The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter


Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Dollar and the Dream

In the recent discussion about Tyler Perry and “This Christmas,” a reader posted:
“Steve: I think you will find that there is a growing hunger for anything showing positive healthy emotions like madeas family reunion. Hollywood has its own subculture one that doesnt neccessarily "get" alot of what real people want. Yes there will always be money made playing to the lowest base parts of our natures but the real blockbusters have always put hollywood on its ear. Passion, starwars, titanic. maybe there hasnt been a movie with a black actor having sex reach the 100 million mark but its coming.”
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Yes, it is. But, and I've said this a thousand times, and will a thousand times more. "Hollywood" isn't some monolithic company. It's a collection of artistic endeavors run by people from all over the country, all over the world. All "Hollywood" is is our own drive to externalize our dreams and give them to others. It is a marriage of the artistic and the business senses. The business sense counts every dime, and looks to what has worked before to know what to do next. Follow only that, and you get nothing but sequels. The artistic sense continually tries to create something new and utterly honest and individual. Follow that, and you get a billion "Utube" videos. All the entertainment you could want, all the honesty and creativity--buried in a mountain of crap. The businesspeople sort through all of that, like those guys who pluck coffee beans out of rodent droppings. (And you HAVE to wonder who discovered THAT particular delicacy!)

The problem is not, and never has been “Hollywood.” Any more than the lack of black role models is “New York” or the lack of a non-White male President is “Washington.” Please. The problem is us, humanity. The very strengths that got us here are the same weaknesses that hold us back. The war between Art and Commerce is as old as time. What shall I create? If I don’t care about the market, I can create anything I want, and make it in a corner of my garage, and show it to a few friends who will rail against the Heathens who don’t appreciate your work.

But if a movie costs 40 million to make, and another 40 million to promote and distribute? And that money comes from corporations owned by thousands of individual shareholders who want a return on investment? At that point, there is a queasy tension between the dollar and the dream. And I would say that it’s pretty much a draw. The guaranteed money comes from doing “what has worked”…until that plays out. Then, from nowhere, comes a work no one anticipated, and it makes tons of money and turns that director/writer into the new star. Until they’re drained, or imitated into the ground, and the next “star” emerges.

There’s no movie industry, no artistic machine anywhere on the planet that does a better, more consistent job than Hollywood. That’s one of the reasons that our movies play all over the world, while German films don’t even necessarily play in Italy. This is something we do pretty damned well.

If you think it’s easy, let me ask you: how many people love their work, and work at what they love? The vast majority of people would quit their jobs if they could. They had dreams as children that have NOTHING to do with how they spend their days. To create a film that touches the heart and ALSO makes a buck, it requires more than genius and luck. It takes…I don’t know, really. A touch of something divine.

There is a saying on Broadway: “Never use your own money.” Wealthy people who fund movies or plays with their own money usually lose their pants. At least partially because without the multiple opinions of the dreaded “development hell” you have no idea whether that pet dream of yours will appeal to anyone else. If you open yourself to the process, your dream gets watered down…but it also simultaneously learns to speak the unconscious language of a few more people.

Every child is born a Buddha Baby: “Earth Below, Heaven Above. No one in the world like me!” We dance in the living room, and our parents applaud. But very few of us can keep that AND deal with the inevitable failures that offer us the opportunity to learn and refine our craft, so that eventually we might dance at Radio City Music Hall.

We have to think we’re “the best” and as soon as we get our ego cracked, we retreat. The ones with the ego to continue are usually the toughest, not the best. Sigh. But unless God comes down and selects out the best and then gives them big budgets, what else is there save the acclaim of the crowd, or the nod from the studio exec? You gonna use YOUR money? Gut YOUR family to make that movie? No, you’re going to bring in Orthodontists and lawyers to invest, and trust me, every one of them will have their own idea of what to do.

Hollywood is us. It is you and me. The eternal tension between adult and child, yin and yang. It’s a helluva game, and not for the weak of spirit.
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I slid over something I wanted to return to: the idea that we have to think something is “better” to support it. My religion is better, my country is better, my race is better, my gender is better, etc.

