HBO’S Three Wise Men On Why Movies Stink – Or Do They?

Between them, they have nearly a century’s worth of TV programming experience, and were part of a generation of Home Box Office management which helped turn company into the premier subscription television service not only in the U.S., but in the world.  Their longevity has given them the opportunity to live through their company’s change from a raucously-growing enterprise to a mature business, evolving from what had primarily been a movie service to a programmer just as identified with such acclaimed, high-profile original programming as The Sopranos, Band of Brothers, True Blood, and, most recently, Boardwalk Empire.

Still, they have spent most of their professional lives dealing with movies.  A production executive at a major studio might deal with two dozen released films a year.  Programmers at HBO (and its sister channel Cinemax) easily deal with over a thousand.  They appraise them, try to understand what people like about them and why (and why they don’t and why), what audience they appeal to (and what audiences they don’t), in order to make tactical and strategic decisions for their spectrum of offered channels as they schedule for viewing demands shifting through the parts of a day, the days of the week, the seasons of the year, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Their length of service has not only granted them the vantage point to see how their own business has evolved, but the motion picture industry which supplies so much of its programming as well, the movies that industry turns out, and the shifting, changing audience both businesses chase for their livelihood.

“Movie experiences have turned into thrill rides at super-amusement parks,” says Dave Baldwin.  With advances in special effects – particularly computer-generated imagery — “…there are no physical limits to filmmakers’ imaginations.  Making Gladiator (2001) wouldn’t have been financially practical without CGI.”

Baldwin began at Home Box Office, the world’s largest pay-TV service in 1978 in audience analysis.  Before retiring in 2009, he’d been the company’s long-serving Executive Vice President of Program Planning, overseeing the programming and scheduling for the company’s 15 HBO and Cinemax channels.  He runs counter to the cliché image of the nerdish researcher, dispassionately reducing viewers to statistics and demographic breakdowns.  He talks about having had an honest interest in what viewers would respond to, and the challenge of constructing line-ups to carry viewers through a night satisfied with the experience.  After over a quarter-century watching developments in the movie industry and dealing with their impact on pay-TV, Baldwin also developed a sense of the difference between what’s good and what will play, and how those differences have come about.  Speaking less like a researcher than an historian, Baldwin outlines the sea changes in the movie industry that began a half-century ago and moved the business toward its present state.

The major studios, he explains, were in trouble in the 1950s.  Their first reaction to the threat of television was “…overblown, overhyped musical extravaganzas.  Television couldn’t outdo the big screen in terms of size, sound, and colors, so then came an age of grand, oversized, color musicals.”  But the late 1940s and the 1950s were also the era of a growing film noir sensibility; a vein of adult thrillers reflecting post-WW II unease in the atomic age.

Come the 1960s, the first wave of postwar baby-boomers brought with them a crop of filmmakers coming into the movie business influenced less by Hollywood classicism than by European filmmakers and their more character-based work.  They were not afraid to tackle subjects that were provocative and downbeat, and they found an audience willing to share the experience with them.  “In the early 1970s, we were coming through a dark period,” Baldwin says.  “This was the time of Watergate, the Vietnam War, we had assassinations.  That noir sense was in full bloom.”

The work of that new generation of moviemakers began to dominate American movies in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, but even the tyros had to deal with certain economic realities; the kind which could force decisions to get involved with projects like The Godfather:  Part II (1974). The success of Coppola’s sequel presaged an emphasis on sequels beginning in the 1970s unequalled at any other time in Hollywood’s previous history.

If originality suffered from the hunger to repeat a success by turning a hit film into a franchise, so, too did it suffer from a migration of writing talent from the movie industry to television.  Baldwin sees a parallel in that movement to one in the 1930s when many a playwright “escaped” from Broadway to write for the movies.  It was a way, he explains, of getting around the physical constraints of writing for the stage.  And, it was more lucrative.

By the 1970s, television had become an enormously profitable industry which gave it the money to siphon off writing talent from the big screen.  In the 1980s, cable television’s growing development of original programming put it in the position of throwing money at writers as well.  The biggest financial lure to the screenwriter of TV over the movies, according to Baldwin, was the possibility of being affixed to a successful series.  The stability, security, and financial rewards over the long-term in such a situation trumped that of the “one-shot deal” of writing a movie where the stars and directors received the larger pay-outs and profit participation.

