It’s tentpole time, much to H’wood’s relief

With the summer tentpole movies about to break, the men and women who slave away in studio advertising and PR jobs are breathing a sigh of relief.

But why, you might ask? Isn’t this their moment of maximum angst? These are, after all, make-or-break movies. It’s crunch time.

Yet with all the pressure of the summer blockbusters, studio apparatchiks know in their hearts that this is what Hollywood does best. There’ll be the glitzy unveiling of “Godzilla” at Madison Square Garden, “Armageddon’s” monumental blast-off at Cape Canaveral — these are the rituals that the studios have mastered. Armed with their stalwart fast-food marketing partners and with gargantuan ad budgets, Hollywood knows how to deliver the goods.

That’s why everybody’s breathing a little easier these days. The dreaded January-through-April doldrums are finally over — a period that took its toll in many ways.

Consider, for example, last week’s abrupt dismissal of Universal’s stellar marketing team of Buffy Shutt and Kathy Jones. Everyone at Universal’s Black Tower agreed they had performed admirably in launching movies like “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” and “Liar Liar.” The reason they were canned, according to studio sources, was that they seemed unfocused in promoting the studio’s lower-profile movies — the projects without the hot star, the hot concept or the hot promotional partner.

While this charge may or may not be true, I wonder whether it couldn’t also be leveled at virtually every other marketing team in town, not to mention the production chiefs who pick these pictures. Surely a glance at the box office results of the last three months would suggest that somebody’s doing something wrong. Of the 42 wide releases that opened during this period, less than a handful caused a spark like “The Wedding Singer.”

Now, one might argue that “Titanic” simply overshadowed these entries, but I don’t buy that theory. Rather, it would seem that Hollywood has been dropping the ball with alarming consistency during these non-peak moviegoing months. One need only look back to last spring when one movie after another fizzled at the box office. Studio ad departments were steeped in gloom until July, when “Men in Black” detonated a series of hits.

It’s no secret that most of the resources of the studios, both psychic and financial, are consumed by tentpole projects. Almost every production chief has reiterated the theory that the only projects that stand much of a chance are those costing either under $ 15 million or over $ 70 million — that the so-called “middling” projects are a waste of time and energy.

With this in mind, the studios have announced expanded programs of niche or genre films, and have pumped up the spending on their tentpole pictures. In short, having condemned the “movies-in-the-middle,” they’ve set about to make this a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The problem, of course, is that Hollywood has yet to demonstrate its ability to foster low-budget projects with any consistency. Most of the winners, artistically or financially, still emanate from the independents or from foreign filmmakers. It would be hard to imagine screenplays like “Good Will Hunting” or “Bean” surviving the climb through the studios’ development hell.

I’ve been reading Peter Biskind’s astute new book about Hollywood in the ’70s called “Easy Riders and Raging Bulls,” which relates how the maverick filmmakers of that period revived Hollywood from its slumber. In this period a remarkable number of modestly budgeted movies kept popping out of nowhere — everything from “Nashville” and “Shampoo” to “Badlands” and “Taxi Driver.”

Examining the back-stories of these projects, it isn’t hard to catch a common denominator. Sure, the filmmakers of that period were often irresponsible and drugged-out and had a fierce appetite for money and power. But they were also driven by an all-consuming passion to realize their artistic vision. They would kill to get their movies made, and Hollywood responded.

It was a unique time, to be sure. Our pop culture was changing radically. Impoverished for both ideas and money, the studios understood that a changing of the guard was taking place. Indeed, the managements of the companies had also passed to a new generation of risk-takers. The word “passion” might look strange on a spread sheet, but it carried weight in a production meeting.

No one in his right mind believes that ’90s Hollywood could or should emulate the wild and free-spirited ’70s. On the other hand, one of the most talked about movies in the coming weeks will be Warren Beatty’s “Bulworth,” a very personal and passionate exercise in filmmaking (Beatty produced, directed, starred and co-wrote). Bawdy and brilliant, “Bulworth” breaks all the rules of present-day Hollywood — it’s political, it’s satiric and it cost somewhere in the $ 30 million range, the supposedly doomed “middling” arena.

As Hollywood ponders why “tentpole time” has become its salvation, “Bulworth” serves as a useful reminder of the lessons of an earlier epoch.

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