We gave it an A-
Ninety-five percent of the movies that come out of Hollywood are crap. To pretend otherwise is disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst; to believe otherwise is delusional.
That said, it should be noted that 95 percent of the movies coming out of Hollywood have always been crap — it’s only the other 5 percent we call ”classics.” Why is this so? A skadillion articles, books, and panels of experts have plumbed the question over the years and, in the end, have formulated nothing more precise than the observation that Hollywood is (a) a profoundly commercial industry in which (b), according to William Goldman’s famous dictum, ”nobody knows anything.” Out of the high-pressure clash between those two forces — naked greed, pitiful ignorance — rises the hustle and craft and paranoia and power lust and sheer-dumb-luck art of the movie business. That, and a lot of crap.
Now, this critic has read many movie books in his time — specifically, those this-is-how-it-really-works-kid self-help tell-alls aimed at novice screenwriters and directors — but nothing even comes close to Shoot Out: Surviving Fame and (Mis)Fortune in Hollywood in laying out both how the business really, really works and why it is a machine broken beyond repair. For one thing, it’s written by two men with industry battle scars, sometimes self-inflicted: former studio exec and current Variety editor in chief Peter Bart and producer/ex-studio head Peter Guber (”Batman,” ”Rain Man”). ”Shoot Out” is, in essence, a paper version of a popular course the two give at UCLA’s filmmaking school. One wonders why their students don’t run screaming from the state of California at semester’s end.
But maybe that’s the idea: to winnow the pool of wannabes by painting the film industry as a series of soul-destroying compromises in the endless pursuit of corporatized junk. I took a Psych 101 course like that in college; it was meant for (and succeeded in) chasing out those naive freshmen who thought they wanted to major in the field. All that was left were the hard cases, and similarly, only a devoted masochist would want to enter the movie business after reading ”Shoot Out.”
Helpfully, Bart and Guber break the dysfunction into its constituent parts, each with a self-important chapter heading. ”The Mapmakers” is all about screenwriting and why it doesn’t matter in modern Hollywood: ”There’s no misreading the signals: Hollywood, by and large, wants ‘safe’ commercial fare,” write the authors. ”Clever dialogue doesn’t factor. In fact, it’s essentially irrelevant…why make risky movies if you can get away with schlock?” Then there are ”The Alchemists”: ”Most of the world’s top film directors, if pressed, will admit that…they don’t really like directing.” Stars are ”The Illuminati,” and star perks like personal aircraft, expense accounts, and back-end deals ”are the goodies that go beyond paying the illuminati their price. They constitute tribute. Perhaps a tribute to the stupidity of the business.” Agents, ”The Zookeepers,” ”dwell in their own sociopathic cocoon.” And so on, up the ladder to the studio execs, marketing gurus, and media; everyone is indicted except, tellingly, the audience.
What makes ”Shoot Out” more than a jeremiad, though, is the way Bart and Guber explain in detail how each dysfunction functions. The chapter on studios (”The Golden Rule”) is a quick history in the corporate absorption and neutering of independent filmmaking. The section on the actual shoot (”The Crucible”) is a priceless summation of why ”everything that can possibly go wrong in the middle of a production usually does.” For added entertainment, the authors spill dirt on everyone from Walt Disney to Kevin Costner.
Make no mistake, Bart and Guber are insiders. That flattened perspective sometimes results in contradictions: We read that ”star-driven movies often turn out better,” and then, 18 pages later, discover that ”more and more superstar vehicles fail to satisfy on any level, critical or financial.” A few judgments are curious: Since when is Sydney Pollack ”an edgy maverick”? And the whole Left Coast pishtosh about ”vision keepers” and storytelling ”shamans” is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
But at least the authors are aware that there is a problem, and that ”a productive co-existence between the corporate and creative communities…will never come to pass until basic structural changes are made.” Perhaps those structural changes should be the focus of their next book. They can call it ”Cut the Crap.”