And, on the creative side, the frustrations were not as great.  A legendary despair of movie writers is that of having their work constantly re-written by everyone from a parade of follow-up re-writers to stars with the clout to get their way creatively.

The situation now is that the kinds of character-driven, gritty, realistic thrillers that made their mark in the 1960s/1970s struggle today.   “L.A. Confidential (1997), Insomnia (2002), The Usual Suspects (1995) shared a darkness that almost foredoomed them to a niche audience,” assesses Baldwin.  “Modern noir is a hard sell.  A lot of moviegoers don’t want to spend their night that way.” Baldwin points out that, “More people saw The Usual Suspects on pay-TV than in theaters.”

Which, he says, explains so many of the movies that do get made.  “Big pictures like Titanic (1997) and the Star Wars films thrive on repeat viewers; young hotties out on a date.” These moviegoers want their pictures big.  “Audiences want a different experience from watching TV, which, with the onset of big-screen TVs, must be very different.”

Compounding the incentive to produce these kinds of big-budget box office kings is the carryover business their box office success generates in ancillary markets.  “The kinds of movies that work well in theaters generally worked well for (HBO),” Baldwin reports.  “Comedies, action, caper films…”

Therewith the plight of the producer:  he/she needs to deliver a movie that excites the public, that is perceived as fresh, and needs to get its money back, no mean feat with average budgets of over $60 million (excluding marketing) and climbing.  Ancillary sales to home video, pay-TV, basic and broadcast TV, etc. are all predicated on theatrical box office return.  Baldwin knows there are moviemakers who hope a picture which underperformed in theaters will find salvation in a place like HBO, but, in general, that’s a myth.  “It’s rare that a film that failed at the box office does well on HBO.”

However, big box office or no, gearing a film for an adolescent audience is no guarantee of aftermarket success either where audiences tend to be older than the moviegoers for many major summer releases.  “Scooby-Doo (2002),” Baldwin says wryly, “did not do strong numbers (on HBO).”

Baldwin also points out that box office numbers are not necessarily a true gauge of a picture’s performance.  There is, he says, a category of “mid-range” films which don’t satisfy an audience but can still be propelled to a $60-80 million box office “through a strong push and hype.” He gives, as an example, Artificial Intelligence:  A.I. (2001), Steven Spielberg’s take on a Stanley Kubrick project, which received mixed reviews and left many viewers cold.  Yet, thanks to the attachment of Spielberg’s and Kubrick’s name to a big budget science fiction tale, and a strong campaign from Warner Bros., A.I. managed a respectable take of almost $80 million domestic, and $235 million worldwide.

Still, for all the money spent to produce and promote movies to a young audience interested in “thrill rides,” Baldwin sees the industry as still capable of producing “evergreens” each year:  movies which will be both successful and whose appeal will stand up over time.  The hunger for producers to find the next franchise, the next “something new” always gives hope for a future classic.  “Every time you get that new vision, that new take on a subject, you have the possibility of an evergreen,” is Baldwin’s optimistic view.  There’s been enough summer event pictures with supposedly sure-fire elements that have failed to send the message to producers that “…you can’t go back and just rip off somebody else’s idea and expect a hit.”

There is also, he says, a healthy art house scene for smaller movies, though even the indie circuit is feeling pressure from what happens at the major studio level.  “There’s a middle level of film not getting made, pictures that are not commercial enough for Hollywood, but are too hard for an indie to get their money back on.  It’s the kind of picture that depends on a good idea, combined with good talent doing it well…Fewer films like The Usual Suspects are getting made.” Even once they’re made, the struggle is not over.  “Getting the film on screens is a problem:  that’s an art in itself.” And, even if you can get the film made and into theaters, “…even films made for that circuit – character-driven dramas, romances, quiet comedies – have a problem pulling an audience.  They don’t have muscle in the culture.”

Which leaves most movie screens – at least in the summer months –  overwhelmed with movies which are, “…balls-out fantasy; a juiced-up version of reality.”  Thirty-odd years ago, Baldwin says, most audiences wanted to believe – had the need to believe – in some sense of reality on-screen.  “Now, that need doesn’t exist.  Filmmakers no longer need to deal in exposition; just capture a collective sense or feeling.  A shorthand has developed, like a set of key tones, that illicit a response.  It doesn’t have to be believable; the audience gets the reference.”

