Michael Cieply: The New Hollywood–Elites, The Audience And A Wall Of Indifference

In morose moments, and I’ll admit to having a few, I sometimes stare at a framed illustration on my work desk. Entitled “HOLLYWOOD 1988,” it is a whimsical map of the motion picture business as it existed back then. The concept and a lot of the sight gags were mine; but Nancy Ohanion was the artist who made it work for the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times. (You can find her signature hidden just above The Cave of Studio Accounting.)

Pretty much everything was in there. Vacations at Las Hadas. The Sea of Red Ink. Puttnam Falls. The Desert of Development. The Sunshine of Eternal Optimism. X-rated pirates. You name it.

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But what held the gimmick together was the notion of a geographic divide—marked by the River of Bankability—that separated the major studios and their allies, on the one side, from the Independent Movie Companies, dozens of them, and some renegade producers on the other.

That was, more or less, the architecture of the industry. Individual players might come and go. But the indies and majors split the world, and were caught in an unbreakable tension that somehow produced hundreds and hundreds of watchable pictures.

It was a crazy system, but it worked.

And now, in those aforementioned morose moments, I’ll occasionally get to wondering: What would an industry map look like today?

Certainly, our quaint medieval imagery—castles, knights, those battered plumed helmets on Lorimar and De Laurentiis—would never work for the contemporary film world. Usually, I picture something post-Apocalyptic, with zombies and lots of smoking ruins.

As for filmland architecture, it would still be bifurcated, I suppose, but in a very different way. The great divide would probably separate Film Elites from the Mass Audience. (As observers have opined, those including Sasha Stone at Awards Daily.) The elites would dwell on a mountaintop somewhere, enjoying each other and a nonstop round of festivals, panel discussions and awards. And far below, the masses would slog through a Dismal Swamp of IP—a sticky morass of shapeless, repetitive Intellectual Property that occasionally burps up a hit.

Between them would stand a Wall of Indifference, with neither side of the film universe much caring what happens on the other. In most years, a picture or two—Barbie, Oppenheimer, Maverick—might break through the wall, getting attention from high and low.

But in other years—perhaps this one—nothing at all links the film elites with the masses. They just get farther apart. Megalopolis, an event at Cannes, is designed with a ‘fourth wall’ moment that gives festival-goers shivers but could never be duplicated nightly at the AMC Dine-In. The film Academy, hitherto sustained by a huge domestic audience for its Oscar show, is now chasing elite funding all over the globe. The weekend box-office is yet another contest between weak and weaker—is it Garfield? Furiosa? Where the heck is Summer Camp? –with audience response so tepid, it barely rises to indifference.

Something on the year’s schedule might yet crash through the wall, getting elite viewers and a large general audience into the same theaters. But nothing has come closer than Dune: Part Two, and it’s already June.

No, the film world, at the moment, isn’t much fun. Not even Ohanion could make HOLLYWOOD 2024 suitable for framing.

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