Hollywood oxygen through-and-through. It’s a WWII era action film that uses its setting for broad family-friendly cheese-banter and CGI-heavy eye candy rather than an opportunity for a sober interrogation of history. Red Tails looks and feels like any Hollywood film geared toward as mass an audience as possible. But the studio that’s distributing it – 20th Century Fox – didn’t pay a dime to produce it. The reported $58 million cost to make Red Tails came solely out of the pocket of producer George Lucas, who had been attempting to get a film about the Tuskegee Airmen made since the early 1990s. He was continually met with resistance from a studio system that saw anything less than the biggest guaranteed appeal to the largest possible audience as a “risk,” including a heroic true story about African-American airmen.

The ideology that closed the doors on George Lucas of all people reflects the same business mentality that inspired Jeffrey Katzenberg’s lengthy warning to other studios in a memo written during the same years that Lucas was first trying to get Red Tails financed. In the memo, Katzenberg warned studios regarding their practice of exponentially centralizing all their resources in a few very expensive projects, resulting in high risk, little room for experimentation, and an increasing reliance on that coveted monolith known as the “mass audience” (which, to make things even more complicated, now includes a dependance on gangbuster international business). In order to break even, studios need to constantly break records. Twenty years after Katzenberg’s memo, this and this were what “disappointment” looked like.

In an article I posted last week about 1977 as the year Hollywood shifted to the blockbuster mentality, I argued that films like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind could be more appropriately deemed “New Hollywood” than movies like Five Easy Pieces or Midnight Cowboy because these blockbusters signal Hollywood’s return to gearing their product for a mass audience after the studio system’s countercultural (but historically beloved) hiccup. I still stand by this point, but New Hollywood’s (in my appropriation of the term) understanding of “quantity” is quite different than Old Hollywood.

Old Hollywood was incredibly prolific in its manufacturing of films with assembly line-efficiency, and Hollywood’s predictable output danced a thin line between similarity and difference (each year, Warner Bros. released a handful of gangster films, MGM a handful of musicals, etc.). Now, the studio mentality is inverted: spend an incredible amount of money on a select few films in the hopes of franchising. The result, of course, is something that makes Hollywood of the 60s and 70s seem ever more exceptional: a studio system which takes no risks in the face of a mass audience imagined to be – to put it bluntly – stupid, intolerant, and easily confused.

This last point was made quite clear by George Clooney in The Daily Beast’s roundtable interview of the year’s great performers. To paraphrase Clooney, a studio head will say, “I get it, but the audience won’t.” Who exactly this studio head is imagining (A middle-aged Tea Partier? A cranky grandmother? An easily perturbed child? A teenager with their face glued to a cell phone screen?) is unclear, but the high-risk investments of studios have resulted in a handle-your-audience-with-kid-gloves multiplex culture. At some point, playing to the lowest common denominator becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If all that a given multiplex has available are these filtered down, endlessly test-screened and focus-grouped ideas of what a movie is, then for audiences the notion that these options are all that movies can and should be becomes standardized.

The culture of American independent film, which has brought to screens some of the most fascinating and risk-taking of the nation’s films from the time of Eraserhead and Killer of Sheep up to the early-mid 90s, has provided a necessary counterbalance to studio hegemony. The line since has, of course, become increasingly blurred. Former independent filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino are now crowned creative saviors of an otherwise vacant studio system. Meanwhile, most of the higher-profile domestic movies released by Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight, and Focus Features don’t so much represent groundbreaking and progressive institution for uniquely American cinematic expression, but simply consist of movies defined as “risky” by alterity alone, in opposition to the studios’ strict no-risk model.

The ghettoization of otherwise accessible films into limited release patterns (i.e., smaller-scale movies that only move to multiplexes after passing the “test” of metropolitan film markets) only reinforces Hollywood’s routine perpetuation of the idea that only films catered toward mass appeal are worthy of wide release. Studio heads work under the assumption that they’re giving audiences what they want, rather than acknowledging their essential role in creating frameworks of “want.” After all, when you go to a 16-screen movie theater and half the screens are dominated by three movies while over 100 movies are tracked at the box office each weekend, it’s difficult to say that theatrical moviegoing operates through an ideal free market ethos.

Of course, actual independent filmmaking still exists, thanks largely to digital filmmaking and alternative avenues of distribution. And while a few films do break the mold every now and again on movie screens, that grassroots independent filmmaking seems to be slowly moving toward a total abandonment of theatrical distribution is yet another symptom of Hollywood’s dominance. “Mainstream” movies may not have a vertical distribution model of production to exhibition like Classical Hollywood did until 1948, but they might as well.

While the uber-consolidated model of safe and expensive studio filmmaking seems unsustainable (where Hollywood battled television in the 1950s with widescreen epics, they now battle the Internet with 3D), the dominance of no-risk business practices since (roughly) the early eighties has proliferated the industry irreparably. After all, the blockbuster mentality, stretching back to 1977, has eclipsed the time period conventionally known as “New Hollywood” many times over. This mentality has had more control, for a longer amount of time, than past content-determining institutions like the Hays Code ever did.

Which brings us back to George Lucas. Brian Curtis’s profile of the behemoth writer/director/producer/pompadour enthusiast is a fascinating character portrait of a man who, beyond his maddeningly mass-appeal and kid-friendly approach to the medium, is still a rebel with a camera at heart. Lucas, after all, started off in USC film school as an aggressive experimenter in form with a political edge that fit better alongside Jack Nicholson and Hal Ashby than Harrison Ford. His short, Freiheit (1966), for instance, is clearly a reactionary critique of the Vietnam War, specifically the contradictory notion of “freedom” informing the logic of duty and unquestioning servitude in arms.

It’s not without a tinge of poetic irony, then, that a man so singlehandedly complicit in creating the blockbuster mentality would ultimately have doors slammed in his face because of it.

The Hollywood mentality seems to have arrived at something of a breaking point the past few weeks. Along with justified frustration over finally getting a Hollywood-sleek movie made about African American fighter pilots in WWII in the 21st century, James McBride displayed frustration over what The Help’s Oscar nominations represents for the future of African-American talent. And in the previously mentioned interview, Viola Davis is (to Charlize Theron’s dismay) incredibly frank about the lack of representation of middle-aged black women in Hollywood. Had The Help not had Emma Stone alongside Viola Davis, would it have incurred as much trouble as Red Tails in getting made? And these are not challenging, risk-taking films, but are as mainstream as films can be. Not every accessible (or even outright bad) Hollywood-style movie that doesn’t fit perfectly in the studio model for mass appeal has a zillionaire like George Lucas to singlehandedly save it. We are being denied so many stories.

This year, two of the biggest movie stars of Hollywood are nominated for Best Actor. Each of their films (George Clooney in The Descendants, Brad Pitt in Moneyball) were modest successes and a far cry from blockbuster (which now regrettably seems to be the only definition of “success”). Some would say that star capital is less meaningful today (as I have said before). But it’s not like Clooney and Pitt can’t act in, or aren’t offered, the latest tentpole production. They simply choose to do smaller projects instead. At the risk of making their stardom less valuable, instead move their cache to provide riskier films (a cynical view of political gamesmanship in Clooney’s Ides of March, an elliptical art film in Pitt’s collaboration with Terrence Malick) more of a voice than they might have otherwise. The passion of select superstars (Clooney, Pitt, even Lucas) might be the only hope against the monotony of the blockbuster that has dominated the studio system since 1977.

It is possible, then, for risky and even personal films to make it to wide release, but you only have to be insanely rich and unimaginably successful first.

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