Original Publication: California Magazine – October, 1981.
Who will decide the film industry’s future? Our plot thickens.
It is a late afternoon at Twentieth Century-Fox, the studio where all the action is these days. Not in production, but in keeping tabs on who’s in, who’s out, who’s up, who’s down since Marvin Davis, the shrewd 300-pound Denver oil millionaire, bought the studio several months ago for himself and his five kids—two of whom are already on the payroll. Davis has indicated he might construct a new studio, the first to be built in Hollywood in decades. But he has made it clear that he considers the future of the company to be in television and real estate. Apparently Marvin Davis is a practical man who likes to think ahead. So if any studio should be intrigued by the new technologies that promise a complete overhaul of the antiquated filmmaking and distribution process, it ought to be Fox.
With a heightened sense of expectation, then, the two distinguished visitors from the East enter the “video conference room” on the Fox lot, a prefab structure equipped with six high-resolution TV monitors. The low-key man is Dr. Jerome Wiesner, president emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former science advisor to President Kennedy; his highly charged colleague is Professor Nicholas Negroponte, also of MIT, who has been called, “academe’s number-one video disc visionary.”
Wiesner and Negroponte believe they have glimpsed the future and that much of their pure research could be useful to filmmakers in a few years. They have come to Fox, “demo” optical discs in hand, to tell studio vice presidents about new processes that could vastly speed up the initial editing of a film, compose electronic music, design computer-generated graphics, and help Fox build a new studio.
Their presentation is a dazzling display of technological fireworks. Negroponte is the principal architect of “Dataland,” a collection of futuristic wonders contained in a high-tech room on the MIT campus. After he whacks a recalcitrant video disc machine with a mop handle to get it going, the television screen shows a man in Dataland, sitting in an Eames chair. At one point, the man tells an advanced, voice-activated computer that he wants to watch an episode of Columbo. Peter Falk instantly appears on a floor-to-ceiling video screen. Now the man says he would like to hear the show in Japanese, and suddenly he gets his wish—Peter Falk is speaking Japanese!
The man in the chair wants to make a phone call, so the computer generates the image of a telephone on a small screen to his right. He can either lean over and punch the buttons on the phone image (a touch-sensitive computer will do the dialing) or just blurt out the name of the person he wants to reach and let the computer search its memory bank for the number. “Hello?” says the voice on the other end.
The disc then shows another project, not connected with Dataland—teleconferencing. Suddenly the Fox executives see lips appear on the screen. They look as if they are made of Silly Putty. The image is generated by a combination of computers and video discs that simulate the sixteen basic mouth movements that form English speech. Negroponte superimposes the lips over the mouth of a similarly generated life-like face—the ultimate talking head.
“That’s a lot cheaper than getting an actor to loop his lines,” says a Fox Telecommunications vice president.
“We got it to sing the other day,” says Negroponte.
Much of the funding for the professors’ research has come from the Department of Defense, which Negroponte euphemistically refers to as “our old friends.” He and Wiesner want some new ones. The Pentagon will not give them a grant for the construction of facilities, and the two professors want MIT to build a $21 million Arts and Media Technology Center on its Cambridge, Massachusetts, campus ($14 million already has been raised). So Wiesner and Negroponte have made their Hollywood pilgrimage to persuade the six major studios and Disney to donate money for the center. Today, at Fox, they will request $50,000 a year for five years. Lunch money by Hollywood standards.
For his finale, Negroponte presents “Movie Maps.” A computer-controlled disc has stored photographs of every ten feet of road in Aspen, Colorado. Viewers can, in effect, drive through town, seeing things as a driver would. They can order the “car” to turn in any of four directions or tell it to go to a particular person’s house.
It is captivating stuff, but there is something amiss. The reception in the Fox conference room is only polite. Part of the problem is the presentation. Wiesner, with the face of the family beagle and a kindly professorial mien, and Negroponte—serious, intense—don’t know how to pitch an idea Hollywood style. They are too long-winded. They don’t deliver punch lines on cue, and they never mention the bottom line. If only they had a William Morris agent to rep them. After all, Jimmy Carter has one.
But there is a larger problem. As Richard Wolfe, Fox Telecommunications vice president for engineering and video technology, tells them, not unsympathetically, “The studios aren’t interested in this sort of thing. They don’t care. They’re resistant to change and are not interested in hardware.”
