Saturday, June 06, 2009

The Studio System Reborn

Now with historical Add On ... and Add On Too!.

The Boston Globe holds forth on the old "dream factory" ... otherwise known as the Golden Age Hollywood studio, has been reimagined in Emeryville:

... [T]he heyday of the Studio Era [was] a period roughly coinciding with the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, 1933-1945.

The Studio Era was the assembly line as art... Its most notable achievement didn't lie in the work of any one filmmaker or given genre or style. Rather, it was the systematic organization of talent, craft, and technology to manufacture a high-quality, high-volume entertainment product which managed to achieve two seemingly opposed ends: to create work of considerable artistry at the same time that it generated even more considerable profits.

... The greatest living testament to the genius of the system comes from a name no one would have recognized 15 years ago, let alone 60, and the studio that bears the name isn't even in Hollywood. Pixar Animation Studios is based in Emeryville, Calif., 350 miles and several sensibilities away from contemporary Hollywood. It's not all that far, though, from the Hollywood of six decades ago.

In terms of product, what most distinguished Studio Era Hollywood was a devotion to three principles: a corporate approach to creativity, being in it for the long haul (rather than just a one-weekend killing), and reaching every part of the moviegoing public ...

One point the Globe misses: All the Golden Age studios were run by savvy, creative execs who turned out a large number of quality films with small administrative staffs. There were no huge lumbering bureaucracies, no focus groups, no herds of "producers" jostling for screen credit, just the film-makers and a few test screenings and then .... the release of Wee Willie Winkie, The Sea Hawk, Grapes of Wrath or Gone With the Wind.

And the staffs inside studio front offices were lean. At 20th Century-Fox, there was Darryl Zanuck, who supervised forty films a year with the assistance of a handful of associate producers. Zanuck read the scripts, cast the pictures, ran the story conferences and made the editorial decisions. Everybody else, from directors to writers to actors to art directors, performed to his specifications.

At Warners, Hal Wallis did much the same job that Zanuck did over the hill at Fox, with about the same number of aides.

At M-G-M, there was Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer's son-in-law David Selznick doing the creative exec thing. In pretty much the same way it was peformed at the other Golden Age studios. But the well-oiled Metro machine had some sand tossed in its gears in the late thirties, when Thalberg died and Selznick went off to be an independent producer.

And then of course there was Walt Disney at his small, start-up studio. Most people thought of Disney as a one-man show from the beginning. (He was a Hollywood God by the end.)

All these studios had something in common with Pixar. The power to create product was in the hands of a few driven men who knew how to make films. Zanuck started as a writer, Selznick and Thalberg had been line producers, as had Hal Wallis. Disney, of course, had started as a cartoonist at a drawing board. At the studios over which they presided, there were no committees, no sign-offs by layers of bureaucracy, just studio bosses who'd long-since proven themselves in the movie trenches making the crucial decisions.

This time-honored, streamlined system doesn't always work. You get an exec who doesn't make the grade with his less-than-inspired choices (former Disney movie top-kick Joe Roth comes to mind), then the resulting features and production deals are neither stellar nor long-lived. But in modern times Pixar has done it, also Mr. Katzenberg, also Steven Spielberg (who, over thirty-plus years, has been a studio mogul unto himself.) And the odds are good that there will be others (J.J.Abrams?) as we travel deeper into the 21st century.

But the Globe has one thing right: Pixar is the most obvious current example of a rebooted "Golden Age" studio system where the creative exec rules.

Add On: A couple of examples of "Golden Age" micro-management by the heads of studios come from memos of Darryl Zanuck and Hal Wallis. Here's Zanuck giving writer Nunnaly Johnson directions about what he wants in the script for The Grapes of Wrath (1940);

[The Joads'] money practically gone -- gas low -- and the terrible realization that what they were told [about there being no jobs] is true ...

