Although the Lumiere brothers are usually credited with the first movie, many critics would argue that the first film that actually had a plot was the 1908 western The Great Train Robbery by Edwin S Porter. It had 14 scenes and lasted a grand total of 11 minutes. We are all a bit jaded about special effects now but it would be great to travel back in time and to experience the emotions of those early moviegoers who recoiled when a gun was fired at the screen. Movies lacked respectability in those days. They were seen as a cheap, sordid form of entertainment, appealing mainly to poor immigrants. This early period is lovingly recreated in Peter Bogdanovich’s film Nickelodeon. (Nickelodeons were early 20th century of small, neighbourhood cinemas in which admission was obtained for a nickel.) In this time a lot of movie companies sprung up around Los Angeles. They chose this area for two main reasons. Firstly because the weather on the west coast meant that you could shoot all year round. Secondly they had to avoid the patents owned by Thomas Edison. The famous inventor would send out heavies with baseball bats to persuade these fledgling filmmakers of the folly of their actions.
Many of these early filmmakers have become legends – Louis B Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, the Warner brothers to name but a few. These movie moguls all came from similar backgrounds. They were generally poor, uneducated eastern European Jews who worked in such unglamorous professions as scrap metal merchants or janitors. They seemed to be almost choreographed. They all left Europe at a similar time in the late nineteenth century. They all got involved in the nickelodeon business. Then they all relocated again and went to Hollywood. It was a gloriously international period in Hollywood with creative from all over the planet coming together to produce this quintessentially American form of entertainment.
But Hollywood has from its earliest days had a reputation among many Americans. I often point out this contradiction to my students. We think of Hollywood as representing American values and I suppose in many ways it does. But for many Americans Hollywood is like Sodom and Gomorrah. Early Hollywood was characterised by scandal- murders drugs sex. Then in 1932 Hollywood was forced to put its house in order and The Production Code, a system of self-censorship was brought in by the studios to avoid more direct government intervention. Many things were forbidden including: nudity, the ridiculing of religion, referring to homosexuality, depicting childbirth, sex between the races…… You would think that there wouldn’t be anything left to film. Herein lies another paradox for me; I am totally opposed to censorship but in many ways this was a golden age for Hollywood with so many unforgettable movies. Yet they were produced in a climate of stifling censorship and with a factory-like production system.
In the end though the studio system didn’t survive. We got the seventies a promising decade with a lot of remarkable directors, writers and actors, who produced such memorable films as The Deer Hunter, Raging Bull and The Godfather. It proved to be a false dawn. The eighties were a depressing decade; Top Gun, a vacuous movie based on a magazine article, was a typical product of this period. It was produced by Don Simpson, one of the key forces of the establishment in the 1980s as the studios regained their authority over the world of movie making from the likes of Coppola and Scorsese. Simpson had no time for pretentious auteurs and their expensive, personal works of art.
In the last few years Epagogix, a London-based company with a background in risk management has emerged as a player in the film industry. Movie studios can approach them with details about their movie and compare it to Epagogix’s enormous database of US film releases since 1970. They use neural networks to analyse film scripts by looking at script, location, cast, whether the hero is black or white and thousands of other variables. The computer can then assign a commercial value to each these constituent elements and then give the film a score that is a measure of its box-office potential. They claim they can estimate the likelihood of success much more accurately than more traditional methods. According to Epagogix they can estimate 80% of movies’ likely US box office takings to within $10m of the final figure. The human mind is incapable of calculating the complex interactions between multiple factors.
With the amount of money at stake when a new film is released it is not surprising this kind of attention to detail would come to the movie industry. But Hollywood no longer fascinates me in the way it used to. American television seems to be much more interesting and creative now. I suppose I have early Hollywood on a pedestal and bad films were made then too. It’s just that they’ve been forgotten. We’ve come a long way since those Jewish scrap merchants and fur salesmen started their nickelodeons. I’m not normally accused of being a romantic but when it comes to films I have no problem with that label. Billy Wilder, John Ford, Rita Hayworth, Alfred Hitchcock, Humphrey Bogart. These names will always hold a special magic for me; they remind me when Hollywood still had that magic.