Or, if they do care, Negroponte would later say, “Most people look at what we’ve presented and ask only about how much time and money they’ll save. Not one person I’ve talked to [among top executives at most studios] has seen any possibilities in this as a new form of entertainment, or how the medium will evolve, or what it would look like.”
The meeting ends with handshakes and smiles all around, and promises to “study” the proposal. Outside, in the parking lot, dwarfed by the faded Hello, Dolly set that has never been torn down, the men from MIT seem tired and resigned.
“In Japan,” Wiesner says, “I can go to the presidents of the top ten corporations and have a serious technical discussion. So they’re not afraid to take technological risk. America is only willing to take financial risk—that’s the way the movie business has always been. The top people do not know the technical business.”
The late mayor of Buffalo, New York, Stanley M. Makowski, once observed, “The future lies ahead of us.” That much Hollywood knows. Everything else, however, is slightly out of focus these days. The town is faced with a technological revolution that it can’t decide whether to ignore or embrace. Should movie studios buy pay TV systems? Should they convert to an all-electronic editing process? Should they release films on video cassettes the same day they open theatrically? Suddenly the movie business is even more complicated than ever.
Hollywood ’81 – Business as Usual
Hollywood is one of the last major American industries to essentially ignore computers, at least in producing its product. If Irving Thalberg walked onto a set today, he would recognize most of the equipment. At the major studios, film is still carried around in laundry baskets, and each frame is still touched by human hands.
There are two ways of looking at Hollywood’s chronic indifference to new technology. Perhaps the industry, like Ford or Bethlehem Steel, is institutionally incapable of rapid modernization. Or perhaps Hollywood is just being a sly ol’ granddaddy crocodile, sunning itself nonchalantly in the stream while waiting for the juiciest meat to flow by. Let the little guys experiment with the new pay TV marketplace. Let the good professors play with their toys in Dataland, already aided by the Department of Defense. Let it all shake down—and then Hollywood will move in. As Verna Fields, vice president in charge of postproduction at Universal, says, “Hollywood is never willing to put back into research what it takes out. It would rather pay for it after it get developed.”
The question is whether the industry can afford to wait. Last year Americans spent $8 billion on electronic games and $3 billion at the movie box office. Over the past decade, domestic rentals—the portion of a film’s gross that is returned to the distributor after the theater owner takes his cut—have not kept pace with production costs, which have soared. And so the decrees went out—the celluloid gas guzzlers, which had been careening around, often, it appeared, without a driver, would be phased out. Wretched excess, in vogue since the late seventies, was declared over. Even so, the average cost of a film is $10 million, and it costs another $5 to $6 million in prints and advertising. Thus, the studios are in no mood to take chances. If a film doesn’t open well, it is often pulled after its third weekend. The business today, says one studio executive, has come down to making films that are either “high concept” or “high casting.” Raiders of the Lost Ark and Alien are examples of the former, and Nine to Five and Stir Crazy of the latter. Instead of concentrating on what makes a good movie, Hollywood is trying to tailor hits.
Fear is rampant, and it all begins in the executive suites. For example, one of Hollywood’s favorite terms for making a movie is “rolling the dice.” It is oddly appropriate, then, that for relaxation, elite movie moguls and a few younger executives play poker together—the most famous game taking place Thursday nights upstairs at a swank Hollywood restaurant. On Monday nights there is another game at a network executive’s house that includes the heads of three major studios. A man who attends these games says he can often get his fellow high rollers to fold rather than ante up a $2 raise. Why? “Because there is such a fear of losing. Nobody in this town wants to lose.”
Nor do they want to admit they don’t know what they’re doing. Directors, producers, and screenwriters constantly complain these days that studio executives, many of who are young and inexperienced, often had no firsthand training making movies. These executives are supposedly valuable because they can make “development deals” for scripts and packages, most of which never see the light of day. One baby mogul who is said to be taking home close to $200,000 a year has been employed by several major studios without ever seeing a film through from start to finish. “None of us has produced a film,” says Claire Townsend, vice president for production at Fox. “We’re an executive breed. You can learn an enormous amount as an executive, but finally you are not on the line.”
Despite a general lack of continuity and experience in their chosen work, most movie executives do care about making good films. But the environment they inhabit makes it difficult to take any sort of risks, creative or technological. As one of them says, “All of us know we’ll only be doing this for a real short time because eventually we’ll be fired.”
