The Golden Age of Hollywood is often thought to be from the 1920s to the start of the 1970s. Big name studios, famous directors, actors and actresses were all a part of this amazing film making era that saw technologies such as sound and colour combined with ‘invisible style’ to produce universally loved cinema classics.
Although Hollywood has always been big business, the Golden Age of film-making was called as such for its ability to produce so many films of enduring quality. And it did this in a world where audiences flocked to cinemas to see new films at every opportunity – such was the demand that the average season for a film might only be two or three weeks.
The studios were huge integrated businesses and in addition to the producers, directors and actors they also employed thousands of staff to write the screenplays, build the sets and produce the films. There was no free agency as there is today, and success at the box office was a very different beast. Actors and directors were studio employees, and film making was done by the book in a highly regimented fashion. From this the classic Hollywood narrative (that still exists today), with 3 acts and 3 plot points was born.
Its worth reflecting on this narrative structure and the people that honed it – the writers. Each of the 5 big studios employed hundreds of professional writers to work in teams writing and editing screenplays. At the heart of every successful film was the script, with a properly constructed narrative revolving around plot and character, which then allowed the director and actors to add their own creative magic.
By comparison the modern Hollywood formula relies on stars, special effects and soundtrack, well ahead of plot and dialogue. Which is probably why its so rare to see a really good original film created entirely from within Hollywood. This is painfully evident in the scripts that wouldn’t have passed a basic Screenwriting 101 course. Even more disturbing is the fact that all too often Hollywood takes great stories, already written and manages to wreck them with awful scripts.
Today, Hollywood now produces products, not films. Producers, writers, directors and actors have become brands and the audiences have become test-groups and film buyers. People who pay to see the films have become consumers, and money is made through merchandise more easily than the box office. These days the best films seem to be somebody else’s ideas, where stories are taken from an established author or rehashed from a classic film, and most likely made by an independent entity.
So it has become all too easy to be cynical about Hollywood and lament the failings. Especially as for most of us there is a film that will always hold a special place in our imagination. The first experience, that introduced us to a world of wonder and fantasy. An imaginary place where the viewer could suspend disbelief and experience the magic of story-telling through film-making. Perhaps that’s why we keep going back, hoping that the next film will be better and might provide that experience for us once more.
Great writers write great screenplays that get made into great movies. Lets hope that the next time Hollywood reinvents itself for future generations it remembers this and gets back to its roots.
Watch FiST Chat 75: Hollywood and the Audience for more on this topic.