When I look back on the years I have worked in the film and television business, since beginning in 1980, there have been many obvious changes. Most of those are technological ones and those technological developments have profoundly altered the soul and the math of the business. Cable TV and then satellite, VHS and then DVD and then DVR, and now MP3. Three networks dominating everything and then those three networks dominating nothing. HBO producing original broadcasting that competed with the Big Three for audience share. David Chase giving everyone a reason to stay home on Sunday to watch TV. Who'd a thought?
In the movie business, among the biggest changes is the background, personality and capabilities of your average head of the studio, head of production and their marketing departments. I recall, through the admittedly distorted prism of time, that Mike Medavoy was the kind of old school studio boss who looked at his release schedule and decided to burn one on "the side of the angels." He had a movie and a filmmaker that he truly believed in and, inside of a slate of 20 or 15 or even 12 movies, Medavoy made one with little regard for the box office prognosis. He wanted to make a good film and believed that audiences would follow the filmmaker, and him, to the theatre.
There are no Mike Medavoys running the studios today. There are no Fred Silvermans running the networks, either, Silverman being the television-savant-as-executive, a breed that seems to have all but vanished, save for Garth Ancier, who apprenticed under Silverman. The studios are run by men and women who know very little, if anything, about how to make a good film. That is why so many studio films are so shamefully (or shamelessly) bad. These are men and women who simply do not have the recipe, although each fancies himself as a modern day Cohn, Warner or Zanuck. From what I read of Hollywood history, Zanuck had more talent for how to fit the disparate elements of filmmaking together in one finger than most of today's crowd has in their whole production department. Make no mistake, there are extraordinarily talented and capable people at the studios and networks. Ron Meyer, once the greatest talent agent of them all (he was mine, and I mean every word of that) and Brad Grey are two smart men who have had remarkable careers and yet run major studios that answer to demanding corporate parents.
The writers' strike is upon us because the writers want more of the back end and the studios claim they don't have it. If the studios don't have it, it's more their own fault than anyone else's. We are now in the fully realized age of the modern entertainment corporation, with lawyers and accountants calling nearly all of the shots. Some say the old studio system was bad. However they look more and more like the Medicis compared to what exists today. Even in independent film, so much of the product seems tired. (If I see one more Indie Icon Guy and Indie Icon Gal put one of their parents into a nursing home, while the lighting is dialed down real low to hide the cheap set design, I might cry.)
Many contributors disparaged the striking WGA on this site. I was dismayed by this. Do you honestly believe that most writers are ultimately responsible for what goes on screen, even if their name is on it? That's like saying a plumber is responsible for your taste in fixtures. Sometimes a writer is like a plumber: he installs what he is paid to install. Most writers I know have a great script in one file and a commercial one in the other. They have BILLY BUDD and PORKYS all in the same computer. Don't ever judge a writer by any screenplay that gets made. Unless you're saying something admiring about a real giant, with real power, from another time. Like Welles or Mankiewicz or Robert Towne.
Everyone in the film industry seems to be searching for the risk-free project. There is no such project. Movie-making, music, theatre and TV, even publishing...all creative enterprises that struggle to discern the taste of a mass audience are in a risky business. We need more risk-takers to make movies and produce TV. We need more Mike Medavoys. And let's hope the strike ends soon.
Read more about the strike on the Huffington Post's writers' strike page.