A few days after the two professors left the Fox lot that recent afternoon, Negroponte says, Marvin Davis—a man who does not have to worry about being fired—called Wiesner. “Why didn’t you let me know you were in town?” Davis boomed. “What do you want?”
“You know damn well,” Wiesner said.
“Well, you’re going to get it,” Davis assured him. But a month later they were still waiting.
Negroponte says three other studios—Paramount, Columbia, and Disney—have also promised contributions, though these studios, too, haven’t exactly rushed to press a check into the professors’ hands.
In dealing with the new technology and its implications, Hollywood is like a prairie town in the path of a giant tornado; houses will surely be swept away, though people are calmly eating breakfast in them at the moment. There are some who will know what to do when the twister hits, and others who won’t.
Thomas Brown is a 31-year-old electronics hustler. Ordinarily he would be confined to spaces where “techno-nerds” hang out—the places where he has been before: sweeping the floor of a recording studio in return for the chance to fool around with the electronic equipment; turning the control room knobs and dials for a Hawaiian public TV project with underground filmmaker Stan VanDerBeek; acting as chauffeur to gonzo rocker Captain Beefheart; assisting on a Bill Graham laser light show. Back home in Fort Smith, Arkansas, his parents always wanted him to be a doctor, but today Thomas Brown is a technobrat—a small piece of the puzzled future of Hollywood.
Brown is ace assistant to Francis Coppola, helping to assemble and refine the grand plan for an all-electronic cinema. Its most visible symbol is “Image and Sound Control,” the $600,000 silver Airstream motor home whose exotic equipment Brown and a dedicated team of technobrats collected, piece by hard-to-come-by piece. The Airstream now sits on a back lot of Coppola’s studio, Zoetrope, with a little swatch of green Astroturf out front and a portable backyard barbeque nearby. Just like Aunt Dee and Uncle Elmer at the trailer park. Except this is the earthbound spaceship from which Coppola, the manic Magellan of American cinema, has directed his latest exploration—the $23 million One From the Heart. Thomas Brown is along for the ride.
He first came to Coppola’s attention while working in San Francisco as an “expediter” for Industrial Light and Magic, George Lucas’s special effects team on Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. Lucas, who is turning into the Disney of our era, employs a small army of technobrats—especially now, as he builds his own electronic Disneyland, the Skywalker Ranch, his new studio in Marin County. (Some areas of the ranch are reportedly so secret that workers must wear badges to gain access.) Technobrats like to quote Lucas’s vow that after his next Star Wars installment, Revenge of the Jedi, he will never make another movie on celluloid. The videotape does not yet exist, though, that can deliver the same quality image on a big screen as can 35-millimeter film. When that tape is available—the best estimates say it is several years away—the movie business will truly be revolutionized.
Brown went to work at Industrial Light and Magic because Lucas needed bits and pieces of industrial and electronic equipment for the special effects on Empire. Trouble was, that sort of material was usually ordered by the gross. Companies might have made an exception for Lucas, but he didn’t want anyone to know where all this equipment was going, lest he be saddled with unwanted publicity. So Brown passed himself off as a purchasing agent from “the Kerner Company,” an optical research firm he promised would be very big in the future. Credentials in order, he then began to score hard-to-get equipment for Lucas with the same fervor a junkie uses to get his next fix. That, apparently, is what impressed Coppola.
“Francis chose me,” Brown says, “because he had a lot of difficulty in people telling him no. I had a reputation for saying yes.”
So one day in the spring of 1980, Brown found himself being whisked by limousine to Coppola’s Napa County vineyard. His traveling companion was a Hungarian scientist, Dr. Zoltan Tarczy-Hornoch. “I had no idea who this guy was,” Brown says, “but somebody told me he invented a device for measuring the speed of light.”
At dinner that night with Coppola and his family, Brown listened to the director dream and scheme about filmmaking in the future. He wanted to create an all-electronic cinema, from writing the script on a word processor through fully electronic editing and postproduction. He knew he would still have to shoot on 35-millimeter film—at least until a more sophisticated videotape is developed. But every time Coppola would come up with some wild notion, Dr. Zoltan Tarczy-Hornoch would merely stroke his chin and say, “Yes, it’s doable.”
