How a 27-year old speech by one of the most powerful figures in movie history can still change the movies
By Lars Trodson
There is a manifesto coming out of Hollywood that industry leaders hope will reinvigorate ticket sales, if not the artform. The manifesto isn't the idea of any specific group or individual; it's been issued piecemeal through interviews, articles and columns in such publications as The Hollywood Reporter, indiegogo.com and The New York Times. The manifesto can be summed up in just a few words: Technology will save tomorrow.
This belief is advocated by such disparate luminaries as special effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull, screenwriter and director Paul Schrader and the futurist Faith Popcorn. These people are predicting that bigger screens, immersive technologies and better food will be the gateway to a revived industry.
The recent flurry of interest on how to save the movies has come about because of the dismal 2014 summer season. After those box office receipts emerged, experts started to weigh in on the future. This viewpoint deserves to be called a manifesto because, despite the number of voices involved, almost everyone is advocating the same path.
But I think all the experts are wrong. Saving the future by investing in technology that will soon be obsolete is not the way to create longterm success. To achieve that, movie industry leaders need to look to the recent past for inspiration. They need not go back any further than the 1980s, when one of their own, one of the most important figures of late 21st century filmmaking, gave a short, impassioned speech about what needed to be done to save the movies.
That speech, by Steven Spielberg, given when he received the Irving Thalberg Award in 1987, provides all the information about what the movie industry needs to do to save itself: Return to the "word," to the screenplay, to the document he called "the blueprint" for a motion picture.
But this advice fell into the dustbin of history almost as soon as it was uttered. Why was it ignored? If he had been heeded, Hollywood would perhaps be less rich, but its future would be more secure.
It had to be a problematic time to be Steven Spielberg. Hollywood, in the mid-1980s, was dividing into two camps. On the one side, there were the young Turks who had introduced digital thrills to mainstream audiences (Spielberg, Lucas), and on the other side was the still-powerful old guard that was emblematic of a more traditional form of cinematic storytelling. Luminaries from an earlier era, such as Billy Wilder, Lew Wasserman, Ray Stark, Dino De Laurentiis, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra to name an eclectic list, were still living and, even if largely inactive, hugely influential to certain blocs of Academy voters. At the ceremony during which Spielberg was given the Thalberg award, Oliver Stone's Viet Nam drama "Platoon" earned the Best Picture Oscar, while Paul Newman won the Academy Award for Best Actor. That's two separate eras right there.
But the Oscar nominated screenplays that year were an exercise in banality (for the most part): "'Crocodile' Dundee," "Hannah and Her Sisters," "My Beautiful Laundrette," "Platoon," "Salvador," "Children of a Lesser God," "The Color of Money," "Crimes of the Heart," "A Room With A View," and "Stand By Me."
And so it would continue for a decade or more, with epically uninspired or conventional films such as "The Last Emperor," "Rain Man,""Driving Miss Daisy," and "Ghost" winning laurels if not hearts and minds. In 1997, spectacle completely triumphed over when James Cameron's "Titanic," won a record-tieing 11 Academy Awards, but was, not surprisingly, completely overlooked in the screenplay category. The people who didn't win writing awards during this period include Louis Malle, Stanley Kubrick, Spike Lee, Nora Ephron, Paul Mazursky, Peter Weir, Whit Stillman, Donald E. Westlake, John Singleton, Ridley Scott, John Sayles, Arthur Miller, Jean-Claude Carrière, Mike Leigh and Paul Thomas Anderson — all writers, with the exception of Miller — who have brought a singular and recognizable sensibility to screen writing.
Spielberg was quite obviously the bridge between two worlds: he knew how to tell a great story — he was (and is) a traditionalist in many ways — but he was a champion of the new technology, and audiences were embracing it with fervor. It seemed as though computer images could actually deliver on the early, magical promise of movies. We could forget about Ray Harryhausen and split screens and inadequate animation and papier mache monsters. How real everything looked! And as this transition was being made, the story was still as important as image. (James Cameron, as an example, wrote a terrific screenplay for "Aliens.")
This schism is illustrated by the fact that, in 1987, Spielberg had been nominated for a Best Director Oscar three times but had yet to win. It is well known he was not nominated for "Jaws," but his nominations were all for films laden with special effects: "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and "E.T.: The Extraterrestrial." His serious film for 1987, "The Color Purple," was nominated for Best Picture but he was passed over for a directing nod. Spielberg was not just a paradox; he was a dilemma.
