It Takes a Village (to Make a Hollywood Hit)
Posted Thursday, March 29, 2012 12:07 PM
The red carpets have been rolled up and loaded onto trucks. The fancy curtains have been steam-cleaned and sent back to storage. The pedestrian stands have been returned to the rental company. Yes, the Awards Season is over. Hollywood’s hour to shine around the world and celebrate the year’s work has now come and gone and people have returned to the business and art of making movies again -- the beguiling and intense work of telling stories on film.
Often the glitz and glamour of Hollywood supersedes the real “work” of the movie, and certainly the awards season does nothing to bring recognition to the many people who contribute to the success of a movie. Many of the fields that are recognized: technological, sound design, set design, etc., are done so in hotel luncheons and dinners far away from the camera, or by taking out a page-sized ad of congratulations in Variety. In this respect, Hollywood itself contributes to the limited vision that people outside of Los Angeles have of the industry. Industry implies groups of work and labor areas that create something synergistically. When we think of a “hit” movie, very often what comes to mind is the star or stars whose names flash from the marquee. This view is perpetuated by the media, glorifying the actors and actresses, allowing us to be part of their lives’ foibles, good and bad, and leading our focus like a swarm of locusts to a corn field.
The work of the actors and actresses involved in a given film project are indeed an important part of what draws the public to the box office, allowing producers to recoup the money they have put up to finance the film. The film itself is part of a long and onerous process, involving a multitude of people who have to work collaboratively to achieve the final results.
Let’s paint a picture of the filmmaking process: We have a writer (or writers) who have written a screenplay. The script may be perfect, or it may need a “script doctor” to look it over. Once the script is in good shape, it moves through a whole array of hands, from one friend to another, to friends who are in the business who know people who are in the business, to the business people themselves. The writer(s) may pitch the story/film to studio executives. Or perhaps they submit their script to a contest for the potential to get produced. Perhaps an actor or actress has a look-see, and if a writer or director (sometimes one works as both writer and director) can get a hot talent aboard the project, it makes it easier to finder a producer, and in turn, for that producer to raise money.
On the surface, this process appears rather straightforward. However, the people who handle the initial steps of a single script to this point alone, are myriad: writer, director, copy places who copy the script, actors who read the script, messengers who carry the script from one location to another, restaurants that serve the lunch meetings where these people meet, and car services that get them there, and so on.
Now, let’s say we have a director/writer with a script which some Hollywood insiders are interested in producing. These people then have to search and find other people who are willing to put up money on the venture. In their book From Script to Screen: The Collaborative Art of Filmmaking, Linda Seger and Edward Whitemore note that their research turned up one significant characteristic amongst all their interviewees: the ability for “magnificent risk-taking.” The idea that people would invest several years of their lives on a gamble such as a movie, often suffering frequent rejection and reproof along the way, and are able to surmount the hurdles and bring the project to fruition can indeed be considered an act of “magnificent risk taking.”
In a 1975 interview with Playboy, Francis Ford Coppola said that he had “…been taking small chances all along. I’ve always been a good gambler and I’ve never been afraid to take a chance. I don’t think the risks I’ve taken have been that dramatic, but even so, there have been times when I’ve stuck my neck out and almost had my head chopped off.” The risks are high. It’s not just the money, it’s your career, it’s your future, and the future of those whose lives you bring into the project as well. There has to be an overwhelming passion and deep commitment to a project if it is to make the distance.
According to the authors of The Film Studio: Film Production in a Global Economy, that distance includes inspiring and encouraging an army of people to contribute their artistic, business and professional talents: actors, actresses, agents, attorneys, set designers, set decorators, costume designers, seamstresses, hairstylists, make-up artists, lighting designers, photographers, stunt athletes, carpenters, electricians, grips, sound mixers, boom operators, script supervisors, animal trainers, accountants, marketing people, graphic artists, musicians, trailer houses, licensing houses, researchers, special effects creators, studios, location scouts, editors, production assistants, truck drivers, craft services, to name just a few.
Of course, for any of this beehive of activity to take place, the project has to generate enough faith and enthusiasm to raise the money to survive all these workers in a real sense. It’s a well-known fact that the film industry literally supports the Los Angeles basin. What the auto industry once was to Detroit, or the fashion industry and Wall Street are to New York, films are to Los Angeles. The fact that Hollywood (a small neighborhood within L.A.) has become synonymous with filmmaking is an interesting footnote to a city that touts a population of nearly 4 million.
Once the project is complete, the army reassembles in an abbreviated form to get the film submitted to film festivals and hope the movie will be seen by the right people to find distribution to theaters, both in the States and abroad. This is all before the most important collaborators on the film have even seen it -- the public. The public offers the final critique of the film and decides whether it will either live or be retired into DVD archives.
This may seem an arduous, if not overwhelming task, were it not for one very important contributing factor that is often belied by stories of ego-driven episodes or drug-induced failures exploited in the press. As director-writer David Mamet explained in a 1995 interview, “I’ve heard all the stories about big egos, but I have never encountered them myself. Maybe if I stay in the business long enough, I will. But I think it might be a bum rap. I’ve found movie sets the most hardworking people I’ve ever seen. There is an ethic of help out, pitch in, get the job done, keep quiet about how hard it is to do. It is a kind of modern equivalent of a cattle drive.”
Therefore, if the collaborative effort of albeit thousands of workers can find a wise investment, make it across the river without drowning, be prepared for inclement weather, survive attacks from would-be thieves, manage their resources successfully, and care for each other along the way, they might make it to the wholesale mart where local ranchers can divide up the herd and bring a few home to help work their land.
This is the basic process of the making of a “hit” film, one that hopefully touches the lives of the viewing public. As Susan Gair states in her work on empathy, people “…gain great strength and healing from unity in shared experience.” Whether it is the story we are sharing on the screen, or the story we are sharing with the people with whom we are sitting in the movie theater, there is a connective power to the experience.
The next time you see a “hit” film, give a shout-out to the 75-year-old messenger who first delivered the script to a potential producer, the father-husband-truck driver who moved the props to that forest location, the teenage production assistant who kept the crew’s coffee cups filled through a night of stormy filming, the brave electrician who worked all night to give the action a look of wonder, and the inspired musician who raised your heart just a notch when the right person first walked through that door on screen.
Kat Kambes, a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine, is a freelance writer, poet, and playwright in the Los Angeles area. Her work has appeared in the Citron Review, Deadlier Than Thou: The 2010 Anthology, Skive Magazine (Americana Issue), Short, Fast & Deadly, Best Poems & Poets of 2005, The Color of Life, Harvest Literary Journal, Melt Magazine, and others.
Photo of Francis Ford Coppola: Filmbug.com