EDDIE COCKRELL ON THE GOOD MOVIE GLUT
IN 2000, George Clooney, then three years removed from a daring, live episode of the television program E. R. , took the idea a step further. On April 9 that year, the competing CBS network aired Fail Safe , the first live dramatic program broadcast in the US in 39 years. Starring Clooney, who was also the executive producer, the program was a black- and- white Cold War nail- biter that imagined a technical glitch leading to the accidental bombing of Moscow by the US. A remake of the 1964 movie of the same name starring Henry Fonda as a fictional US president, itself an adaptation of the 1962 novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, Fail Safe works as both provocative thriller and spot- on tribute to the so- called golden age of US TV.
Lasting roughly from 1949 to 1961, this was a time when those who actually owned TV sets shared in the communal experience of watching a small selection of live drama and variety programs and discussing them the next day.
It was a communal experience because there was only a handful of stations broadcasting fare such as crudely mounted real- time Shakespeare or professional wrestling filmed by a camera hung from the ceiling: what they aired was what the US watched.
Fast- forward to February 2008 and the Academy Awards. Clooney is now a global heartthrob often referred to in the film- savvy media as the ‘‘ last movie star’’, for his classic good looks and shrewd selection of scripts that at once exploit and spoof his leading- man persona ( Oceans Eleven to Thirteen being the prime examples). He creates the usual fuss on the prebroadcast red carpet and this year was there for the legal drama Michael Clayton , which was nominated for seven Oscars, including the coveted best picture and Clooney for best actor.
There was speculation that few involved with the film, including Clooney, saw this coming when Michael Clayton opened to warm reviews and strong ticket sales in early October last year. Yet the same Clooney who was smart enough to appreciate the golden age of TV was also smart enough to guide his career through this unexpected success. A period comedy he has directed and stars in, Leatherheads , was supposed to be released at Christmas but was pushed back until next month to accommodate the Oscar campaigning necessary to garner nominations, and wins.
The connective tissue of those two anecdotes, beyond the affable and driven movie star, is the increasing fragmentation of movies and TV. Talking of the Oscars, raise your hand if you saw all five of this year’s best picture nominations. OK, now raise your hand if you remember a year when you saw all five nominated films as a matter of course. You used to, didn’t you? And not so long ago, either. So what happened?
It isn’t just about busy lifestyles. Returning to the trough of Oscar analogies, what if the five best picture nominees, instead of Atonement , Juno , Michael Clayton , No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood , had been, say, American Gangster , The Diving Bell and the Butterfly , Into the Wild , Sweeney Todd and Zodiac? Or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford? Or Elizabeth: The Golden Age? Or Ratatouille ? Or any one of a half- dozen other Oscar- calibre releases last year?
You can see where this is going: Australian release patterns notwithstanding, is it even possible any more for even the most conscientious movie- goer to have seen all five best picture nominees by the time the nominations are announced? And at the same time have a life?
What’s missing from this supposed renaissance is the very thing that made the golden age of TV, uh, golden. There can be no more shared experiences on that level because there’s just too much to ingest and too fragmented an audience to elevate any one movie or TV show to that level of communal experience.
This is why the concept of a lucrative franchise, such as Star Wars or Indiana Jones , has segued to the economically essential tent pole, for example The Lord of the Rings or Spider- Man , capable of keeping an entire studio afloat as it dabbles in other genres and media.
Australia’s George Miller is back on track, following the US screenwriters’ strike, to guide the latest permutation of this phenomenon, Justice League , into cinemas for Warner Brothers. The movie, based on the DC comics chestnut Justice League of America , offers multiple spin- off possibilities for the largely unknown young cast, rebooting such superheroes as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and The Flash.
This is how they Hollywood. Seriously. More sinister is the way in which Americans, and Australians, and anybody else with an interest in movies, consumes those films. Back in the early 1980s when VHS players first caught on, the new thing was time- shift: recording a TV program to watch when you wanted. Then video rental shops opened and people soon realised they could skip the theatrical run altogether and watch the film at home.
This led to a rethinking of the entertainment pie graph that has petrified Hollywood since the advent of TV. Until the mid-’ 80s, the conventional wisdom was that consumers had a limited amount of time to consume entertainment, and that TV, then videotape and then pay TV, would eat into the percentage allotted to cinema- going.
But the global surge in revenue for Hollywood movies and the success of DVD- quality copies for rent, ownership and, quite soon, internet download, demonstrates the pie is a lot bigger than anyone ever imagined.
This also goes a way towards explaining why that weekend session of a new film you have heard is making heaps of money is half empty.
What have been sacrificed, for better or for worse, are the conditions that created the communal experience. What happens to the office water cooler when everyone carries their own plastic bottle of the stuff?
But fear not, Clooney will undoubtedly figure out a way to save us. In the meantime, it’s the golden age of fragmentation.