The industry understood it had to honor the still-young director in some way and of course someone decided the Thalberg Award was the way to do it. (It seems all the more premature when you consider the honoree in 1988 was Billy Wilder, who had started in movies in Berlin in 1929.)
It's of course impossible to know with any certainty what his motives were for focusing on "the word" during his speech, but it could be rooted in the idea that Spielberg knew if he was going to enter the pantheon of the truly great cinema artists — rather than be just a rich and popular one — the one thing that could accomplish this goal was a return to what made his predecessors so durable: great scripts. (It's not a coincidence that Spielberg won two Oscars for directing movies with excellent scripts: "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan.")
As footnotes to his motivations that year, Spielberg was of course aware that "Jaws 3-D" had been released in 1983 and "Jaws IV: The Revenge" was slated to come out later in 1987. He was, as he accepted the Thalberg Award, seeing the monster he had created.
Three attempts to change cinema
Spielberg's desire to strip cinema down to the basics was not a new impulse.
There have been three major manifestoes issued in the last 50 years, designed to change not just cinema but also the political direction of society. All three had as the foundation of their philosophy an attempt to define an aesthetic, an attempt to throw off the shackles of big budgets and fantasy scenarios in order to better connect with audiences on an emotional level. They were, to a very large extent, about art. That is what differentiates the past from what is happening now.
On Feb. 28, 1962, at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, 26 German filmmakers issued a manifesto based on a simple idea: "Papas Kino ist tot" — "Papa's cinema is dead."
According to an English translation of the manifesto that is available online, the filmmakers felt that it was time for cinema to invent a "new style."
"Film needs to be more independent. Free from all usual conventions by the industry. Free from control of commercial partners. Free from the dictation of stakeholders. We have detailed spiritual, structural, and economic ideas about the production of new German cinema. Together we’re willing to take any risk. Conventional film is dead. We believe in the new film."
Later on in the decade, in 1969, two Argentinian filmmakers, Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas, issued a manifesto that embraced some of the ethos from the earlier German document, but expanded it by incorporating a Marxist viewpoint and rejecting the idea of the auteur.
Getino and Solanas also echoed the German filmmakers and presaged the ideas put forth by Lars von Trier and others in the Dogme 95 manifesto (from 1995).
"As a rule, films only dealt with effect, never with cause; it was cinema of mystification or anti-historicism. It was surplus value cinema. Caught up in these conditions, films, the most valuable form of communication of our time, were destined to satisfy only the ideological and economic interests of the owners of the film industry, the lords of the world film market, the majority of whom were from the United States."
This manifesto was a call to arms against what Getino and Solanas called "the System" and what Jean-Luc Godard called "the fortress" — that is, the entrenched interests of the American film distribution system that was choking off revolutionary ideas and cinematic forms. This is the "third cinema." (The first being the American cinematic escapism that was designed to pacify audiences, the second being the European experimentalists who embraced the theory of the auteur.) Getino and Solanas were advocating, in non-European countries, for a third revolution — a third cinema. This was the idea that filmmakers were part of a collective (not auteurs) that could foment real political and social revolution.
Revolution it may very well have been, but the filmmakers behind both of these manifestos understood that evincing human emotion from an audience was fundamental to the success of their political ideas. The filmmakers were seeking a connection through human emotion and experience, which would move people to create the change.
A third manifesto, Dogme 95, addressed how big budgets can smother the very life out of a movie (this has been very much in evidence in the 20 years since this manifesto was issued). The Dogme 95 Manifesto was written by directors Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg and made public by von Trier at a 1995 conference in Paris that was celebrating 100 years of cinema. The core of the Dogme 95 manifesto is "kyskhedsløfter," or "Vow of chastity."
The first vow in the manifesto sums up the Dogme 95 philosophy: "Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found)." There are other guidelines: no added sound, films must be shot in color, the camera must be hand-held, etc. It is strict and exacting, and the Dogme 95 philosophy was never accepted by mainstream filmmakers or welcomed by large audiences.
The predictions and desires of those in film today, as I'll show next, have the opposite intent of these earlier efforts. I'll say it again: If movies are going to survive they should return, as Spielberg said in 1987, to what they started out as: explorations of human drama, humor and emotion.
Perhaps the first big announcement of the new ethos came in a series of articles published in The Hollywood Reporter in September 2014. The introduction positions the new ethos:
"The movie industry is facing a crisis: Seduced by mobile phones and video games, younger audiences are drifting away. This year, domestic box office, at $7.5 billion, is down more than 5 percent. But there is a possible future in which the industry rebounds.