Of Andy Goldman, Dave Baldwin says, “He’s my ‘go-to’ guy when I have questions about what’s going on in the popular culture.” In discussion, the basis for that faith becomes clear:  Goldman’s knowledge of movies is encyclopedic; his passion for them boundless.  Baldwin is not the only one who recognizes Goldman’s expertise:  since 2005, he has been conducting classes at New York University in “TV Programming and Concepts.”

After a short stint with Showtime, Goldman came to Home Box Office where he’s  remained for close to 30 years, now holding the position of Vice President, HBO/Cinemax Program Planning and Scheduling.  His position is a pitch-perfect melding of a set of responsibilities with a set of sensibilities:  the service’s programming needs on the one hand, and a feel for the audience, for the corporate programming mandate, for the ebbs and flows of movie trends on the other.  That acuity is illustrated when he speaks of a small, indie drama he’s just screened, a “nice” little movie about a couple of salesman.  “A perfectly fine, sweet, well-acted little picture,” he says.  Then, ruefully, “But there’s no way I can put that on Cinemax.” It is not the first time he’s had to pass on an intelligent, well-thought out, character-driven, insightful story.  “We’re not in the business of being the Lifetime for men.”

One point that comes up again and again with Goldman on the subject of what’s salient and common among today’s big budget offerings is that of character:  how it’s defined, how it’s portrayed, its importance to the overall story.  Or, rather, the lack thereof on those same counts.

“These days, we learn about character through CGI,” says Goldman.  “How many movies are there today where you actually spend time learning the tics of a character?”  Having not long before caught a rerun of the 2001 Planet of the Apes remake on one of his company’s channels, he gives the example of the 1968 original, pointing out how much screen time viewers spend with the lead character of Taylor (Charlton Heston) before the main story kicks in.

“Heston has several soliloquies that perfectly represent a feeling of the time – a sense of disillusionment with the human race.  Those scenes also carry a more universal discontent that still feels relevant today.  It’s maybe a good half-hour or more before the hunt in the cornfield where we see the apes for the first time.  It gives us time to know Taylor, and you know something?  He’s not a very nice guy!” Goldman ticks off Taylor’s abrasive elements:  arrogance, condescension, misanthropy, a haughty disdain for the rest of humankind; he’s a bundle of foibles.  That kind of moral complexity, Goldman feels, was a trademark of movies of the time.  “The hero did not have to be a stalwart.  Taylor is actually something of a prick, but we identify with his discontents.”

The willingness for a story and its characters to be both morally and physically ugly was even more pronounced during the era of the 1970s in foreign films plumbing such typically American genres as the gangster film.  A Goldman favorite:  The Long Good Friday (1980), a tough, little British noir which introduced bulldoggish Bob Hoskins to American audiences.

Goldman then looks at the Planet of the Apes remake, pointing out how, instead of that breathing space at the head of the original, the action starts almost immediately.  “It can’t be more than ten minutes into the movie before (lead) Mark Wahlberg is off into space, he crashes, and not long after that he’s running from the apes.  (As a character) there’s nothing to him!”

The role of Taylor in the original not only demanded Heston risk being unlikable, but also required him to display – along with his physique and weathered, middle-aged visage – some strong performance skills.  Taylor is wounded in the throat during the hunt in the cornfield and, for a fair bit of the film’s second act, is mute.  Against this, Goldman guesses that the casting process in the remake – at least among the studio execs giving approval – was as mercenary as, “Well, let’s see.  We need a Gen X star to be the astronaut.” Voila the young and handsome Wahlberg.

There was an ethos of time-taking in story-telling in the best movies of the 1960s/1970s, says Goldman.  “We used to watch a character breathe.  We used to watch characters take their time assessing other characters.  You snuck into a character’s life.  It was a bleeding-over (into commercial films) of the cinema verite process of documentaries of the 1960s and 1970s.  Pauses are good; that’s when you get to know characters.”

The Man Who Would Be King (1975), John Huston’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s adventure novel, serves as another example.  “That movie is all about character,” says Goldman.  “Huston knew how to do that.  It’s kind of an upper crust Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948 – also directed by Huston).  There’s a lot of elliptical conversation that doesn’t explain everything but indicates a history between the two leads (Sean Connery and Michael Caine).” The movie gives the sense, Goldman continues, of the two men having a distinctive life before the movie begins; a long-lasting, well-lived comradeship.