Before a year had passed, Thomas Brown and his team of seventeen had helped set up a system that could make movies as they had never been made before. Coppola’s electronic filmmaking process involves the use of videotape in all stages of production. Storyboard images are recorded and combined with sound to make a rough videotape outline. Then actors’ rehearsals are taped, as are the actual scenes, which Coppola views away from the set in “Image and Sound Control.” The movie is simultaneously filmed in 35 millimeter and later edited on a work print, after the tape has been edited electronically. Finally, the film’s negative is cut. It is a system designed to save time and money and to give the director a sense of how a scene looks, as well as how the whole film fits together, even as it is being shot.
“Our equipment,” Brown says, “is the electronic equivalent of cutting and pasting.” Which is where much of Hollywood, of course, would rather stay—cutting and splicing film together by hand rather than confronting this intimidating equipment and talking to the technobrats, with their blather about digital sound and image manipulation possibilities. Even as inventive a filmmaker as Steven Spielberg remains unconvinced. “I’m stuck in the mud,” Spielberg says. “I like the gruel from which we rose, and I’m not anxious to get away from it in my lifetime. You can’t hold videotape up to the light the way you can film and see through it.”
Unfortunately for Brown and Coppola, Hollywood’s natural cynicism and resistance to new processes was stiffened by financing problems encountered on One From the Heart. Fairly or not, they tended to sully the debut of the glittering new systems on which Coppola had lavished so much praise.
Yet the electronic gadgetry had accounted for less than $1 million of the film’s budget (some of the equipment was loaned to Zoetrope by big electronics firms such as Sony). And a studio spokeswoman says the complicated storyboarding process saved approximately that much in sets Coppola decided not to build after viewing videotapes of scenes that would not have worked. (He did, however, spend lavishly to recreate the Las Vegas Strip on a Zoetrope soundstage, complete with ten miles of neon and 125,000 light bulbs.) Had there been no early reports that a very rough, unfinished version of the film bombed at an exhibitor’s screening in San Francisco—much as Apocalypse Now did before redeeming itself—Coppola might have led a technological stampede. Instead, he temporarily lost points as a visionary.
But Brown remains undaunted. He sees Coppola as a great inventor, a pioneer. “There’s always resistance,” Brown says. “Almost any inventor works that way. People don’t want to hear about something, but when it’s successful they say they thought about it themselves.”
“The way they track charge cards is much more space age than the film business, which I compare to Detroit. This industry is dying unless it changes—and we’re changing it.”
So far Sony, Moviola, and other corporation with a stake in the future of the industry have been in touch with Zoetrope to exchange ideas. In addition, Woody Allen’s emissaries have compiled a list of Zoetrope’s equipment, hoping to create a similar system in New York. “If they just duplicate what we have in equipment,” Brown says, “they won’t have a system to make them happy. People have to learn from us—not just start off from where we ended up.”
Poor technobrats. They know so much about what can be done and are itching to push the buttons of power. If Hollywood were more like the Silicon Valley, where innovation is prized, they would get their chance. But for the most part, they are still shut out.
Uplinking the Stars
“Technology?” says a leading talent agent. “Technology is the one thing that, until it is being applied somewhere, I don’t have to know about.” Chances are, however, he would want to know about “pay-per-view” movies that would “uplink” his clients. It could make him a millionaire in just one night.
Uplink is the proper verb in cableland for sending an electronic signal to a satellite, which can then beam programming back to earth. In five to ten years, uplinking could spawn a new form of filmed entertainment—the pay-per-view movie. Under this system, which has been successfully tested, most recently with the Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns prizefight, subscribers pay an additional fee to their cable company, which then unscrambles the special transmission for them.
There is no reason to assume the major studios might not have a hand in producing their new star vehicles. But there is no particular reason they are needed, either. Ultimately, they might even become obsolete. Imagine you are a Barbra Streisand freak, or that you see every Steven Spielberg film at least five times. You might be willing to pay $10 to $15 per household to attend the premiere of their new movie—an event that would take place in your living room. Figure it out: $15 each from 10 million viewers around the country. One hundred fifty million dollars in one night! Streisand could helicopter back to Malibu with, say, $15 million of that. Plus a few bodyguards.
The stars who can command a large enough audience will flock to have themselves uplinked, says one cable executive, “for the same reason Willie Sutton gave when asked why he robbed banks—‘because that’s where the money is’” No one knows yet whether films like this can be successfully marketed without prior theatrical release. But they presage a new role for studios, which even today are seeing their traditional functions erode.
