Interview: Stephen Simon of ‘The Old Hollywood’

Posted on October 16, 2010 at 8:00 am

Stephen Simon grew up in Hollywood, the son of a movie director and studio executive. He worked in movies as well, including films with Tom Cruise, Madonna, and Christopher Reeve. His new book is The Old Hollywood and he was nice enough to answer my questions about the movie business.
What’s the biggest difference between the “old Hollywood” and the “new Hollywood?”
The single biggest difference is that New Hollywood is almost entirely focused on films for people under thirty; that is, those who are experiencing Act One of life. The Old Hollywood focused on Acts One, Two, and Three of life. When we bring back the Old Hollywood, we can leave Act One to the New Hollywood and focus on Acts Two and Three.
Are there some film-makers who work with the same crews and cast repeatedly to create the old Hollywood sense of community and continuity?
As to key crew members, yes. Most filmmakers like to work with the same core crew. As to cast, only a few people like the wonderful Christopher Guest (“Best in Show,” “Waiting for Guffman,” etc.) maintain a kind of rep company so he can work with the same actors. There are other ways that some directors honor the Old Hollywood. Many years ago, I worked with Sam Raimi who went on to direct the Spider-Man films. In honor of an Old Hollywood tradition, Sam wore a coat and tie on the set every Friday.
How does the increasing role of the international box office affect the subject matter and script quality of Hollywood movies?
I have heard some foreign sales agents say that “action rules, comedy drools.” Action films translate all over the world but humor often doesn’t. In addition, international distributors put a huge emphasis on so-called “name” actors so they can have a better chance at DVD and television pre-sales. So, action films with name actors have ruled the international marketplace for many years. Doesn’t leave a lot of room for films like “Sideways,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” and other story-oriented films, does it?
What can independent producers do that studios cannot?
Nowadays, not much. Sadly, “independent” today usually means out of work. One of the biggest casualties of the New Hollywood has been the decline of independent films. In fact, one of the main goals of my book Bringing Back The Old Hollywood and is to prevent independent movies from becoming an extinct species.
Why are movies all directed at teenagers?
I address this woeful state of affairs in my book: Murder At MGM. The corporate mentality that now rules every studio has also led to a single-minded reliance on Madison Avenue demographics. Whereas the giants like Mayer and Thalberg would make films they believed in and order their marketing divisions to come up with ways to sell them, the situation is reversed today.
Marketing executives are consulted on whether the under thirty year-old audience can be lured to theaters by a film. If the marketers are dubious, the film will, in most cases, never see the light of day.
If Indiana Jones were sent to find The Holy Grail in the New Hollywood, his assignment would be to come back with the secret of how a fifteen-year-old boy decides which movies to attend over and over again.
Imagine for a moment Louis B. Mayer in a meeting with his MGM marketing team about Gone With The Wind in 1939. The head of marketing cautions Mayer not to make “Gone With The Wind.” “Sure, it’s a big best seller and all, Mr. Mayer, but the teenagers will never go for it and there are no fast food tie-ins.” The next day’s headline in Variety would have been: “MGM’s Mayer Murders Marketer.”
The tail is not wagging the dog. It has replaced the dog altogether.
Do you agree with the “auteur” theory that it is the director who is the author of a film?
Absolutely, positively, 100% not! One of the reasons that the New Hollywood is in so much trouble is that it has so marginalized writers and canonized directors. Screenwriters are hired and fired indiscriminately. As a result, the majestic power of story telling has become a lost art in the New Hollywood. And that’s another reason that we’re Bringing Back The Old Hollywood.
What is it like to vote for the Oscars?
It’s a wonderful honor and also a significant responsibility. So much Oscar voting is about politics, personalty, and jealousy. 2009 is a perfect example. While “The Hurt Locker” was admired by many, “Avatar” is one of the great achievements in film history. The only reason James Cameron didn’t win was because many people in the Academy felt the film’s success was a big enough reward and others were just jealous of Cameron’s success. Politics aside, being a member of the Academy is a great honor for which I am deeply grateful.
When did you say no to Steven Spielberg?
Well, for one, I’m obviously no genius. The story is related in great detail in my book but, in short, Spielberg was at one time interested in developing a script for “What Dreams May Come.” For various reasons, I eventually decided to go in another direction. It’s one of the more interesting and bizarre chapters both in my book and also in my life.
What do you mean by niche being the key to bringing back old Hollywood?
The New Hollywood is on a relentless hunt for movies that appeal to the widest possible audience under 30. As one studio executive said to me, they are no longer even looking for films that could be modest or even solid successes. They want blockbusters. (The fact that the video chain Blockbuster is itself teetering on bankruptcy seems lost on them.) Niches have been the key to cable television’s meteoric rise at the expense of the so-called mainstream networks and it is the key to making films for targeted audiences over 30 as we Bring Back the Old Hollywood. In fact, if the classic film “The Graduate” was made today, the word whispered to Benjamin as the key to future success would be “niches”, not “plastics.”


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