Most people are like this. It’s kind of like thinking that your baby is the sweetest, cutest, smartest in the world. The ability to evoke that response is all that keeps the little buggers unstrangled. Personally, I think newborns look like Emperor Palpatine dipped in 30-weight. And I love ‘em. But I think that it is hard for people to imagine fighting for, say, their political orientation unless they feel it is Better. It can’t be just more appropriate for the way they see the world.

It is why I won’t take one of those positions. It is the NEED to take such a position that drives the judgment that “this is better than that.” People have it backwards: they think that it is their judgment of the quality of the thing that drives the need. In other words, they think that it is their head that drives their heart. Silly people. That illusion is the very definition of “awakening your Kundalini backwards.” Passion drives the mind, folks.

What is better? Depends on the frame of reference, and that is always infinitely malleable. Better to decide on your values, get clear on them, remember ALWAYS that your perceptions of things in this world are flawed…and that anyone who speaks of certainty and tries to get you to take action that puts money or power in their pocket is using you. You might march with their army, but do it for your own reasons, not theirs.

It is this tendency that I’ve found in all racists, all hateful, angry people. On the other hand, of course, it is possible to stand for nothing. To be so confused by the options that you cannot act. I remember Jerry Pournelle being a bit baffled by me once, remarking that I genuinely seemed able to see both sides of an issue at once. Maybe that quality is rarer than I think. It doesn’t hamper my ability to act at all…because my values are crystal clear to me. But I don’t mistake them for Truth.

5 comments:

Demon Hunter said...

Steve said, "If you think it’s easy, let me ask you: how many people love their work, and work at what they love? The vast majority of people would quit their jobs if they could. They had dreams as children that have NOTHING to do with how they spend their days. To create a film that touches the heart and ALSO makes a buck, it requires more than genius and luck. It takes…I don’t know, really. A touch of something divine."

Your entire post was great, Steve, but this paragraph inparticular, spoke to me. I would quit my job in a heartbeat. I'm tired when I get off and run errands, but I still plant my butt in the chair and write every night because I am going to become a published author if it kills me. For me, growing up in the 80's, I read books that did not include people who looked like me and this is what I want to offer to the masses. This country is culturally diverse and I want to write about that, include everyone in genre fiction. Thanks for this post, Steve. It says a lot.

Pagan Topologist said...

Didn't Mel Gibson use his own money to make Passion of the Christ?

If so, doesn't using your own money mean that if you win, you "win big?"

Mike Ralls said...

Hollywood is not a monolithic organism, but it does have it's own values that shape and push its art in certain directions above market forces alone. Think of it this way: there have been quite a few movies about the Iraq war recently, or that are heavily shadowed by the Iraq war, but how many of them could be considered pro-war? If Hollywood was a perfect mirror of America about 40% of movies about Iraq should be pro-war (the percentage of Americans who think the Iraq war was not a mistake http://blogs.dailymail.com/donsurber/2007/12/06/warcongress/), but instead they are virtually all anti-war. Other than Team America, I can't think of a single one that I would say is unabashedly pro-War.

Do you think that's just a coincidence, or does it reflect how Hollywood has some tendencies that are different from the rest of the country? I think the later.

Anonymous said...

"Hollywood is us. It is you and me."
Speak for yourself Steve, we non-Hollywood types are merely passive consumers of whatever nonsense Hollywood produces. Save for something like American Idol, we have squat to say outside of not viewing their products.

And does that stop them from producing numerous duds or others so bad they offend anyone with a IQ over 70? no.

IMO Hollywood is its own world separate from the rest of the country. Their values are their own and in no way would I assign Hollywood's values as those for the rest of us.

Rodger

Jennifer said...

"Hollywood is us. It is you and me."
Speak for yourself Steve, we non-Hollywood types are merely passive consumers of whatever nonsense"

I think that 'US" in this case means the collective, not the individual. Of course, there are going to be individuals and lots of them, that don't like what is being produced but the movie going masses are buying the tickets and it is ticket sales (or the potential) that drives what Hollywood produces. The only way to impact that bottom line is to not go to what we don't like. Don't buy the ticket, don't rent the DVD. Just don't participate in that. Do buy tickets for what you like. Do rent or buy DVDs.