“Compare that to something like Black Hawk Down (2001) where, because the action is so constant and starts so early, there’s little introduction to any of the people in the story.  The characters are so indistinguishable the movie gives me a headache.”

Another example of that “hidden life” giving resonance and depth to characters is The Professionals (1966), a Mexican Revolution-era tale of four mercenaries (Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode) hired by millionaire Ralph Bellamy to rescue his wife (Claudia Cardinale) from a Mexican bandit and sometime revolutionary (Jack Palance).  Marvin and Lancaster, we learn, had ridden together with Palance earlier in the Revolution only to drop out of the rebel cause in disillusionment.  It is that sense of disappointment and failed altruism which gives The Professionals a melancholic undertone, striking in a film clearly designed to be – in the main – the kind of action adventure critics normally describe as “tough guy,” “he-man,” “rousing,” and “brawny.” Yet, that mournful subtext is integral to the film.

“It’s the reason you believe in these characters; you believe they have a history.  It’s not the main plot,” Goldman emphasizes, “but it’s main to the characters.  It’s what makes you believe that they do what they do.”

The movie gives Goldman reason to pinball to another difference between the thrillers of thirty/forty-odd years ago and those of today:  their restraint.  Over the course of The Professionals, the protagonists, “…hardly pull their guns!”

Along with some minor moments of suspense, there are only three major action sequences throughout the film’s 117-minute running time:  well into the film, after the foursome hired by Bellamy is on its way into Mexico, they are attacked by a gang of banditos in an episode that is explosive, violent, but quickly over; the central set piece of the movie is the successful attempt to break Cardinale out of Palance’s rebel camp; and the climax where Lancaster stays behind to buy time for the others by delaying Palance and his fellow pursuers.

More than an action climax (those used to the spectacular finishes of most contemporary thrillers would consider it surprisingly small-scale), the fight between Lancaster and Palance & Co. is the dramatic climax of the film.  Composed as a hit-and-retreat series of brief spurts of action and lulls, the sequence is punctuated by several verbal exchanges between Lancaster and Palance.  The conversations between the one-time comrades-in-arms are a parry-and-thrust duel between opposing philosophies:  one of self-interest bred of cynicism and disillusionment; the other the tattered, faded pennant of a bruised but still extant faith.

The Parallax View (1974) is yet another sample Goldman offers of a movie-maker’s trust in the drama of a situation to carry a point rather than a reliance on graphic and/or extensive physical action.

Parallax was the middle of three similarly envisioned thrillers directed by Alan J. Pakula.  Often considered an unofficial trilogy, the creative team of Pakula, cinematographer Gordon Willis, production designer George Jenkins, and composers Michael Small and David Shire, gave all three films — Klute (1971), Parallax, and All The President’s Men (1976) — a shared look of umber tones and shadows, and a psychologically disturbing visual precision.  Parallax takes the tone furthest.  With David Giler’s and Lorenzo Semple, Jr.’s minimalist adaptation of Loren Singer’s novel (with uncredited contributions by Robert Towne) about a reporter (Warren Beatty) attempting to penetrate a corporation fronting as an assassin recruitment center, the movie is virtually a visual essay on conspiracy paranoia.

Parallax opens with a political killing in a restaurant atop the Seattle Space Needle.  The camera sits on a walkway outside the restaurant centered on a group of party attendees.  When the shooting occurs we see it through the window behind the guests:  several muffled gunshots, blood splatters against the glass.  Moments later, the assassin is pursued onto the precipitously sloped roof of the Space Needle’s restaurant.  The killer is chased, cornered, than stumbles and rolls over the edge to his death.  This is all done in uninterrupted long shots.  There is no shot of the assailant’s fall; just his pursuers lined up at the edge of the roof, backs to the camera, looking at where he’s fallen.  Later, a corrupt rural lawman grapples with Beatty in the waters released over the spillway of a dam.  Nearly the entire sequence is shot in extreme long shot, the tussling of the two men at the bottom of the screen dwarfed by the roaring cascade of water arcing across the face of the dam behind them.  Still later, an attempt to bomb an airliner is treated in the same muted tone:  we see a baggage train go by carrying – somewhere amidst the piled luggage – the suspect case.  The baggage train rolls off out of frame, there’s a few beats, and then – off-screen – the explosion.

