The question on most people’s minds is this: How rough will it get?
NBC Universal sent a clear signal last week, announcing $500 million in budget cuts for ’09; Paramount sharply realigned its release schedule, and fusillades from other congloms will surely be forthcoming. Jobs will be lost and paydays cut in the coming months as we plunge into a recession.
We’ve all lived through recessions before, but this one is somehow more ominous. For one thing, it’s global. Even tiny Iceland has run out of money.
Further, there’s no one at the controls. Historians will award the final days of the Bush Era an “A” for Anarchy. The economy is being run by a fraternity of dorks from Goldman Sachs who have spent their careers padding their own bonuses, not pondering monetary policy.
Not surprisingly, the CEOs of the major congloms in the entertainment industry are themselves insecure about their business models. Is this a moment to steady the course or, conversely, should some basic — indeed cosmic — changes be put on the agenda?
Folks today have a tough time imagining what cosmic change would entail, but I’ve personally lived through at least one unique example.
I was an executive at Paramount Pictures when times suddenly took a turn for the worse and my company decided to do the unthinkable: The corporate mandate was that Paramount was to become “lean and mean.” That was all right with me in theory, since I already was lean and my initial experience at the studio was making me mean.
But then came the specifics. The studio’s entire production team would be moving off the Paramount lot to a new headquarters in a suite of offices on Canon Drive in Beverly Hills.
And it wouldn’t be much of a team. The “creative” group would now consist of four individuals. There would be three in business affairs and a couple more in post-production. And where we once had a full-fledged theater and three screening rooms, there would now be a single screening room with 20 seats.
The “new Paramount” would continue to advance its agenda of films — as many as 15 a year — but budgets would be tighter and deals leaner. And the delicious little “fringe benefits” of studio life would be no more. When a star in a Paramount movie arrived at LAX, no limo would meet him. Unless he paid for it himself.
And here was the surprise ending: Upon leaving the lot, the quality of our movies promptly improved markedly, and so did the box office results. Instead of the over-budget turkeys that Paramount had been making (“The Molly Maguires,” “Catch-22”), the studio suddenly was turning out “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Love Story,” “The Godfather,” “Paper Moon” and “The Longest Yard.” Even the losers were intriguing — witness “Harold and Maude.”
All this is ancient history by Hollywood standards, but there are interesting lessons to be gleaned. Once studios start staring at their bottom line, anything can happen. And the results may not necessarily be negative — at least in terms of the final product. The cost in terms of jobs and careers, however, might be exponential.
Yet again the changes might be purely ephemeral. Eight years after Paramount’s great move, everyone packed up again and moved back to the lot.
In recalling the Paramount times, I am not advocating similarly drastic moods in present-day Hollywood. The process of manning the dream factories today is vastly more complex. The manufacture of tentpole pictures, with their attendant marketing and merchandising campaigns, bears no relation to the production and distribution of movies a generation earlier.
On the other hand, those who work for the congloms today arguably have gotten a little soft. The corporate cocoon has been a constant in their lives.
But once the bean counters start making their moves, those comfortable cocoons can get shaky.