"Picture it: Ten years from now, some members of the family might watch 'Star Wars: Episode XII' at a giant widescreen theater that makes current Imax houses look puny. With the latest interactive technology, their own faces could be projected into the crowd scenes, making them, literally, part of the action. Tomorrow's 'movies' could boast images so real, they're more like 'the feelies' Aldous Huxley imagined in Brave New World."
The Hollywood Reporter goes on to say what the new technology will cost: "Such changes won't come cheap: Laser projectors, just coming on line, can cost more than $250,000 each; new theater installations, like the concept that projector company Barco is proposing, can cost $185,000. There are more possibilities: Other family members could decide to simply stay in, paying a premium price to watch the world premiere of Episode XII on a state-of-the-art home-theater system. And once the movie's over, they might reach for a virtual reality headset to explore the caves of Tatooine on their own. The pricing will vary among the modes of delivery, but forget about buying a movie 'ticket.'"
Legendary special effects master Doug Trumbull feels that future success is in how movies look. In his piece on what Trumbull is up to, writer Scott Feinberg described a film that Trumbull had just completed. This is also from The Hollywood Reporter series:
"The short that I have just seen, UFOTOG (a blending of the words "UFO" and 'fotog,' the latter slang for press photographer), is stunning not because of its story — we've all seen movies about UFOs — but because it shows, as it was designed to do, what movies can look like if theaters, studios and filmmakers embrace the MAGI process through which Trumbull brought it to the screen: bigger, brighter, clearer and with greater depth-of-field than anything ever seen in a cinema before.
"All of the aforementioned conditions are part of the MAGI equation, but the most essential element is the rate of frames per second at which a film is projected. In the beginning, the Lumiere brothers projected films at 18 fps, slow enough to result in the appearance of flickering — hence the early nickname for the movies, 'the flickers' or 'the flicks.' That figure eventually increased to 24 fps, and has remained there, for the most part, ever since."
Understand, what Feinberg called "stunning" was "not because of the story." In fact the most "essential element is the rate of frames per second at which a film is projected..."
Feinberg continues: "In 2012, Peter Jackson dared to release The Hobbit's first installment at 48 fps, which was supposed to create a heightened sense of realism, but which instead struck many as strange-looking and some even as nauseating. Many deemed the experiment a failure. Trumbull disagreed. He felt that if a digitally shot film was projected even faster — markedly faster, as in 120 fps, via a bright projector and onto a big screen — then the movie screen itself would seemingly disappear and serve effectively as a window into a world on the other side that would appear as real as the world in which one sits." That won't matter if the script is no good.
The publication turned to 10 experts about how they thought the filmgoing experience should change. This is what the futurist Faith Popcorn had to say in the "Future of Film" report. "Movie theaters are dying. As consumers hide out in their at-home binge-cocoons, devouring entire seasons of HBO and Netflix programming, theater owners will partner with hotels to create binge retreats. These will be fab private dens you can rent for a few hours or days to binge-watch whatever you like. It'll be all about decadence: Food will be catered and gourmet. Mixologists, masseuses and manicurists will be on-call. People will be unplugging from home and work, and plugging in to entertainment, fantasy and luxury."
Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder of the MIT Media Laboratory, had this to say in the series:
"Now imagine that, rather than writing, recording or filming a story, you model the situation in a computer. That model is like the DNA of the story from which multiple forms can be rendered. Want to see it as a movie? Want to hear it while driving? Want to read a book about it? In each case, when you choose, it is automatically rendered in that medium, with the skill sets of great directors, wonderful actors, postproduction excellence — but no people, just computers."
On Nov. 29, The New York Times ran an article headlined, "To Lure Young, Movie Theaters Shake, Smell and Spritz." (The article is accompanied by a photo of a supposed movie patron who looks like he's in pain.)
The article, by Brooks Barnes, opens: "Having tried 3-D films, earsplitting sound systems and even alcohol sales in pursuit of younger moviegoers, some theater chains are now installing undulating seats, scent machines and 270-degree screens. For an $8 premium, a Regal theater here even sprays patrons with water and pumps scents (burning rubber, gun powder) into the auditorium. Can’t cope with two hours away from your smartphone? One theater company has found success with instant on-screen messaging — the texted comments pop up next to the action."
In an article for Indiewire.com, the screenwriter and director Paul Schrader ("Taxi Driver," "American Gigilo") said to an apparently young interviewer: "If I were your age, I’d be writing code." (Interview published on Oct. 31, 2014.)