The icy remove and calculatedly cold, formal compositions of such action sequences – along with the rest of the film — create a sense of unease that quick cuts, quantities of action, and graphic violence do not.  The movie is after more than the shock and impact of the visceral; it seeks to create an enveloping sense of dread where the enemy’s face and motives are unidentifiable, yet omnipresent and always threatening.

“Look at the shooting in the restaurant,” says Goldman, “then look at the scene in Die Hard 2 (1990) where a plane exploding is replayed over and over from different angles.” The destruction of the airliner is neither the dramatic nor action peak of the movie; it’s simply spectacle, rehashed to milk the effect.

Goldman leaps to another comparison:  the finale of Blue Thunder (1983).  Roy Scheider is a pilot in the Los Angeles Police Department’s helicopter patrol unit.  He has discovered that an experimental helicopter is intended for use as a tool of urban repression and spying.  After exposing the plot and surviving an extended aerial duel, Scheider sets the helicopter down on train tracks to be destroyed by an oncoming diesel engine – a sequence put together much like that of the destroyed airliner in Die Hard 2 with multiple shots of the same act, but used to much different dramatic effect.  “It works in Blue Thunder because the whole film has built to that moment,” says Goldman, pointing out that viewers have spent the film with Scheider playing one of the first sympathetic portraits of a Vietnam War veteran in a major release.  “We’ve come to know him, we picked up his demons and tics.” The pyrotechnic climax is not just an action “catharsis,” but signals the exorcism of those personal demons which have haunted Scheider’s character throughout the film.

A better example of how the thriller has changed can be found by comparing generally similar films made a generation apart:  1974’s  Juggernaut, with that archetype of the modern thriller, 1994’s Speed.

In Juggernaut, an extortionist has placed several bombs on a transatlantic ocean liner threatening to sink the vessel if his monetary demand is not meant.  The passengers are trapped on the ship:  the bombs will go off before they can reach another port or another ship reaches them, and the sea is too rough to send them off in lifeboats.  A bomb disposal team led by Richard Harris risks a dangerous airdrop, and is brought aboard in an attempt to disarm the bombs while police back in England try to run down the extortionist.

In Speed, a member of the Los Angeles Police Department’s bomb squad (Keanu Reeves) finds himself trapped on a bus with its passengers and a bomb set to go off if the bus’ speed drops below 50 mph.  While Reeves with Sandra Bullock at the wheel navigate the traffic shoals of the L.A. freeway system, police try to track down the extortionist.

Juggernaut is a “mental cat-and-mouse game” between chief bomb disposal expert Harris and the – for most of the movie – anonymous bomber.  It is, literally, a mental duel to the death pitting Harris’ dexterity and skill against the imagination of the bomb designer.  The bomber – “Juggernaut” — actually becomes a character long before we meet him, sketched in by the “style” of his bomb design:  a combination of false leads, booby traps, and practical jokes.  Harris is no steely-eyed hero.  At first brash and confident, then shaken when one device detonates killing a friend on his team, then finally recomposing himself for a final do-or-die assault on the bomb.

But where Juggernaut opts for the “internal” intensity of its mind-on-mind challenge, Speed is pure viscera:  a parade of increasingly incredulous stunts built around keeping the bus up to speed (perhaps the most ludicrous being getting the aged GM behemoth going fast enough to leap a missing bridge span).  The steely one-note Reeves never does disarm the bomb, or make much of an attempt at it.  Instead, the bus is driven to the airport where the passengers are picked off the vehicle, and the abandoned bus rolls on to smash into a jumbo jet (despite the fact that the airport was specifically selected to give the bus running room) for the purpose of providing the move with a climax as spectacular as it is gratuitous.

Speed evinces, according to Goldman, the major trademarks of the modern thriller:   what he calls “shorthand characterization,” and the false suspense element.

The former, he says, is usually represented by giving the hero a “chip on his shoulder”:  some previous error or mistaken judgment against him.  Goldman says this creates an automatic tie with a culture of victimization.  “Today, everybody’s a victim.  It’s the Dr. Phil-ization of society.” As a dramatic device, however, it diminishes the 1970s’ notion of a larger canvas.  “Real life isn’t that easy.  Movies shouldn’t be that easy either.  Harry Callahan (in Dirty Harry [1970]) and Popeye Doyle (in The French Connection [1971]) weren’t trying to work out some personal problem.  They were just trying to do what they thought was right.” The cheap shortcut characterizations of today make the movie thriller world a place of small concerns.

