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April 03, 2007

The New Hollywood Director & the Role of Genre

The Relationship of the Director in 'New Hollywood' to Genre: Birth of the American 'Auteur'?

Introduction

The concept of genre has been examined from a number of angles. It has become apparent that what appeared to be a relatively simple critical category is a lot more complex. Many examples of genre hybridity and a multi-generic industrial strategy have been noted. It has also been stressed that genres are live cultures. Genres develop and change under the direct influence of the full range institutional factors which comprise cinema – Producers/ Exhibitors / Audiences – as well as having to respond to wider changes in the media environment. The case presented here argues that the higher profile the film the less it is reliant upon genre as a part of its marketing strategy and the more important the role of the director.

The Changing Industrial Environment

‘New Hollywood’ remains the dominant cinema on a global basis. Historically there are a number of institutional changes which have reshaped Hollywood. The production base of films, the relationships between the various companies which make up the film industry as well as the systems of exhibition have also evolved. Classical Hollywood cinema underwent restructuring during the 1950s. Antimonopoly legislation, the rapid growth of TV and the growth of higher levels of disposable income amongst the working classes were the major contributing factors to the need for restructuring.

The break-up of the old studio system saw film companies being taken over by industrial conglomerates. At the same time a new mode of exhibition started to develop in America – The Multiplex. This was necessary to try and halt declining audiences attracted by TV and other leaisure pursuits.  The first was a 4 screen version opened by American Multi-Cinema in Kansas City in 1966. It took until the 1980s for the multiplex to consolidate its hold over the American exhibition system, it then started to export the model with the first in Britain opening in Milton Keynes in 1985. It had a restaurant brasserie and social club. Guaranteeing at least one U certificate film it was an important marketing strategy for cinema. Conditions of exhibition have often been underestimated by critics however the fact that in the 1930s many American cinemas were air conditioned was a major summer attraction for audiences. These market factors need to be added to concerns such as genre and stardom.

Television offered another way of distributing films and so the opportunities for joint production arrangements became possible. This could reduce financial risk for the film companies by sharing costs on lower level productions ensuring a good stream of finance and funding the administrative and marketing forces necessary to its core activity of making premium feature films.

From the perspective of the development of genre the growth of the ‘made for TV’ market gradually replaced the low budget studio output. An important feature of these films was that they were shot with a TV audience in mind thus action had to remain central to the screen. This was because the aspect ratios of the original TV screens were different to those of cinema screens. The rapid growth of the installed base of wide-screen television able to screen films in their original aspect ratios will gradually erode the technological limitations of the ‘made for TV movie’.

Economic crisis in the 1970s followed the changes in the institutional arrangements of cinema. The 1980s saw the flourishing of new technologies such as satellite and cable accompanying the deregulation of media markets in many countries. Film companies became less interested in production as such but more concerned with distribution which was a lucrative but lower risk aspect of the market.

More changes in the regulatory and economic relationships of the industry meant that the way became open for higher profile independent producers, and filmmakers who could play with higher budget movies which allowed them to expand their vision. Film companies by this time had become horizontally integrated into media empires which included TV, Radio, and music strands within the corporate conglomeration. This meant that a range of synergies between companies could be utilised to market films. This included: TV and cable distribution arrangements; the production and distribution of soundtracks; the production of DVD’s and videos; the sale of rights on associated computer games and toys,T-shirts and other marketing materials. Overseas distribution provided another income stream. Multi-media corporations like this include Time-Warner-AOL, and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox TV in America along with his extensive global media interests. Other sources of production income now include charging companies large amounts of money to feature their branded products within a high profile movie.

Role of the Director

This has meant that films hoping to be financially successful are increasingly reliant upon a range of strategies to reduce their risk . Film directors with a good profile are more able to make films that they want to make in the way they want to make them. This compares with the ‘Classical’ Hollywood period of production when the directors were largely at the mercy of producers who enforced tight shooting schedules and eliminated cost overruns. Several European émigré directors used to less industrialised ways of making films such as Fritz Lang who at the German company UFA regularly went well over the original budgets and schedules to get a film to his satisfaction. Many like Lang found it hard to adapt to Hollywood systems of production.

These European directors were considered as auteurs or authors who were putting their vision onto screen. Many of these directors created stars rather than depended upon stars. Josef von Sternberg was instrumental in bringing Marlene Dietrich to a wider audience. By comparison, Hollywood has always been dependent upon the star system as another marketing tool. Often there has been a symbiosis of stars with particular genres, John Wayne and the western and some war films, Clint Eastwood with westerns and more recently action-thrillers, Sylvester Stallone, Steven Siegel and Arnold Schwarzenegger with action-adventure.

