ONE 8 • Hollywood Notes: Black Lists in Beverly Hills

Hollywood Notes: Black Lists in Beverly Hills

Every year Hollywood managers, agents and executives put together an inventory known in the business as ‘The Black List.’ Unlike the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s, the current Black List is a desirable and enviable place to be — the list of the hottest and most sought after screenplays in town. While the heavy dramas typically win the prestigious awards, this year’s Black List is 80 percent comedies. Is this a surprise in these economic times — that the entertainment business should actually entertain, and make us laugh?

During the Great Depression the masses escaped to movie theaters. For a mere 25 cents, they saw The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, Frank Capra’s romantic comedy It Happened One Night, and the great grand-daddy to the blockbuster phenomenon, King Kong. The only difference now is the ticket price.

Comedy and action-adventure films rule the box office. Hollywood took in a record-breaking $1.03 billion in January alone — and the summer popcorn-chompers aren’t even in previews yet. Box office attendance is up by a double-digit margin, and the largest DVD-by-mail company in the United States is boasting 920,000 new subscribers for the first quarter 2009. And if all of that isn’t convincing enough for the vitality of the marketplace, mobile entertainment and online downloads are slowly reinventing the landscape of leisure-time.

However, despite massive ticket sales, profits are down. Across the board, indie arms of major studios have closed up shop, and expensive television actors — are being dropped or replaced with cheaper versions (Nicollette Sheridan’s calculated departure from Desperate Housewives is reportedly saving a hefty $200,000 per episode).

Contributing factors include the fact that Los Angeles is still crippled by the 100-day writers’ strike of 2008; and, for more than a decade, the red-tape and lack of tax incentives to shoot in California has forced productions of all sizes to defect to Vancouver, Prague and other spots around the globe. Actor-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger hasn’t done anything to reverse the trend.

In a final blow, the proposed Federal Hollywood bailout, which included $246 million in tax breaks, was struck from the stimulus bill. But should Joe the Plumber feel sorry for a movie industry that has record sales and still can’t figure out how to make a profit?

What other industry than the movie ‘biz has been able to up its prices fifty or sixty-fold since the Great Depression? Even gasoline, one of the most volatile commodities, has only increased twenty-fold in price over the past seventy years.

And where does this leave the budding filmmaker or screenwriter? At best, grateful to have a job; at worst, wondering how to pay the rent. All the major studios have reverted to ‘post-9/11’ mode: expense accounts are frozen, no temporary employees and hiring freezes.
However, with so many people out of work, it’s prime-picking for independent filmmakers to snap up some superb talent they may not otherwise be able to afford. Many technicians are willing to work well below their normal rate just to have a paycheck of any kind.

While Hollywood will continue to make big extravagantly-priced films with big explosions and special effects anchored by bankable stars, speculation is that the system may be tracking back to a 1970s mode of filmmaking. The Graduate, Harold & Maude and Easy Rider were all projects cultivated outside the studio machines and nurtured into classics of the era. Similarly, The Wrestler and Slumdog Millionaire — two of the most acclaimed movies of last year — were both negative pick-ups acquired on the cheap at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival. It’s a win-win situation: major studios don’t have to take an upfront risk and well-known filmmakers and actors get to stretch the limits of their imagination with projects that would never pass the initial studio gatekeepers.

Hollywood will certainly survive in the Age of Aquarius. However, there’ll be shrinking pains. Whatever the outcome, if you’re an unproduced writer, pay attention and write a comedy — make ‘em laugh while we drift out of the doldrums.