News Analysis

Thursday 18 September 2014

Paul Whitington: They don't make offers you can't refuse any more in tired Hollywood

Paul Whitington

Published 23/05/2013 | 05:00

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James Caan (left) in ‘The Godfather’
James Caan (left) in ‘The Godfather’

THEY don't make 'em like they used to, according to veteran actor James Caan, who came over all curmudgeonly at the Cannes premiere of his movie the other day. Guillaume Canet's 'Blood Ties' stars Mr Caan as the boss of a 1970s New York crime family, and evokes obvious comparisons with 'The Godfather', the film that made him a star in the first place.

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And if the 1970s is often cited as a cinematic golden age, the 73-year-old seems to think the modern era is precisely the opposite. "I've become very negative about the films of today," he told a reporter, "and that's why I leapt at the chance to do a film of the 1970s with talent like this.

"I was very fortunate in the 1970s to work with the best actors, the best directors, the best cinematographers. And the films had a beginning, a middle and an end . . ."

Today, he concluded, "it seems like most of the films they're doing, in Hollywood anyway, are these franchise films".

Most older people think the world was a better place when they were young, and Mr Caan's comments could easily be dismissed as doddering sentiment were it not for the fact that his argument makes a lot of sense.

In the last decade or so, as production costs have shot up and cinema audiences in the US continued to decline dramatically, Hollywood studios have withdrawn into their shells and become ever more risk- averse. If a movie costs $100m or even $200m to make, Paramount, Fox, Universal, Sony et al want to make sure they don't lose their shirts, which means that brand recognition is everything, and originality is a dirty word.

That's why virtually every action comic character has been dusted off for movie adaptation, and why we're deluged with effects-laden franchises. Every summer the multiplexes are clogged up with sequels to 'Iron Man', 'Batman', 'Superman', 'The Avengers', 'Spider-Man', 'X-Men', 'Transformers', 'Hulk' and 'Thor', and then there are the recently completed 'Twilight' and 'Harry Potter' franchises to contend with.

Given the prohibitive cost of making a mainstream film, audience recognition is king, and original scripts stand little chance of finding a sympathetic reader in Hollywood.

Intelligent, grown-up films do still get made of course, but not, in the main, by big studios.

For instance, Paul Thomas Anderson's 'The Master' and Kathryn Bigelow's 'Zero Dark Thirty' were both financed and produced by Megan Ellison, the independently wealthy daughter of a software tycoon, and one wonders would either movie have been made without her help.

In the 1970s, studios such as Paramount, Columbia and Universal regularly took risks in backing young writers and film-makers, and if they hadn't, talents like Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, De Palma, Friedkin and Bogdanovich might never have appeared.

And back then, sometimes, just sometimes, studio bosses were prepared to give these ambitious young turks their head. During the planning of 'The Godfather', Paramount president Stanley Jaffe tried to bully Francis Ford Coppola into casting reliable character actor Ernest Borgnine as Vito Corleone, and blocked the participation of Marlon Brando, who at that point was considered uninsurable.

Coppola got his way, but I very much doubt that he would if the film were being made today.

It's hard to see a movie like 'All the President's Men' getting made by a big studio these days either. A relatively expensive and extremely politically sensitive film in which two reporters make some calls and absolutely nothing resembling action occurs was a hard sell back then, but might be an impossible one now. Of course, plenty of bad films were pumped out in the 1970s, some of them starring Mr Caan. But an atmosphere that valued original ideas and genuine creativity over mere product made it possible for great mainstream movies to blossom here and there.

In the early 1970s, naysayers prophesied that movie-going was about to be terminally eclipsed by television. But audiences rose after studios and filmmakers upped their game, and after George Lucas and Steven Spielberg invented the blockbuster.

Once again cinema seems under threat, this time from the internet, humungous TV screens and the sinister and constantly evolving world of digital television.

But cranking out ever noisier action franchises is not a viable long-term strategy, and this time, if the big studios aren't careful, the prophecy may be self-fulfilling.

Irish Independent

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