“I don’t need the studios as a bank,” Steven Spielberg says. “I can get money from Japan, or from several oil millionaires I know. You can rent facilities. I need the majors only as a library of distribution. If I could find an independent distributor for a lower fee who had the clout of Warner Brothers or Paramount, I’d sever all ties with major studios.”
So if Spielberg could make a bundle on pay-per-view TV without the majors, would he? You bet. “I’m interested more than anything else in extensive exposure,” Spielberg says, “anything—any form—that gets a movie seen by the most possible people in the shortest possible time, with adequate play-off potential later from private home video, then to motion picture theaters, then to European theaters, back to the remaining home video market not covered in the first wave, then to video cassette, then to satellite, and last to network TV. Show me that—then I’m interested.”
No wonder the studios are jittery. While uplinking floats out there in fantasyland, Hollywood is faced right now with the challenge of competing with conventional pay television—the kind where subscribers are not charged for each program they watch but instead pay a flat monthly fee.
Of Jackals and Hippos, Elephants and Dinosaurs
In Hollywood, cable television inspires the same feelings that fifteen-year-old starlets do in aging lechers—a combination of lust and dread. The studios have panted after cable revenue—supplying movies, sometimes even buying cable systems—while simultaneously worrying that the home video revolution would drive people from the theaters.
Consider the full-page ad that ran one day last August in the New York Daily News, a strange ad indeed. “If you don’t go to the movies, you won’t see Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the headline said. A reader’s first reaction might be, “So what else is new?” But no. Underneath the illustration of Raiders star Harrison Ford was an unusual and interesting warning: “Unavailable on network TV, cable television, or cassettes.” This was the first time the distributors of a gigantic box office smash have acknowledged the consumer’s reluctance to visit a movie theater to see something he figures he will soon get at home.
In fact, as part of their legendary deal with Paramount, executive producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg will not offer Raiders for any kind of TV sale for years—at least until its two planned sequels also have been released. But the ad, dreamed up by Paramount, didn’t say that, and its very existence was an outrage to Lucas and Spielberg. “We were very upset by this ad,” Raiders producer Frank Marshall says. “It was pretty snobby and too much of a hard sell, especially because in L.A. the last line didn’t even run. I have no idea what it means, and we asked that it never be run again.”
“We ran it because it’s the truth,” says Gordon Weaver, Paramount’s senior vice president in charge of worldwide marketing. “Maybe it’s just an assumption, but so often people think if they wait 36 minutes they’ll get to see it for free or buy it on cassette.”
The ad ran again the next week in The New York Times.
A few years ago Hollywood thought it had cable all figured out. Pay TV, along with other markets such as network television and syndication deals, would generate so much income that movies would break even on “ancillary rights” before they opened in a single theater. But production costs rose faster than inflation, interest rates soared—and cable revenue did not (too few subscribers). As a result, the studios got burned.
The memory lingers on. And now, while the movie companies are decreasing production, pay TV appears to be on the verge of finally exploding, as the nation increasingly wires itself for cable. By 1985 it is estimated that half the households in the United States will have cable television, and half of those will receive more than one pay TV service. In a recent private talk to businessmen in New York, a top executive at American Express, which owns half of Warner Communications’ cable system, said that his company’s slogan might one day have to change. “Don’t leave home without it”—the tag line for all those credit card ads—might become “Don’t stay home without it.”
Cable TV is scrambling for programming now as never before. It continues to buy Hollywood’s theatrical features, of course, but increasingly cable programmers are looking elsewhere—to music or comedy specials, plays, and to the first new form of filmed entertainment in a decade: the low-budget, made-for-pay-TV movie.
As cable becomes less the receptacle and more the impresario, its relationship with the studios—incestuous, fickle, confusing—is again changing. Few have a better view of all this than Michael Fuchs. If Hollywood is about to face a tornado, Fuchs is one of the wind machines. It is an irony of Hollywood that three of the most talked about people in town these days don’t live there. George Lucas, the richest filmmaker in history, who has often declared his distaste for Hollywood, lives in self-imposed exile in Marin County. Marvin Davis still has his headquarters in Denver. And Michael Fuchs lives in New York. Michael who?
Michael Fuchs is a 35-year-old former entertainment attorney and William Morris agent. He is little known outside the movie and TV business, though as senior vice president of programming for Home Box Office and its new companion system, Cinemax, Fuchs decides what appears on the country’s largest entertainment pay TV service (over 7 million subscribers). HBO is owned by mighty Time, Inc., a major cable force, whose cash gives Fuchs his clout.