We come in on them driving into town and asking somebody where they should go about finding work -- maybe showing the fellow the handbill. The man just looks at them and laughs. Someone else comes along and they ask him. We see the fellow look at the car and down on the license plate. "Oh -- Oklahoma. There's a camp on the edge of town -- maybe somebody there will tell you --"

Their hopefulness and terrible disillusionment. They drive into the Hooverbille camp and their hearts drop at the terrible sights. The futility of what has occurred. They just look at each other as the stark truth dawns on them. "Don't seem very encouragin', does it" ... Ma snaps them out of it -- they'd better pitch the tent, etc.

Zanuck biographer George Custen points out that "the sequence as shot is a virtual transcription of the memo ..." ("Twentieth Century's Fox -- Darryl F. Zanuck and the Culture of Hollywood" Basic Books, 1997, pp. 234-35.)

Then there is this 1941 memorandum from Hal Wallis to line producer Henry Blanke about director John Huston (The Maltese Falcon):

Huston's second day's dailies are better than the first, but I still feel that they are too leisurely in tempo. I think my criticism is principally with Bogart, who has adopted a leisurely suave form of deliver. I don't think we can stand this all through a picture, as it is going to have a tendency to drag down the scene and slow them up too much. Bogart must have his usual brisk, staccato manner and delivery, and if he doesn't have it, I'm afraid we are going to be in trouble... [W]e must quicken the tempo and the manner of speaking the lines ...

Director Huston "quickened the tempo."

Lastly, here's Wallis complaining to director Rauol Walsh about dailies on The Roaring Twenties (1939) [both Wallis memos from the book "Inside Warner Bros."]:

... I don't like your camera setups; those straight-on two shots, and individual closeups are going to get monotonous and make for choppy cutting ... [I]n the courtroom instead of just shooting a big, choker head of the judge, why didn't you shoot over-the-shoulders of Cagney and Jeffrey Lynn up at the judge. Get a little composition in the thing and a little grouping so that we don't have to cut from one big closeup to another and just have a series of portraits on the screen with the people speaking the lines ...

Detail oriented, wouldn't you say? And not a focus group in sight.

Add On Too: But here is my favorite Wallis memo, in all its steaming, un-P.C. glory, to director Michael Curtiz during Captain Blood (September, 1935); apologies in advance:

I have talked to you about four thousand times, until I am blue in the face, about the wardrobe in this picture. I also sat up here with you one night, and with everybody else connected with the company, and we discussed costume in detail, and also discussed the fact that when the men get to be pirates that we would not see "Blood" dressed up.

Yet tonight, in the dailies, in the division of the spoil sequence, here is Captain Blood with a nice velvet coat, with lace cuffs out of the bottom, with a nice lace stock collar, and just dresssed exactly opposite to what I asked you to do.

I distinctly remember telling you, I don't know how many times, that I did not want you to use lace collars or cuffs on Errol Flynn. What in the hell is the matter with you, and why do you insist on crossing me on everything that I ask you not to do? What do I have to do to get you to do things my way? I want the man to look like a pirate, not a molly-coddle. You have him standing up here dealing with a lot of hard-boiled characters, and you've got him dressed up like a God damned faggot ...

I suppose that when he goes into the battle with the pirates (the French) at the finish, you'll probably be having him wear a high silk hat and spats.

When the man divided the spoils you should have him in a shirt with the collar open at the throat, and no coat at all. Let him look a little swashbuckling, for Christ sakes! Don't always have him dressed up like a pansy! I don't know how many times we've talked this over.

I hope that by the time we get into the last week of shooting this picture, that everybody will be organized and get things right. It certainly is about time.

Hal Wallis.

The only thing to add to this is "Yeowch."


g said...

Micro-management, wouldn't you say?.

Absolutely, but the difference being these guys actually knew their craft technically, inside and out. Ask Iger about straight-on two shots and he'll stare blankly back at you. But he sure does know his stock price!

I think Steve Jobs is a good example of what an exec who doesnt know filmmaking should do at his studio: be quiet and let your directors make the decisions.

