OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

New book: big business rules changing film industry

05/27/1998

CORVALLIS - Hollywood studio executive Darryl F. Zanuck is one of the storied names in the history of the American film industry - a powerful executive who could make or break stars, and whose approval could launch a dozen film projects.

Yet in just six months, his son Richard made more money from his share of co-producing "Jaws" than Zanuck had made in decades as a Tinseltown legend.

That anecdote and other stories about the changing film industry are the subject of a new book of essays on Hollywood called "The New American Cinema," which has just been published by the Duke University Press. It is edited by Jon Lewis, a professor of English at Oregon State University, who has written a pair of critically acclaimed books on the industry.

The collection of essays by 13 leading film critics is one of the few books to look at contemporary American film - works produced during the last 30 years. Most American film history books stop around 1968, "about the time the ratings code came in and, overnight, American cinema changed," Lewis pointed out.

"Suddenly, you could show nudity, you could show sex, and you could show violence," he said. "It was about that time, too, that a group of directors educated at film schools brought a new perspective to the industry."

One of those directors was Steven Spielberg, whose megahit "Jaws" - which Lewis says is still his best work - further changed the industry. The tale of a man-eating great white shark reaped enormous profits and planted the idea of "blockbuster" into the minds of many studio executives.

The financial machinations of the Hollywood film industry comprise the first section of "The New American Cinema." The second section looks at how films in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s have reflected our culture, while the third section deals with the independent film movement and projects that "are marginal to the Hollywood scene."

Today, Lewis said, the American film industry is dominated by three major companies - Paramount, Time-Warner, and Disney. The blockbuster concept is even more important today than in previous decades, he added, though not every film has to emulate "Titanic" to be a success.

In fact, Lewis pointed out, it's hard to lose money. Even widely panned films like "Waterworld" can bring in a tidy profit.

"These companies have their finger in everything," Lewis said. "The box office take is merely the tip of the iceberg. Take Time-Warner, for example. They will authorize a movie and have it made, then release it to the theaters - many of which they own. Then they'll release it through video, where they also have an interest. They can release it to television - they own Turner Broadcasting - or to cable, where they have HBO. They also own more than 60 percent of the software going into your home.

"Then there are overseas rights, licensing for action figures and games. They are paying themselves in so many ways," Lewis added, "it's almost impossible for them to lose money."

The book also looks at the way films reflect American culture, from psycho-thrillers like "Silence of the Lambs" to so-called male rampage films, "Die Hard" and "Lethal Weapon, to films that explore race and gender issues in contemporary America.

The independent film movement, outlined in the book's third and final section, looks at directors like John Cassavettes, who has worked in Hollywood as an actor primarily to finance his independent films made in New York City. It also examines African American films and amateur productions filmed with shoestring budgets and a lot of heart.

"Writing the great American screenplay has replaced writing the great American novel as the goal for a lot of people," Lewis said.

Lewis says the American film industry could certainly improve, but it still is the best in the world. Foreign films may, at times, seem more substantive, but American audiences only see the top two or three films a country may produce, he pointed out. "I can safely argue that the American film industry still produces the best movies in the world," Lewis said. "We also produce a bunch that aren't so good."

The conglomeration of the industry in the last two decades has produced more blockbusters, yet few films Lewis is willing to put into the "great" category. In the 1970s, he said, America produced the two "Godfather" films, "The French Connection," "Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver," "The Last Picture Show" and "American Graffiti," to name a few.

"In the 1980s, we had, well, 'Blade Runner' was a terrific movie, and these days (Quentin) Tarantino is interesting," Lewis said. "There have been a lot of interesting movies, but few I'd call great. I'm hardly the only critic to lament the end of the 1970s, though."

Lewis is author of "The Road to Romance and Ruin: Teen Films and Youth Culture" and "Whom God Wishes to Destroy...Francis Coppola and the New Hollywood."

Contributing essays to the book were Sabrina Barton, University of Texas; Scott Bukatman, Stanford University; David A. Cook, Emory University; Timothy Corrigan, Temple University; Ed Guerrero, University of Delaware; Chuck Kleinhans, Northwestern University; Lewis; Ivone Margulies, Hunter College; Tania Modleski, University of Southern California; Fred Pfeil, Trinity College; Catherine Russell, Concordia University; Christopher Sharrett, Seton Hall University; and Justin Wyatt, University of Arizona.