Clark Gable, “His ears are too big and he looks like an ape.”
So said Darryl F. Zanuck after viewing Mr. Gable’s screen test for “Little Caesar”, and the rest is history.
What can I say, but film executives have their ups and downs. Film making is a funny, as in odd, endeavor. From the studio system’s inception top spots in the business hierarchy have rarely gone to filmmakers. The rare exceptions we’ll talk about in another post, but today we’re going to talk about how the early ones, all the way up to today’s crop of MBA’s and lawyers try to hedge their bets in an unpredictable business. I have to say in the early years people like Zanuck relied on instinct, sometimes he was right and sometimes he was wrong, but his responses to the movie process were seated in his passion for the medium and the desire to tell the strongest story he could. (Yeah, and I know he was something of a megalomaniac and a womanizer, but that doesn’t have any bearing on making movies.) And, certainly he was driven by profit motives and the pressure of stockholders and the East Coast bankers, but he was involved emotionally with the product he turned out. I’m going to come back to this, but the words of the day are “instinct” and “involvement”.
Today, the pressure of turning a profit has led the studios into a mess of quantification. Executives rely on focus groups, and entire staffs whose main purpose is to relieve the executive of making creative judgements – no instinct, no passion, no involvement. There are exceptions, but this is the norm. Movies heading down the development pipeline are subjected to something called “previsualization” – I call it taking the vision out of movies. Here’s how it works, a script under consideration for production goes to a team that renders it in digital form for consideration by the higher ups. The problem is, computer generated previsualizations don’t really resemble movies. There’s no director, the “camera” gets set up in places it could never be, leading the executive viewing it to think “whoa, what a whiz bang ride” when in the physical non-cyber world there’s no way to achieve that look. Performances and nuance? We’re talking about something that looks like a computer game. If you listen to people in the industry today you’ll hear a consistent comment, “there are no more producers.” That’s not exactly true, but there is a trend toward predictive behavior that blots out creative impulse.