And that clout is considerable. Not only will Fuchs buy rights to approximately 700 movies from the studios next year (at an average cost of $2 million each for the recent releases, cable insiders estimate), he will help finance feature films for theatrical release, making him potentially a major power in the town he only visits.
Here’s how it works: HBO will give a certain amount of money to an independent producer who is trying to put together a movie deal—say, $2.5 million. That money “prebuys” the cable rights to the film after it has played in movie theaters. In this way, HBO does an end run around the studios, which now charge $4 to $6 million for cable rights to the biggest hit movies. Of course, it’s risky: the movie might be a spectacular bomb.
The studios, for their part, can actually benefit under this arrangement. Independent producers would walk in the front gate with part of their budget “layed off” on HBO. The studios would thus be asked to assume smaller risks, something not entirely unpalatable to Hollywood.
Fuchs likens the growth of pay TV to an African watering hole where all the big elephants—in this case, the networks and the studios—are already filling up the space. “But maybe you see a jackal sneak in,” he says. “Well, we snuck in like a jackal, then pay TV took steroids and we grew up to be a hippo. The question now is, How does the hippo get his butt in the water? The hippo starts pushing the elephants. There’s the plot!
“How much water is in that watering hole?” Fuchs asks. “How much quality and creativity is there? Everyone is siphoning off water. Yet there has never been a time in the history of the entertainment business when there has been such an appetite for product.”
But this is not necessarily good news for the film industry, which Fuchs likens to a dinosaur. “When half the nation is wired [for cable],” Fuchs says, “will the theater box office shift to us? Will the networks continue to buy [theatrical] movies at all? In the past there has always been room for new media to come in. But the majors grumble about us. The networks haven’t welcomed us at all. Pay TV will not be as comfortable a fit.”
Independent film producers increasingly look to the hard-driving Fuchs for partial funding, they complain that HBO has the same play-it-safe, big-star mentality the studios have. “Every studio always has its own little saying,” explains one producer. “At Fox, because Sherry Lansing is president and she really likes characters, they always say ‘Are these characters really believable?’ At Universal they say, ‘Now, what’s this story really about?’ because supposedly they’ll then have to go to the head of the studio and tell him. At HBO, if the script is halfway decent, all they ask is, ‘Who’s in it?’ By the time you have the package they want, you might as well go to the studios for financing.”
HBO is now negotiating with Fox for a parcel of what would be among the first made-for-pay-TV movies. The studios, then, could help supply even cable’s original programming, though the movie divisions might not be involved in this. At Fox, for example, the HBO deal reportedly would be struck with the television department, where this promising new form would almost certainly be controlled by the usual TV veterans—the writers and directors who churn it out like fast food. This could happen at any studio that ventures into cable programming. Or the studios could regard cable movies as a way for new talent to break in, for daring work to be done.
“In my company, we’re going to do it that way,” says Barry Diller, chairman of the board of Paramount Pictures, whose video division, which will produce original cable programming, has gone from zero to $30 million in cassette sales in just over two years. “I have in mind subjects that are too narrow in appeal for the broadest theatrical release.” An example, Diller says, would be something like The Elephant Man—“without Anne Bancroft, certainly with David Lynch [the director], and without such big production.”
“If we are going to replicate what’s on TV now,” says Nathaniel Troy Kwit, Jr., United Artists senior vice president in charge of television, “we’ll kill the golden goose and it’ll be a disaster.”
Fuchs, who will have the most to say about how these movies turn out, carefully hedges. “It’s something you can talk a lot about in the abstract, like love,” he says. “We have a grand scheme mostly determined by economics. I wish American talent felt the way Europeans do about working on TV, but we’re not PBS, you know.”
There is evidence, however, that when HBO attempts quality work, as in the plays it offers, those productions become an important showcase for talent. “A young client of mine, Annette O’Toole, turned down a feature film to do Vanities [the story of a reunion between three ex-cheerleaders] on HBO,” says agent Arnold Stiefel of William Morris. “And I never heard such a buzz from the industry. Everybody saw it and raved. Two weeks before, she had played Tammy Wynette on a CBS movie of the week, which was the highest-rated show nationally that week, and it got much less reaction.”