Anonymous said...

Iger is incredibly well versed in both film history AND film making....I got to spend some face time with him at an event a few years ago, and he completely surprised me with his intimate knowledge. Based on conversations I've had with folks in the animation industry, he's far more knowledgable than many (I'd say most). He's a bit LESS familiar with animation, but that's fine--it's just another technique of film making.

Anonymous said...

Y'know, the idea of doing everything here, in country, in town, in house might be one of the key elements in Pixar's success. If I'm on a production that's all being done here, and the rest of the team is working here, and we're all working toward the same goal, it feels pretty good.

The alternative practice of cranking out a factory assembly product, half of which is executed by people thousands of miles away who don't know you and who are after your job, makes it difficult to feel any sense of worth or appreciation for what you do.

The Golden Age Hollywood Studio template seems to work for Pixar.

A side note to the Pixar people:
Congratulations on UP. It's a mighty fine movie on all levels.

Anonymous said...

Thalberg had Curtiz reshoot 80% of "Captain's Courageous" after it's first screening. It made it a better film. Anyone who thinks test screenings are a relatively new thing doesn't know what they're talking about. This film was made in 1936. How the info from the screenings is UTILIZED makes all the difference.

Even Snow White had test screenings.

Anonymous said...

And about the "Studio System," it's worth noting that most successful feature animation studios have ALWAYS employed this system (Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, Blue Sky, Aardman, Rich, Bluth). For larger animation studios, it never really went away.

Anonymous said...

Pixar has definitely benefitted by being outside of Hollywood and the Hollywood system. You can say the same for George Lucas.

Floyd Norman said...

Having worked at both Disney and Pixar in the booming nineties, the difference in the two studios was frankly, amazing.

One studio simply “got it,” and the other didn’t have a clue.

What was the difference, you ask? The management.

Mark Mayerson said...

I want to point out to Anonymous 12:33 p.m. that it was Victor Fleming, not Michael Curtiz, who directed Captains Courageous.

According to Michael Sragow's book, Victor Fleming: An American movie master, principal photography on Captains Courageous started on Sept. 22, 1936, 8 days after Thalberg's death, so it is impossible for Thalberg to have requested that 80% of the film be re-shot.

Anonymous said...

ACK! you are CORRECT on the "final" director (not the first time Fleming did such).

But principal photography was done in late 1935 by Curtiz, only to be mostly reshot. Them is the facts.

Anonymous said...

Not to mention Sragwo's book, is filled with innaccuracies, and is FAR from the "definitive" book on Fleming.

Anonymous said...

What about the early 90's Floyd? Certainly Disney was doing alright management-wise while making Aladdin and Lion King and Beauty and the Beast? No?

Steve Hulett said...

But principal photography was done in late 1935 by Curtiz, only to be mostly reshot. Them is the facts.


Curtiz was shoting "Captain Blood", not "Captain's Courageous" at the time. His films for ''35 are: "Black Fury," "The Case of the Curious Bride," "Captain Blood," "Little Big Shot," and "Front Page Woman."

When Mr. C. would have found time to do "Captains Courageous" I have no idea. He was under contract to Warners from the 1920s to the 1950s. He was the Brothers premiere director, and I don't think the studios was in the habit of loaning him out.

"Captain's Courageous" was a major release for M-G-M, and Fleming was one of their top directors. (Fleming started as a cameraman in the teens, directed some of Douglas Fairbanks' early silents, peaked in 1939 with "Wizard of Oz" and "Gone With the Wind."

Mark Mayerson said...

Michael Curtiz was a contract director at Warner Bros. According to James C Robertson's book The Casablanca Man: The cinema of Michael Curtiz, Curtiz worked exclusively for Warner Bros. from 1926 until 1953. He only made a single film for MGM, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1960.

r said...

That Hal Wallis memo is pure gold!

Reminded me of Christian Bale's tantrum...


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