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In 1905, Hollywood was a peaceful suburb of Los Angeles populated mostly by orange trees, unconcerned with the new art form taking shape on the East Coast. “Motion pictures” were a novelty predicted to fade within a decade: What was drama without dialogue?
Within five years the film pioneers were migrating from New Jersey to Southern California for three reasons: the climate, the sunlight, and freedom from Thomas Edison’s stranglehold on film patents. D.W. Griffith arrived in 1910. Mack Sennett, of Keystone Cops fame, set up shop in 1912, followed by Cecil B. DeMille shortly after. That was only the beginning.
Though not the only suburb to host a movie studio, by the 1920s “Hollywood” designated the entire film industry. That industry, far from a flash in the pan, had developed an entirely new medium for telling stories. The lack of sound technology in the beginning was actually an advantage, because it forced the filmmakers to devise a visual vocabulary of close-ups, fade-outs, jump cuts, and pans. The camera brought audiences up close and personal, into a character’s closet or bedroom; even, perhaps, into his mind. Never before could a roomful of spectators experience such intimacy with people they didn’t know.
The chain-reaction sex scandals that began with Harvey Weinstein just keep exploding.
The camera doesn’t lie, they say. But it does distort. Those who mastered the art of the camera, whether behind or in front, were often mastered by it. To be fair, even a levelheaded banker or judge would find it difficult to maintain a sense of proportion with his face stretched 10 feet high on screens all over the world—and actors are not known for levelheadedness. Ever since the days of Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, screen idols splashed their extravagant lives over the cultural landscape, the very definition of “celebrity.” But their heyday might be ending now.
The chain-reaction sex scandals that began with Harvey Weinstein just keep exploding; Breitbart’s Big Hollywood website features an hour-by-hour update detailing the latest. In retrospect, the only surprise may be why the backlash took so long. “Everybody knew” about that actor’s predilection for teen boys or that top agent’s habit of hurling office supplies at underlings. The “casting couch” has been a rite of passage for ambitious starlets since studios acquired studio heads. “For a lot of jobs,” says industry blogger Richard Rushfield, “abetting [bad] behavior has been part of the job requirement.”
Why lay it all bare now? Possibly the cup of wrath is full and even industry insiders have decided enough’s enough. But more likely, Hollywood is slipping from its high perch and weakness draws the wolves. The summer of 2017 was the worst ever for box-office receipts, with not one, but three big-budget flops—King Arthur, The Mummy, and The Dark Tower. Audiences are bored even with projects that were considered “safe”: endless sequels and established IP (intellectual property) like superhero “universes” and Stephen King novels. Bankable stars no longer draw, and the industry’s outspoken liberalism wins no friends in the hinterlands. In fact, it’s debatable whether American filmmakers are making films for Americans at all, especially since the global box office earns more than double the domestic take.
Nor have they read the digital writing on the wall. Who could have predicted that Amazon, an online bookseller, and Netflix, an online DVD service, would grow up to be video powerhouses? Or that long-form TV storytelling, an update of the old matinee serial, would generate more buzz than the latest blockbuster?
The triple whammy of technological one-upmanship, an unreliable box office, and its own moral turpitude has industry watchers wondering how long until Hollywood goes on life support. The holiday season looms, with the dreadful possibility that not even Star Wars can reverse its long decline.
No kingdom lasts, especially the kind built on vanity and illusion. But vanity and illusion won’t go away; hundreds of big screens surrender to millions of little ones. An empire of make-believe surrenders to a democracy of make-believe, and that’s not all bad. Let creativity bloom on YouTube and festival screens, but ground it in the ultimate reality of heaven.