The false suspense element Goldman illustrates by measuring the 1971 screen adaptation of Michael Crichton’s best-selling science fiction novel The Andromeda Strain against the vaguely similar 1995 sci fier, Outbreak.

Crichton’s novel was styled as a faux report of a biological disaster.  An Air Force satellite has brought back an incredibly lethal microorganism which wipes out a small town in the American southwest.  The satellite is transported to a secret government lab where a team of scientists attempt to identify, analyze, and contain the “bug.” Displaying many of the same hallmarks that would mark Crichton’s TV co-creation E.R., both his novel and Nelson Gidding’s screen adaptation respect the intellectual integrity of the story and its characters, most of whom are scientists, doctors, and technicians.  The assumption behind the storytelling is that while an audience may not understand everything they see and hear re: highly arcane bits of microbiology and theorizing about alien biology, they will grasp enough to mentally put the larger picture together.  Thus, like the doctors of E.R., Andromeda’s scientists and technicians speak to each other in the jargon and terminology of real scientists and technicians, giving the story an air of authenticity.  The enemy in Andromeda is something invisible to the naked eye; the only weapons our heroes – a cast of solid but non-star status character actors – have at their disposal are their intelligence and scientific expertise.

Outbreak’s screenplay by Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool, on the other hand, is a veritable catalog of the dramatic devices so many contemporary thrillers use to mug an audience rather than intrigue it:

Where director Robert Wise had cast non-marquee names Arthur Hill, David Wayne, James Olson, and Kate Reid, and let the story star in Andromeda, Outbreak’s cast list ran:  Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Kevin Spacey, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Morgan Freeman, and Donald Sutherland;

In contrast to the four, level-headed science/medical professionals in Andromeda motivated by the big-enough motive of saving humanity from an alien infection, and of whose personal life we learn almost nothing, Dustin Hoffman is the colorful day-saver in Outbreak. In true “shorthand characterization” fashion, Hoffman’s Army doctor is one of those maverick do-it-his-own-way types unafraid to mouth off to his superiors (yet somehow managing to keep his rank and status) who labors under the shadow of a previous misstep.  Part of the “false suspense” of the latter film is to personalize the threat of the Ebola variant confronting Hoffman by first having one of his good friends die of the disease, and then having his ex-wife, who happens to be on Hoffman’s medical team (they are one of those movie odd couples –  he boyish and impetuous, she adult and restrained — that still love each other despite their inability to live under the same roof), become infected, pushing the movie into race-against-time mode;

Feeling the audience needs a villain and that a microbe doesn’t quite qualify, Outbreak also features a sneery Donald Sutherland as a military officer who orders the incineration of an infected town under the guise of containing the outbreak but actually to conceal some military bio-weapon hanky-panky;

While the Andromeda science team use their intellect to puzzle out their bug, there’s very little science or medicine in Outbreak. Hoffman leaps from a hovering helicopter to a ship at sea, commandeers a TV studio at gunpoint, survives an aerial helicopter chase and dogfight, and finally faces off with the plane en route to bomb the infected town.

Beside these key comparisons to its more cerebral ancestor, Outbreak is rife with other “false suspense” elements throughout:  people in the quarantined town attempt to escape, are pursued by an Army helicopter gunship and dispatched in a ball of flame; the climax of the film occurs not in some scientific breakthrough but in Dustin Hoffman appealing to the pilots on their way to bomb the infected town to disobey their orders (the biggest moment in the film thus depends on the decision-making of two on-screen non-entities).

Outbreak illumines the marketing concept of what Goldman refers to as “the four boxes.” “You break your audience up into four boxes:  men over 35, men under 35, women over 35, women under 35.” The idea, he says, is to inject a component into a movie not so much because the drama requires it, but to “hit” one of the boxes.  Consequently, in Outbreak, “We need to get the teenagers in the theater, so call up the helicopter chase.”

The Rock (1996), according to Goldman, further illustrates the dynamic of the four boxes with its combination of “MTV school of filmmaking,” young lead Nicholas Cage, and older co-star Sean Connery.  “Connery gives you another box.  The Rock is maybe a three-box movie.”

Outbreak and The Rock, boasting tropes so obviously intended to draw a young audience, bring Goldman to a generalized verdict on the modern studio blockbuster:  “Very few of these movies are for adults.” Adult thrillers still do get made, occasionally, and Goldman points to Insomnia and L.A. Confidential as major studio efforts to make movies that are, “…more emotional and with more moral grays in them than most films.  L.A. Confidential is a movie where you have to pay attention; you can’t miss a moment.”

