The Sundance Kids by James Mottram<br/> Hollywood's New Radicalism by Ben Dickenson

Shoot the film, pay for the shagpile
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The Independent Culture

Has Hollywood finally turned a corner? Are the studios being inspired by personal visions rather than the mere raking in of dollars? And does the spate of newly released political films mean that Hollywood is now enjoying a golden age reminiscent of the 1970s? The authors of both these books answer loudly in the affirmative. Yet they come to their positive decisions about Hollywood's prospects by very different means.

For his part James Mottram follows an aesthetic path arguing, via a description of mostly small-budgeted films, that independent film-makers have not only succeeded in Hollywood but also turned the major studios round to their way of thinking. He concedes that it is now almost impossible to produce even a small-budgeted film within America without studio backing, but emphasises that within this restriction many victories have been won by innovative and adaptable movie-makers. Unfortunately, though, the disadvantages of choosing to describe particular films, rather than providing a breakdown and analysis of what is in reality an industry, soon become apparent.

Indeed in his attempt to propose that Hollywood is a home to creativity, Mottram himself recognises the redundancy of a brick-by-brick, film-by-film method of persuasion. He suggests, for instance, that so much print has already been devoted to the vogue for Quentin Tarantino, he has to ask himself, "What can one say about Pulp Fiction that has not already been said?" Almost as if he's trying to persuade himself to keep writing, he ends each one of his chapters on a valedictory note. A cult director "has arrived", for another "the cross-over was complete", or the author re-works his sub-title to emphasise that "the mavericks have taken back Hollywood". Meanwhile, because he confines himself to the question of whether certain independent film-makers are "auteurs" or will be stylistically influential, Mottram avoids the more important story of how independent film-makers relate to Hollywood and the studio system.

Aside from the matter of whether directors, like Scorsese, Coppola or Altman, ever really controlled Hollywood in the 1970s, Mottram's well-meaning, if not closely argued, proposition is all too easily punctured. Even from the perspective of 25 years ago, the British director Stephen Frears realised "What we [independent] film-makers do only pays for the carpets at Paramount's headquarters." Or to reduce the argument of this book down to one bald statistic: out of the 100 top grossing films of all time only one - My Big, Fat Greek Wedding - was not produced at a major Hollywood studio.

Yet, equally, there must be a reason why the major studios buy out independent producers like Miramax while at the same time setting up their own independent arms, such as Fine Line at Warner Bros or Buena Vista at Disney.

Ben Dickenson, by contrast, does open out his book, and, because he searches out the economic motives behind the making of good movies, he is able to provide the answers to such questions. In this instance Dickenson compares the cost-to-earnings ratio of Sex, Lies and Videotape to the number one hit of 1989, Batman, the former earning $21 for each dollar spent while the caped crusader only managed a $5 return. Following the money trail, Dickenson reveals a studio structure in which "Indies" are squeezed out of the market. Films per se are worth nothing; it is in their distribution that money is made by producers. Since 90 per cent of a theatre's box office takings are returned to the studio-producer, not surprisingly theatrical distributors would prefer to show low-budget independent films. If the distributor is tempted, however, by such films, the studios will starve them of the most popular, revenue-generating blockbusters.

Opportunities present themselves in which this stranglehold can be loosened. It is unlikely for instance that Rupert Murdoch, the owner of 20th Century Fox, would have been interested in producing such an anti-corporate film as Warren Beatty's Bulworth, but the movie-star producer waited until Fox executive Barry Diller left the company, then quickly called Diller's replacement reminding him to schedule a date for shooting the film. Diller, in fact, had never agreed to produce Bulworth but Beatty's speed of thought and action ensured that the film got made anyway. But this kind of sleight of hand can have repercussions. The executive who green-lighted Bulworth was sacked by Murdoch and, two years later, when Lorenzo di Bonaventura produced the anti-war film Three Kings, he was, in turn, fired by Warner Brothers.

Fortunately, politically engaged films continue to be produced in Hollywood and Dickenson is perceptive about the conglomerate network in which independent film-makers have to work. Studio executives, he comments, "never question the market economics of the system they are in but on social issues they are far to the left of the corporations they work for". Thus the apparent disapproval of America's military industrial links in such mainstream movies as Blade Runner, Robocop or Alien, while corporate capitalism is left untouched. Crucially, though, Dickenson points to the reluctance of American movie-makers to believe in collective organisation rather than individual resistance to social injustice. As a result, Hollywood's political effectiveness has been handicapped.

Well informed about a complex subject, Dickenson achieves a finely-tuned balance between Hollywood politics and political films but, by his book's end, he's chasing celluloid shadows in an attempt to corral minor films into a polemical agenda. By then we know that art is incidental to a profit-run business like the Hollywood studios and that we have no choice but to lower our expectations, though, perhaps, we can still believe in what Bill Murray says: "The studios are very serious about making money, and that's not a wrong thing. But you don't have to make money the same way all the time."

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