Free Hollywood

by Yule Heibel on August 9, 2003

Frank Pierson, president of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences, former president of the Writers Guild of America, West, director of A Star is Born and other movies, writer for Cat Ballou, Dog Day Afternoon, Cool Hand Luke, etc., gave the commencement address to the 2003 USC film school graduating class, and AlterNet reprinted it Up Close and Personal. Pierson starts at the beginning — he’s an old man and he reminds the class that everyone he went to school with is dead already — and pauses in the 60s and 70s, to describe this period as a Golden Age of cinema in the US. Whereupon things changed:

Then, on Wall Street, it began to be noticed that a single blockbuster movie could make in a weekend what a substantial business made in a year.

Corporate ownership and high debt forced the industry “to play to the least critical audience: Teenage boys with disposable income.”

What has happened in Hollywood has happened to us all, because the focus of international business has shifted from production to distribution. And further – whoever controls distribution shapes what is produced – to what will fit under the seat or in the overhead compartment.

(…) Watch the odd, the old, the personal, the traditional, the idiosyncratic, the family made or the regional disappear from supermarket shelves that are rented by the foot to international companies that then stock them with their own water and sugar products.

Read on and watch Pierson quote a “rancorous idealist living in London during the Industrial Revolution.” He salvages the critique, even if its prescriptions, carried out by Communist regimes, resulted in societies that were repressive and “as dull and one-size-fits-all as the one [that] globalopoly threatens to smother us with now.” But now he’s on a roll, asking the USC class for nothing less than their imaginations:

Somehow we need to keep alive in our hearts the vision of community, shared interests and understanding of our neighbors’ needs, the sense of connection this fractionated society is losing.
We need to recapture the spirit of Main Street. Up close.

And personal.
That is both your challenge – and your opportunity.
Godspeed and good luck.
We count on you.

It’s a rousing call to rally and show some backbone, in the mode of JFK, by a guy who’s been around for a long, long time: Ask not what your cinema/culture/independent production can do for you, but what you can do for your culture. Hooray for old men like that.

{ 1 comment }

Joel August 10, 2003 at 7:56 am

We’ve come full circle from the idea of the early Romantic aestheticists who held that the artist is beholden to nobody. Now we’re rolled out and packaged: if you’re not hamburger meat, the word on the street is, you won’t sell.

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