While one can bemoan the rarity of such grown-up movie treats, the inhibitions the major studios have against committing to too many of them are understandable.  There is a cost factor to contend with.  While these films may not be as expensive as the typical CGI/pyrotechnic-riddled action opus, any kind of movie at the major studio level is an expensive proposition.  That fiscal commitment has to be weighed against the limiting factors of the adult audience.

For adult couples with children, it’s not as easy getting out to a movie as it is for younger dating singles, and, even for a movie they like, they will not go back two, three, four or more times – the kind of repeat viewing usually considered necessary to get receipts over the $100 million mark.  Consequently, even a wonderfully-reviewed adult-oriented film like Insomnia topped out its box office at a little under $70 million.  Oscar-nominated L.A. Confidential grossed even less, yet with its production and marketing costs “probably wound up costing Warners about $100 million.” Road to Perdition (2002), says Goldman, only made it over the $100 million mark on the marquee muscle of Tom Hanks in the starring role, and even then, “the last few weeks it took to go over ($100 million) were a slow crawl.” It’s not a recent problem, Goldman says, citing the performance of 1993’s Falling Down, featuring Michael Douglas as a defense contractor employee who loses his job and goes on a rampage. “It was a success but it topped off early,” he reports.  “Only grown-ups could appreciate the sense of dislocation and the post-Cold War context of the story that puts the main character out of his job.”

There are good new thrillers, he maintains, movies that “respect the past but have an eye on the future.  They don’t just add bells and whistles to do it, but look to use them appropriately to create more texture.”  Goldman cites non-major studio efforts like The Usual Suspects and The Crying Game (1992) as examples.  The cost vs. box office potential paradigm for indies makes such efforts a reasonable exercise.  The cost/return formulas for the majors, however, nudges them toward targeting young audiences which, in turn, puts the big studios on a quest for sensational hooks, novelties, derivatives, and repeatable franchises.  “Today,” Goldman judges, “it’s not about the next new thing; it’s about the next any thing.”

This makes so many of today’s big budget adventures, in Goldman’s words, “disposable.”  The pictures don’t offer a vision.  The writers are not “real writers,” but crafting a framework for stunts and special effects; a framework which may get re-written by a dozen other writers – or more.  Regarding some of the acclaimed original programming which has appeared on his company’s channels, Goldman says of The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, “They were as strong as they were because we let the show-runners stay with their visions.  We didn’t keep making them tweak the shows for the market.

“Look at Reservoir Dogs (1992).”  While Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets was informed by Scorsese’s sense of the neighborhoods where he grew up, says Goldman, Reservoir Dogs, for all its style and panache, is informed by the spirit of Mean Streets; it’s not a movie inspired by experience, but a movie inspired by a movie.  “Reservoir Dogs leads to Pulp Fiction (1994) leads to Jackie Brown (1997) and by that go-around the artifice begins to show.”

Goldman looks back to the original Cape Fear (1962).  “As repellant and malevolent as (Robert) Mitchum was in that film (as the villain), there was still a normalcy to him.  There was nothing overblown or histrionic about him.  This was a guy you could pass on the street,” a real-world quality Goldman finds missing in most big-budget pictures today.  The memorable movies of the 1960s and 1970s often had, as part of their dramatic design, the goal of exposing something in the world of its audience.  “Movies in the 1960s and 1970s were the only place that was deconstructing the family.  On TV, you had Ward Cleaver (in Leave It to Beaver) and Robert Young (in Father Knows Best) saying, ‘It’s ok, Bud, everything’s going to be fine,’ but Travis Bickle (in Taxi Driver, 1976) was offering a more honest view of the world (at that time).”

Going hand-in-hand with the over-the-top productions of the often bewildering stories of today’s thrillers is a torrent of hype.  The “B”  movies of low-budget maestro Roger Corman’s heyday in the 1950s and 1960s – which Goldman thinks are the ancestors of today’s bloated actioners – were an unprepossessing lot.  “They never presented themselves as more than what they were:  pulpy, low-budget fun.  Today, even genre flicks are pitched with an air of self-importance around what’s really just a Malomar.” The Vin Diesel vehicle XXX (2002) provides a perfect example.  “They hyped it up so long and so big, and (and it wound up) underperforming.  It was a hit but not the hit they’d been hoping for.” Says Goldman, a lot of today’s big-budget actioners can’t live up to the studio hype that launches them.

