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By Doug Brunell | September 14, 2006

I recently finished Peter Bart’s “The Gross,” an examination of Hollywood in the summer of 1998. It sounds like it may be interesting, with that being the summer of “Saving Private Ryan” and “Godzilla,” but when you read a passage that describes Jerry Bruckheimer as having “a poker player’s wary eyes,” you know you’re in for the kind of treat the writer never intended. By the end of the book I knew why I got it for a buck at the local Dollar Tree store.
Bart needs three hundred plus pages to describe how Hollywood studios go about making films, how talent is courted, how egos are stroked, and how it all comes down to demographic studies in order to find that magical formula that will make a lot of people very, very rich. In the summer of 1998, however, the rules changed as the moviegoing audience wasn’t really too into mere special effects and clever ad campaigns. A gross out comedy and a serious picture got all the bucks, while surefire hits either totally disappointed or barely pleased. Studio heads, who look at movies solely as financial deals, were a bit puzzled, and while Bart seemed to understand the logic behind the numbers, the reader gets a sense that even he was stunned by the grosses certain films earned. Those films expected to do big box office numbers didn’t do too well, and nobody seemed to want to take responsibility for it.
I could’ve wrote that book, but it would’ve been all of five sentences. “Hollywood’s box office numbers weren’t as high as studio heads hoped for the summer of 1998. The films were more expensive, and they were barely making their money back. Why? The films were crap. Stop making crap, and people will be more likely to spend their money.” Publishers don’t really give book deals for a paragraph, though, so Bart dragged it out by talking about how people got their jobs and why Mel Gibson did yet another “Lethal Weapon” sequel. (For those without a sense of time, this was pre-drunk Nazi Mel.)
Covering Hollywood from a serious angle has got to be a lot like observing an interior decorator do his thing. You know as your watching that it isn’t a real job, and it all kind of exists because people have too much vanity, too much money, and not enough skill. Bart, who has worn different hats in Hollywood, knows this but didn’t care enough to write about something other than the “controversy” over “Small Soldiers.” If anyone other than him actually remembers that nonsense, I’ll be impressed. If they actually care, I’ll pity them. God only knows I couldn’t give a f**k.
So, what films did Bart drone on and on about, devoting entire chapters to them as if they had all the weight of “Citizen Kane”? Let’s see. “Godzilla.” “Jane Austen’s Mafia.” “Disturbing Behavior.” “Six Days, Seven Nights.” “Snake Eyes.” “The Avengers.” “The Truman Show.” “Saving Private Ryan.” Over three hundred pages, and I can cover the problems in just a few paragraphs.
I sat in the theatre and watched “Godzilla.” There wasn’t one cell in my body that wasn’t offended by the atrocity I witnessed on the screen. I’m a fan of the giant lizard, but that thing was nothing more than “Jurassic Park Raptor King Takes New York.” It wasn’t Godzilla. It was s**t.
“Jane Austen’s Mafia” came and went because it never seemed like a good idea in the first place. Anybody who thought it would make a sizable amount of cash has done too many mushrooms. Or maybe they haven’t done enough.
“Disturbing Behavior” looked like crap even to the core audience that usually loves that kind of film. Most people forgot it existed even as they watched it.
“Six Days, Seven Nights” had a couple of strikes against it that helped keep it from being a blockbuster. First was the unfortunate timing of having its female romantic lead come out as lesbian who was dating the most annoying woman in all of Hollywood. The second strike was having a scene with pirates. I think the lesbian thing hurt more, though. Most of America likes its lesbians to look as though they stepped out of “Penthouse.” Lots of lipstick, lots of tits, and non-threatening in every way.
Brian DePalma put out “Snake Eyes.” Nobody had any reason to care.
Then there was a film called “The Avengers,” which wasn’t based on the Marvel comic book, but was based on an old British television series. Who was the audience for it? People who don’t go see those types of movies anymore.
That summer had its films of note, such as “The Truman Show” and “Saving Private Ryan.” Both films had good reviews, and one obviously did better than the other in the money department. Hollywood can’t get it wrong all the time despite its best efforts. Realistically speaking, however, those films were flukes. They may have made money and won praise, but they didn’t drive the studio’s business plans. The losers did, which is a guaranteed way to run your business into the ground.
Focusing on the negative, the studios decided that in order to save themselves they would have to keep special effects movies to a minimum, scale back the sequels (along with the number of movies put out all together), and they would need to work out different sorts of deals with the stars. Better films didn’t have a place in the new game plan, though. More innovative scripts didn’t have a home, either. The goal was “less and cheaper,” or at least that’s what the studios said they were doing.
So eight years later what did 2006’s summer season bring us? More sequels. More big special effects. More exaggerated budgets. What don’t you see too much of? Quality films and innovative films. There was one or two, but they were the anomalies. Nothing has changed, and no lessons were really learned.
Hollywood is in a slump and will continue that slow decline until those suits read Bart’s rather tepid book and then read between the lines. Bart spelled it out, though he didn’t realize it. It doesn’t take a college degree or magic eightball to see it, either. It’s just common sense and the willingness to make actual films again. The audience may rise to the expectations if given a chance. I have at least that much faith in them. As long as the studios keep doing stuff like “The Avengers,” though, they will never fix the problem. They will, however, keep digging a deeper hole.
Shoplift Bart’s book (it’s barely worth the buck), and then tell me differently. I’ll be happy to hear your theories, but I’ll counter every argument with “Jane Austen’s Mafia.” There’s no getting around that one no matter how hard you try.

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