In the early autumn of ’81, Hollywood is tiptoeing towards the future, curious but unconvinced. True, Warner Communications has invested heavily in cable systems. MCA, which owns Universal Studios, has ventured into the manufacture of video discs and the machines to play them. Paramount has a large video cassette business. Yet its chairman, Barry Diller, concedes that the studios “aren’t doing very much” to absorb the new technologies in general, to explore the logistical and creative possibilities presented by the electronic cinema.
Meanwhile, in the brief period that Drs. Wiesner and Negroponte waited to hear whether the studios were willing to give them a small research stipend, a number of films were released that proved there was a flip side to the record-breaking box office summer of ’81. Honky Tonk Freeway, which cost $32 million, crashed. Blow Out, which cost more than $20 million and was heavily promoted, has been a major disappointment. There were no silver bullets for the $20 million The Legend of the Lone Ranger. Under the Rainbow, which came in at $15 million, and Wolfen, $17 million, both fizzled. Over $100 million gone on a few bum rolls of the dice—films that cost more than the program to feed all of America’s poor children during the summer, a program Ronald Reagan recently gutted.
If any major studio spent on research and development even half of what one of those failed films cost, and back that money with its institutional force, the results could be as astounding as they were the last time Hollywood took a crazy risk—on the talkies. Today, Coppola and Lucas and the technobrats are like backyard inventors, tinkering and dreaming in the great American tradition. They are the pioneers. And while they are uniquely suited to understand the creative requirements of anyone working in the new electronic cinema, they need support from major corporations. It is a pity that Hollywood chooses to turn its back on its most creative talent.
Finally, though, the new technologies can only do so much. There is a saying in the computer world: G-I, G-O. Garbage in, garbage out. Ultimately any process or machine is only as good as what is programmed into it. As it has in the past, Hollywood must supply the magic.
The New Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah at Disney
Disney Studios today is anything but M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E. Long considered stodgy, right-wing, and more interested in its fabulous real estate than movies, Walt Disney’s company has rediscovered it founder’s first love: creating fantasy on film.
The historic animation building at the corner of Dopey Drive and Mickey Avenue is awash with technobrats—gaggles of them—practicing some of the most innovative moviemaking in Hollywood these days. In one room, first-time director Steven Lisberger, 30, oversees the creation of computer-generated graphics for TRON, a $13.5 million adventure fantasy set inside an electronic computer game world. The computer is fed the details of an artist’s designs, along with separate information about the desired height, width, perspective, and camera moves. Minutes later, the final images are out—on film, with all the complicated optical effects included. In another room, still more technobrats are working on Einstein, the life story of the good doctor that will combine biography and Fantasia. Einstein’s thought processes will be treated visually in a series of computer-designed sequences, and MC2 may never be the same again. On the same floor, 23-year-old Tim Burton and 27-year-old Rick Heinrichs have been turned loose for the last nine months to dream up and sculpt creatures for Trick or Treat, a movie fantasy about Halloween night adventures.
Much of the credit for the innovation at Disney must go to 28-year-old Tom Wilhite, vice president of creative development. A native of Keswick, Iowa (population 300), and just three years ago a junior publicist at Rogers & Cowan, Wilhite is the newest baby mogul on the block. “Filmmaking is the heart of the company,” Wilhite says. “The feeling is, we have to build up for the future, and the way to do it is with new talent.”
On a tour of the animation building, Wilhite pauses to enthusiastically explain a model of EPCOT, the $800 million Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, a futuristic world’s fair that will open at Florida’s Walt Disney World in October 1982. Utilizing EPCOT, Disney is also getting into pay TV. This fall, the studio is expected to announce the creation of a Disney family entertainment channel that will feature several hours of entertainment and educational programming each week, “uplinked” to a satellite from EPCOT.
Disney has also signed screenwriter Alvin Sargent, who won Oscars for Julia and Ordinary People, to produce a film from an original story of his, with a script by novelist Pat Conroy (The Great Santini, Lords of Discipline). The studio also has Walter Murch, the talented sound editor on Apocalypse Now, directing and cowriting his first feature, Return to Oz, based on all of the L. Frank Baum books except The Wizard of Oz.
“Taking a chance on a first-time director doesn’t scare me,” says Wilhite. “What scares me are people who only have a passion for the deal. If someone comes in and says he has fifteen ideas for movies—pick one—my lid goes down. But if someone comes in with a vision, and they’ve done their homework 24 hours a day, they have faith in their judgment, and I think this person is substantial, why not?” Walt surely would have approved.