Goldman considers what he’s been saying and sighs.  He realizes that the essential component of the classic thrillers of four decades ago – and that’s so rare these days – is a pretentious-sounding thing for such commercial offerings.  None the less, he concludes, “What’s missing is art.”

Bob Conte is one entertainment industry veteran not inclined to join in the hand-wringing over the present state of American movies.  “I don’t think of movies as being worse than they used to be.  That seems like cheap cynicism to me.  Movie nostalgia works like this:  you remember the 20 great movies from the last 70 years and forget the 2000 bad ones.  If you’ve been to twenty movies this year, you forget the one or two good ones, and focus on all the bad ones – at least when you’re characterizing the state of the industry.”

Conte’s take on the business comes with more than a little informing experience behind it.  Looking around his office at HBO, where he’s been employed for over 30 years, the shelves bow with the weight of scripts.  As Senior Vice President of Creative Affairs, it’s Conte’s job to read scripts, hear pitches, review DVDs of film projects – in stages from first draft scripts to completed movie – to look for material which might be suitable for the company’s HBO and Cinemax services, its DVD arm, or possibly even as an original HBO film.

But Conte’s also served on the other side of the desk.  He and his writing partner, Peter Wortmann, have worked steadily as a screenwriting team for over two decades.  Working on originals and as re-write men, they have lent their talents to projects at companies like Columbia, Universal, Disney, and Warner Bros.

His situation as both acquisitor and talent, and his years in on both counts, seems to have left him with a sanguine imperturbability.  He gives the sense of understanding the freakish combination of insanity and sagacity which are often simultaneously involved in the Hollywood decision-making process.

Conte dismisses the complaint that the wave of big-budget presumptive blockbusters is a sign the movie business has become inordinately obsessed with making money.  “It’s always been about making money.” What is different these days are the market dynamics.  “I think, in mainstream movies, there is that desire for characters and events to be larger than life.” He feels that may be a necessity when one considers the environment in which a movie must survive.  “With a TV show – as quick as the networks are to pull the plug on under-performing but promising shows – you have time:  time to let the characters develop, time to set up your story, time for the audience to get hooked and tell their friends.  With a movie, you have a few months, or as little as a few weeks to create awareness (before the picture is released), and then a week in theaters — maybe two – to sink or swim.”

Conte himself, however, has managed to avoid any pressure to over-inflate his own works.  “I haven’t often had the experience of being told to pump up the action.  It’s more often the opposite:  I’ve written stories with expansive set pieces, and then been asked to scale them down for budgetary purposes.  You write ‘big’ because it makes for an entertaining read – and it doesn’t cost a dime until someone tries to put it on-screen.  If you’re writing an action script on spec, and you hope to sell it to the studios for one of their summer tent poles, you don’t worry so much about the script being too big.  You just want to hook the reader.”

Another thing he feels hasn’t changed as much as the doom-sayers claim is good material:  it’s always been hard to come by.  He alludes to the old Hollywood saw that when you know what’s involved in getting a movie to the screen, the surprise isn’t that so few good ones are made; the surprise is that any movies get made at all.  “On a production level, you can do more things these days.  You can hire a top stunt coordinator, an A-list special effects house, and chances are – if you give them enough money – they are going to deliver.

“Great scripts are more elusive.  Not many people can write them; not many producers and executives can even consistently recognize them.  It’s not just a matter of spending the time and money.  A terrific writer – or twenty talented writers lined up in a row – won’t always deliver that great script.”

And even then, he points out, those movies that do have a distinctive, quality flavor may also have their box office limits built in.  “It’s very difficult to sell the idiosyncratic charms of pictures like Wonder Boys (2000) and L.A. Confidential.  What are you going to see in the trailer?  With something like The Fast and the Furious (2001), you see the ‘pop’ in the trailer.  Studios are always looking for what they can sell, and the shiny bauble is easy to sell.”

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By Bill Mesce

Bill Mesce, Jr. is a produced screenwriter and playwright, and a published author of fiction and nonfiction, including Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema. He spent 27 years with pay-TV giant Home Box Office, and now teaches at several universities in his native New Jersey.

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