Also in Indiewire, a report on an IFP Independent Film Week panel promised this seemingly paradoxical bit of information: "[G]reat advice about how to break into branded content — and make a name for yourself as a filmmaker -- without selling out."
During this discussion, a director by the name of Barry Jenkins got right to the heart of the matter when he offered this advice on how to make a pitch: "I think people in general are much more visually savvy than they were in decades past. You could sell people any damn thing if you could put two sticks together in the 60s, just like in 'Mad Men.' When you approach brands today, we find that the best method is to deliver your vision through images rather than writing, that way advertisers know exactly what it will look like, and will be more willing to comply with your ideas."
All of this misses the point (never mind how deflating it must be for an aspiring writer). No amount of spritzing, pop-up texts, huge screens or more frames per second will compel audiences to leave their homes for the movie theater if what they pay to see bores them.
Spielberg's Irving Thalberg Speech, 1987
Let's put all that aside. Here is Spielberg's speech, unedited. The first line is a reference to Sally Field's famous "You like me!" acceptance speech for a Best Actress win in 1984.
I'm resisting like crazy to use Sally Field's line from two years ago. Thank you very much. Following in the footsteps of some of my heroes, Cecil B. De Mille and George Stevens, Alfred Hitchcock, William Wyler, Ingmar Bergman and Robert Wise, this award is truly a great honor for me. The Thalberg Award was first given fifty years ago in 1937, which was the year of "In Old Chicago," "Captains Courageous," "Dead End," "The Life of Emile Zola," "Lost Horizon," "Stage Door" and "A Star Is Born" — all having been nominated for Best Picture that year. I'm told Irving Thalberg worshipped writers. And that's where it all begins. That we are first and foremost storytellers, and without, as he called it, "the photoplay," everybody is simply improvising. He also knew that a script is more than just a blueprint. That the whole idea of movie magic is that interweave of powerful image and dialogue and performance and music that can never be separated, and when it's working right, can never be duplicated or ever forgotten. I've grown up—most of my life has been spent in the dark watching movies. Movies have been the literature of my life. The literature of Irving Thalberg's generation was books and plays. They read the great words of great minds. And I think in our romance with technology and our excitement at exploring all the possibilities of film and video, I think we've partially lost something that we now have to reclaim. I think it's time to renew our romance with the word. I'm as culpable as anyone in having exalted the image of the word at the expense of...exalting the image at the expense of the word. But only a generation of readers will spawn a generation of writers. The five films nominated for Best Picture this year are as much the writer's film as the director's. And it's good news that each of these films has found its audience. Because this audience, who we all work for, deserves everything we have to give them. They deserve that fifth draft, that tenth take, that one extra cut and those several dollars over budget. And Irving Thalberg knew that. He would have been proud to have been associated with any of these films, as I am proud to have my name on this award in his honor. Because it reminds me of really how much growth as an artist I have ahead of me in order to be worthy of standing in the company of those who have received this before me. So my deepest thanks to the Board of Governors of the Academy and the audience out there in the dark. Thank you very much.
I saw this speech live. I was just beginning to start as a writer then, and I had aspirations to go to Hollywood, to write screenplays, maybe even direct them. I had an idea that there were still great stories to tell, characters to create, and memories to be made for those people who go to the movies. So to hear this was thrilling. I wasn't going to be drowned out by special effects, or franchises or multiple sequels. Maybe I could write a short story and have that get noticed for its merits. What I was feeling was almost certainly felt, quite literally, by millions of people who were watching that night.
But then time passed, and I slowly realized that the promise was not fulfilled. The speech was ignored and, quite frankly, at the same rate that special effects improved, the scripts got worse. Some of the movies released by Hollywood in 2014, some with major stars, were so bad they aren't even remembered months after their release — "Into The Storm," "The Other Woman," "Blended," "And So It Goes." Today, except for a very, very few practitioners at the studio level (Quentin Tarantino, Bennet Miller, Alexander Payne), believe in the power of the script. It's gotten so bad that even movie-makers on the micro-budget level are seeking to emulate trends rather than write the scripts they are passionate about.
Perhaps Spielberg will remember his own words; perhaps, as he edges toward 70, he will be inspired to make at least one small, independent film, one with just actors and dialogue and a commitment not to fix everything in post-production.
Such a movie would be as sensational and more exciting in ways any big-budget sequel to "The Adventures of Tintin" or a fifth Indian Jones movie or even a period spy thriller starring Tom Hanks could not hope to be.
If he makes that little movie, others will follow.