Sustainable Pace

May 22nd, 2011

When Hollywood went Agile by accident

In the 1960s, the traditional Hollywood concept no longer seemed to work, mainly this was due to the advent of television. Why see the latest John Wayne movie in a theatre when there is "Bonanza" at home? The studios tried technical innovations, like wide and wider screens (think Panavision and CinemaScope), but ticket sales decreased even further.

Then, at Columbia Pictures, they tried something radically different, thanks to the influence of Bert Schneider. The idea: Give a film maker a fixed budget of one million dollars, and let them come up with a film all by themselves. If the budget was exceeded, the film maker had to come up with his own money to cover for the expenses. Risk was kept to a minimum. There were no dailies, no re-writes, no re-editing. Trust replaced control.

Why did Columbia do so? Because of the huge success of "Easy Rider". Directed by Dennis Hopper, the film earned millions of dollars, but made on a shoestring budget by a team of passionate individuals. Think of them as a self-organising team. The film spoke to its audience on a different level, and made the cinematic experience again a defining moment in young people's lives. This new style of film making managed to adapt quickly to the emerging demands, something the old system was unable to achieve.

This approach, resulting in the independent production company BBS productions, gave film makers freedom to experiment and care about the product. Remember the concepts of slack time and quality being the result of care. Of course not every film was a commercial success, but there were enough hits (think of "Five Easy Pieces" or "The Last Picture Show") to make the system a success.

But the system didn't just pay bills then, its after-effects lasted over decades. Think of Quentin Tarantino, whose films I'm not a big fan of, but which are truly citing the early 70s while being commercial hits. No wonder, his acclaimed debut film "Reservoir Dogs" had Monte Hellman as executive producer, whose films might not have been commercial successes in the short run, but inspired film makers who made big bucks years after. Think of this as sustainability requiring experimentation, or mutation being necessary when facing natural selection.

Now think of today, ticket sales are again decreasing, mainly due to the advent of the internet. What do studios do? Technical innovations, like the pathetic 3D fad (which also failed in the 50s by the way). Of course the studios are much more diverse now, but somehow I think more experimentation would do good. Think of films like "Inception", which was originally just a pet project of director Christopher Nolan after his huge success with the Batman franchise, but became a huge commercial success.

(Inspired by the obscure documentary "Out of the Blue and Into the Black" by Paul Joyce.)