Hollywood's Setting Sun

In the wake of the SOPA/PIPA overthrow (good riddance) to much ado and flag-waving in the last day or so, Y Combinator announced their looking to fund startups that will “Kill Hollywood”.

Hollywood appears to have peaked. If it were an ordinary industry (film cameras, say, or typewriters), it could look forward to a couple decades of peaceful decline. But this is not an ordinary industry. The people who run it are so mean and so politically connected that they could do a lot of damage to civil liberties and the world economy on the way down. It would therefore be a good thing if competitors hastened their demise. #

Which reminded me of this excerpt, which wonderfully describes how Hollywood has come to look in the past decade or two:

Is Hollywood’s famous sun really setting? There is certainly a hint of twilight in the smog and, lately, over the old movie capital there has fallen a grey-flannel shadow. Television is moving inexorably westward. Emptying the movie theatres across the land, it fills the movie studios. Another industry is building quite another town; and already, rising out of the gaudy ruins of screenland, we behold a new, drab, curiously solemn brand of the old foolishness.

There must always be a strong element of the absurd in the operation of a dream factory, but now there’s less to laugh at and even less to like. The feverish gaiety has gone, a certain brassy vitality drained away. TV, after all, is a branch of the advertising business, and Hollywood behaves increasingly like an annex of Madison Avenue. #

That’s Orson Welles, in his Twilight in the Smog, Esquire, March, 1959. 50 years ago. And lest we forget, the Hollywood of which Orson Welles was writing, was the Hollywood of the 50s blacklisting. You think SOPA/PIPA is corrupt and contemptible? It’s merely ignorant and silly in comparison to the insidiousness of the blacklist. Is the sun just taking it’s sweet time? If that’s the case, we have a long night ahead of us.

Today it isn’t so much television that’s moving inexorably westward (peak TV anyone?), even if the best competing content is still TV-based, yet the view of the dying giant, the dusk over tinsel town, is much the same it seems.

What ended up happening in the years following Welles’s twilight was in fact not a slow death, but a rejuvenation of the ailing studio system—New Hollywood—which rather than setting the sun on Hollywood, was an explosion of light, re-inventing it instead. For a time, in the late 60s, up through the 70s, it seemed like a true transformation had taken place; that the lunatics had taken over the asylum, as the allegory goes. Movies were arguably more personal, more honest and more innovative than they had ever been before! Hollywood had fallen out of touch with the audiences, and survived by becoming simply a channel for creative new filmmakers, who were in touch with the audience.

“Kill Hollywood” makes for a great slogan—can’t you just see it spray-painted on the sides of buildings, or on the cover of Wired?—but it makes for a futile strategy against an industry that has proven so thoroughly in the past (albeit forcefully stubborn and greedy, but of which industry is that not true?) nothing if not adaptable. New Hollywood did rejuvenate Hollywood, but only for a time. The pendulum swings both ways; and at the end of the day, while being an ‘arts business’, film is still first and foremost business.

The failed coup of New Hollywood, is read by some as a failed attempt at killing off Old Hollywood, though it seems that it was less about killing Hollywood, and more about transforming it. About infusing it with a renewed energy and focusing its strengths and power into something meaningful. In the end, the failure of the coup, however noble, wasn’t a failure to kill Old Hollywood, but a failure to blend the two cultures. The radicals creatives, and the suited businessmen. The light, and the darkness.

The pendulum swung back, business won out, and Orson Welles seems as prescient today, as he ever did.

So Y Combinator’s revolutionary cry can be faulted for being too black and white in what the end-game in this should be, but what’s worse is that although referred to simply as “Hollywood”, there is no such single entity, even if it’s (supposedly) guarded by branch organizations like the MPAA. What does “Kill Hollywood” even mean, when Hollywood is everything and anything related to films, from writing through production to marketing and distribution? This idea that Hollywood needs to be killed because it is ‘evil’, based off of the actions of this supposed monolithic entity, is as ignorant as the blacklisting of supposed reds in the 50s; if not as harmful.

I certainly applaud any attempt to further the entertainment industry and to educate the ignorants behind, and supporters of, such foolish measures as SOPA/PIPA. But with Y Combinator located in Mountain View, they should know and understand the tech industry, if nothing else, and what has been the biggest revolution in technology in the past 15 years? Apple. And how did Apple become the behemoth it is today?

By making great products, and smart decisions.

Sure you can position the establishment as the enemy fortress to be invaded; but there is a marked difference between wanting to ‘kill the enemy’ and ‘spread democracy’. One is the rhetoric of hatred, the other of love.

And hey, it’s not like the tech industry hasn’t found itself in similar binds; in fact while this legislation became linked to Hollywood, they’re just as applicable to software, or even hardware! Hell, the DMCA, that horrible forerunner for SOPA, has been used by companies like Microsoft to protect the Xbox against nosey hackers for years; so should we kill Silicon Valley too?

Lasting change rarely comes at the end of a knife, but over the course of education and understanding, but “Kill Hollywood” is a better battle-cry than “Teach Hollywood why making great products, breaking down barriers and understanding the zeitgeist is better than stubbornly wielding their political power for their own gains,” or perhaps the even more apt “Upend the Washington that allowed lobbyists to convince apparently ignorant politicians of an agenda that serves only the industries for which the lobbyists work, and not the people.”