What happened to movies?

There are very few, if any, John Waynes and Clark Gables anymore.

  • Wednesday, September 18, 2019 10:30am
  • Opinion

Two weeks ago, this first-class columnist flawlessly argued that popular music, socially speaking, isn’t nearly as important, influential, or valuable as it was in the past. Today, I submit that the same is true for movies.

Back in the day when movies were invented — around 1900, give or take a couple years — a few entrepreneurs, like William Fox and Marcus Loew, imagined a business far beyond the five-cent, pie-in-the-face nickelodeons that fascinated customers around Times Square and they, with some other visionaries, launched the entire motion picture industry. By 1915, Hollywood had become the home for various film studios that sold their products to theater chains around the country. Of course, the public was enthralled — pictures that moved and told a story! — and they flocked to the theaters in droves.

The original producers became millionaires overnight. The same might be said for early film stars, like Douglas Fairbanks and Buster Keaton, though they probably weren’t quite as wealthy as the producers.

The enormous profits weren’t shared with very many people. Take for example, MGM. In 1930, that studio only had about 3,000 employees, including janitors and delivery boys. There were 17 directors, 41 writers, and about 31 star actors and actresses, all of whom were tightly controlled by a rather ruthless, penny-pinching egomaniac named Louis Mayer. (There were, of course, other studios, like Fox and Paramount, but MGM ruled the field from the late 1920s into the 1950s.)

However, in the early 1950s, new technology and other sources of finance begin feeding a bunch of youthful, independent film makers. Then too, television was usurping much of the movie theater audience. So, the Hollywood studios were forced to compete with each other, TV, and the independents.

Alas, by 1955 the studio system was falling apart. It produced fewer and fewer films and independent movie-makers picked up the slack. By 1975, MGM was only making five or six films a year.

Today, financed by hook or by crook, many films open every week. Most of them lose money or barely break even. (Indeed, sometimes it seems like only the superhero movies make any money and they carry all the losers.) The leading roles are often played by actors you’ve never heard of and they only have a brief fling with fame before fading into oblivion. (Today, there are very few major stars; i.e., past film greats like John Wayne and Clark Gable used to make two or three films a year and they were stars for two decades.)

Most of the old majestic, regal motion picture theaters belong to a bygone era and are closed now. Similarly, many of today’s “rinky-dink” theaters and complexes, like shopping malls in general, are closing.

During the 1930s and ‘40s, about 65 percent of the U.S. population went to the movies every week. Today, it’s only 10 percent.

In years past, people couldn’t imagine missing certain films, like “Gone With The Wind” or “Star Wars”. But today, they simply shrug it off. What-the-hell, it will be on television in a couple weeks. (In fact, today some films open simultaneously in theaters and on TV.)

Motion pictures used to be the No. 1 form of mass entertainment in America. More important even then popular music. Movies used to have an enormous influence on our behavior and social norms. After all, films taught us how to dress, how to kiss, how to smoke cigarettes. God-only-knows what porn films have taught us.

But not anymore. I suspect this change — this loss of prestige that characterizes both pop music and movies — suggests a broader, more fundamental social shift. More in my next column.

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