1996 was billed as the year of the indy studio—of the five best picture nominees, The English Patient, Fargo, Jerry Maguire, Secrets and Lies, and Shine, four were released by independent or foreign studios. Only Maguire, released by TriStar, could be considered a major-studio release.
The independent-studio phenomenon of the late 1990s and early 2000s, headlined by the Weinstein Brothers at Miramax, is one of the two biggest contributing factors to our current movie culture (The other is the advent of the enormously expensive but almost guaranteed-to-be-profitable CGI-effects spectacle). After the old studio system fell apart in the early 1960s, movie-making became a chaotic, throw-it-against-the-wall and see-if-it-sticks business. Scripts were shopped, bought, rewritten four or five times. Directors were brought in, fired, rehired, vilified in the press, told they’d never work in this town again…etc, etc. The studios no longer employed actors, writers and directors under long-term contract, and could not exert the absolute influence of domineering men like Louis B. Mayer and Harry Cohn. (Do a little reading on how MGM or Warner Bros. made movies earlier in the century, and you will be shocked—studio people would literally come in and add or subtract major characters, plot lines, animals, whatever they wanted). They seemed to respond to this lack of direct influence by becoming schizophrenic in regards to the creative people working for them—green lights became red lights quicker than a director could say ‘action.’ A good book about the craziness of the post-studio moviemaking culture is William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade.
You would think a lack of direct control by studios would make writers and directors happy, and maybe it did (there was a movement in the ‘70s, led by directors like John Cassavetes, which took advantage of the new freedoms to make idiosyncratic films that would not have been possible in the old studio system), but it also frustrated their efforts to get their ideas off the ground and running. As meddlesome as the old studios were, if a director had Mayer’s backing, whether because of a strong track record of because Mayer happened to love the script personally, he could be reasonably sure the film he had in mind would get made. In the ‘80s, once the studios gave up direct control in favor of general wishy-washiness and schizophrenic behavior, even proven names like John Boorman could never be secure that all of their efforts would come to fruition.
The independent studio phenomenon was a response to that schizophrenic atmosphere. Getting a picture made with Miramax became highly desirable for auteurs, because of the promise that creative control would always stay with them. The independent studios we’re talking about are not really independent—almost without exception, they are owned by larger studios (Disney bought Miramax in 1993, and sold it in 2010). But the people in charge of them are given free rein to pick up whatever projects they want, for the most part, and they in turn insulate those projects from outside interference.
It has become accepted that the independent studio way of running things is the best way, even as independent studios themselves falter and die off. So what we have now is a situation where even comic-book blockbusters are largely single-vision works, dominated by the director. John Favreau made a surprise mega-hit out of Iron Man, and was rewarded with a blank check to make Iron Man 2. (And if he wanted to he could probably keep right on going, even if the films didn’t make as much money—a known quantity showing signs of age is SO much more appealing to studios than a new idea).
How could anyone argue that the way things are now is not better than they were in 1979, when The Right Stuff entered development hell for four years?
Well, I’m gonna try: First, studios simply cannot make very many pictures with the current system. By agreeing to let the director have full control once he begins shooting, they are submitting to his budget, his rules. Once it reaches this stage studios can only cross their fingers and pray. Because they can only say yes to a few pictures a year, it becomes absolutely essential that the ones they say yes to make money. Hence Hollywood’s current fervor for making a movie out of anything that has built-in brand appeal, by building on a known commodity or making sequels. The people they hire to make these films have usually already demonstrated competence, like Favreau, so the resulting movies are rarely terrible, but they’re so limited by the kinds of stories they’re allowed to tell that we never see anything that’s really new.
Occasionally, we also get instances of films that might have benefited from some group input, rather than being the genesis of one mind. I would call Inception a good example—a very interesting idea, executed with skill by a talented filmmaker–Christopher Nolan’s. Inception was entirely a personal vision of Nolan’s—he had been planning the film for a decade, even before making his first breakout hit, Memento. It’s a decent movie, which never seems to approach stakes of real consequence, and never quite achieves what it wants to, which is to completely blow your mind. Some people less talented than Nolan, but with better perspective on how a film like Inception might play to an audience, might have provided Nolan with some valuable insight on why his film wasn’t quite scaling the mountain. But who has the power to speak out? Probably only the studios, and they have already decided to bow out once the check’s been signed.
But it’s possible Nolan, with a string of much-loved movies made this decade and the colossal success of Dark Knight, might have received free rein in any age of Hollywood, much as Steven Spielberg did even during the heyday of Hollywood’s schizophrenia. But what about Favreau? His success with Iron Man basically got him the same degree of freedom that Nolan got for Inception. The first Iron Man played up Favreau’s strengths as a director, which is in light-hearted human interaction. The action scenes were shiny and sleek and metallic, and generally acceptable. The sequel was probably even funnier, but we immediately realized there were no more visual tricks up Favreau’s sleeve—the action was clunky and plodding and utterly without style; the cinematic equivalent of a Rock-‘Em Sock-‘Em toy. Favreau is simply not great at staging action sequences. Someone might have been brought aboard to help him out, in the old days, or maybe he would never have gotten the project in the first place. (But, sigh, all kinds of people went to see it anyways)
So, back to 1996. English Patient was much-beloved by a small section of ardent followers, respected by many, and kind of irritated the rest. (Elaine from Seinfeld was one of the latter) It really is visually a very beautiful movie, and the progression of the sometimes haphazard plot, if it does nothing else, helps you to appreciate the beauty.
Fargo is one of my favorite movies ever. It does not inspire deep emotion, sympathy, or thought. In fact it often feels quite empty. But the Coens shape that emptiness into a bitter ache, which I recall every time I see cars trudging homeward across a snow-blasted highway.
Shine follows the paradigm of the biopic faithfully. I thought it was very good when I saw it as a teenager—I’m not sure I would like it quite as much now.
I’ve never seen Secrets and Lies. But Mike Leigh has been a consistently good producer of carefully observed character films for twenty years—I need to catch up on him.
Jerry Maguire is not a great movie. No intention to argue that point.
It is, however, somewhat of an apotheosis of unabashed commercial entertainment. Maguire was one of the most re-played moves on TV, right next to A Few Good Men and Bad Boys. The film’s look is instantly recognizable: the picture is lit up to make every scene look like it’s happening in a mall at Christmas, and the camera frames everything closely—there’s always just one person or two in a shot, and facial expressions are recorded with archival dedication. There’s a single mom with a cute kid, an African-American sidekick who steals every scene, and of course, Tom Cruise, probably here at the height of his fame, the world’s most famous movie star.
Maguire is commercial to its core, but in a good sense. Every punch line is carefully set-up; every emotional payoff is the result of a fine, detailed construction and deconstruction. It could have been a sports movie or a rom-com or a chick flick, but it’s all of those things—a crowd-pleaser which crosses every demographic line. It’s selling us something we want, and enjoying itself doing it. Jerry Maguire is ice cream.
I don’t think we appreciate this type of slickness very much anymore. Dramas are a lot edgier. Director Cameron Crowe’s latest movie, 2005’s Elizabethtown, floundered like a ship in saccharine waters when it tried to deliver multiple payoffs (including a full-length amateur cover of Freebird) in its closing chapters. Maybe it’s because America itself feels so much more uncertain now than in 1996. We demand murky complexity, or mindless stupidity. The things in the middle don’t seem to have any meaning for us.