Murray Smith (2002) teases out a useful distinction between the American concept of the auteur and a more European based conception of the auteur. For the latter the high-cultural traditions are seen as the most important aim of the film whilst in America these aims are attenuated by a desire to reach a much wider audience as well. Orson Welles as well as Martin Scorsese are examples of this type of director.

The role of the semi-independent filmmaker who has some power to negotiate their conditions is recently exemplified by Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2003) a film which he has apparently been longing to make for many years. There have been a series of high profile interviews with Scorsese in broadsheet newspapers, specialist film journals and TV review programmes.

In interview with Ian Christie, Scorsese responding to a question on how the film taps into 19th century revenge narrative like ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ commented that the film echoes genre forms, but also includes social, historical and personal issues.

We complicated it because I was interested in the emotions. It evolved from a story about a boy who needs a father and a father who needs a son, against a backdrop of the frontier meets the city, or a western meets a gangster film, topped off with a ‘soupcon’ of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery – all of that in one Movie! (Martin Scorcese).

Described by some critics as an 'epic', Gangs of New York is strongly dependent upon being a multi-genre film. It combined with Scorsese’s own reputation, and featuring stars such as the highly bankable Leonardo di Caprio, and co-starring Daniel Day Lewis. It also stars Liam Neeson appealing to Irish audiences. Both the latter actors have played leading roles in historical films such as Last of the Mohicans ( 1992) and Michael Collins (1996), a fact that will broaden the appeal of the film.

Thelma and Louise is strongly associated with director Ridley Scott who was able to exert quite a high degree of control over the production process rather than being entirely controlled by the financiers because of his previous success with films like Bladerunner (1982). As a British director Scott has an outsider’s eye for weighing up aspects of society considered as everyday to indigenous directors. In this way a key element of American identity, its landscape, became a key part of the film’s aesthetic appeal. Scott also had a particularly dynamic way of making cinema relying on direct takes with the actors unrehearsed to gain spontaneity. Much of the film’s success can be attributed to Scott’s directing skills.

In an entirely different context Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1929-30) was the result of an attempt to place German national cinema in a prestigious position as the new sound map of cinema unfurled in the 1930s. The film copied the variegated production strategy which was by then the Hollywood norm. Sternberg was a well known American director of German descent. Sternberg was not the production company’s first choice but the best they could afford.

The Blue Angel starred Emil Jannings Germany’s most successful internationally known actor with an academy award in Hollywood. The comng of sound had cut short Jannings' Hollywood career because of his very thick German accent. Sternberg had been directing Jannings in one of the films cited which won him the Oscar. Alongside him the experienced but hitherto unrecognised Marlene Dietrich. The film was based upon a modern literary adaptation from the novel Professor Unrat by the well known author Heinrich Mann. As a genre piece it was a typical tragedy in a wider generic sense as well as belonging to the genre of literary adaptations The film involving the tragic fall of a professional also featured the sleazy side of life with a mise-en-scene of night-clubs and jazz and thus could be expected to have a wide audience appeal. UFA, the largest German film company, was strongly concerned with establishing a core of generic production this film can be considered as an attempt to launch a ‘blockbuster’ to break into the American marketplace.

As the strategy for The Blue Angel makes clear the blockbuster film can be seen as strongly hinging upon the reputation and skills of the director part of whose range of skills will include working effectively with stars, to a budget, operating in a multi-generic environment, which means being familiar with, but going beyond, straightforward genre formulas. On the basis of this example it can be seen that the more high profile a film is for the studio the more it is weighted towards the influence of the director and away from a simple generic base.

Conclusion

On the basis of the examples used here it is possible to see that the directors in ‘New Hollywood’ blockbusters are playing a more independent role than their counterparts from the days of ‘Classical Hollywood’. Nevertheless, this role is quite distinctive from that of the auteur in the European conception. In the latter conception auteur either has an extremely strong vision of the film, and can frequently be linked with conceptions of artistic ‘genius’ or at least an 'art' film. alternatively the European Auteur will have developed team-style working relationships with actors and crew. Examples of the latter are the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the contemporary British directors Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. Leigh is well known for having an improvisational style of working with his actors. The European auteur is far less dependent upon the star system and the other multi-marketing strategies on which the more industrialised approach of Hollywood depends.


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