In between bouts of work (it's been grueling), I have been reading Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How The Sex-Drugs-and-Rock'n'Roll-Generation Saved Hollywood. The title is at least half irony, since the book chronicles the way the director-driven Seventies gave way to the producer- and hit-driven Eighties and beyond. One of the most common takeaways from the book is the old standby about how after Star Wars, the target audience for a movie has been kids with short attention spans — some of them well into their forties.
Dig under that, though, and you'll see some the roots of the current blockbuster-or-nothing mindset. One of the little discoveries that Paramount made when Jaws exploded all over the planet was how important it was to book a movie wide and draw attention to it as early as possible. Before Jaws, a movie was lucky to open in a couple hundred theaters nationwide. After Jaws, a movie that didn't open on 2,000 screens or more was a flop out before it even sold a single ticket. The emphasis had shifted, permanently, from audiences to distributors.
The studios didn't care: when their former golden boys like William Friedkin (who was notoriously contemptuous of studio heads) were going from The Exorcist and The French Connection to over-budget, virtually unsellable stuff like Sorcerer (which is a favorite of mine, don't get me wrong), they were completely justified in dumping them and going with people like Spielberg. Or better yet, with producers like Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, people who thought of a movie as a "package" and were more autorial than the directors they themselves hired or fired.
Even more telling is a passage, something I also remembered from Skywalking, where George Lucas talked about how he wanted control over the toy rights for Star Wars. The film cost $16 million (in 1977); he figured it would make $10 million and they could get the rest back through ancillary licensing. Nobody believed him, especially considering it took over a year to get a toy designed and released, and by that time who would care? Today, the toy lines and video games are often co-designed with the film — c.f., Avatar — because nobody is dumb enough to think they can make a package of that size without omitting some of the most lucrative parts of the deal. I suspect the video-game tie-in side of things may not turn out to be as good a deal as many want it to, given how the costs of designing a decent video game are skyrocketing and the agent/rock-star algebra begins to figure into game-making as it does in many other places. (There is, of course, one easy way to avoid all that: make a game, but don't bother making a decent one.)
What's most striking, though, is how the movie industry during this period realized how movies could be big business again. TV came along, and left the movies more or less starving for audiences — one of the things, I submit, that made it possible to do away with the older Will Hays-era production code and create the MPAA. Movies shrank. You had the occasional Love Story or other breakout hit, but even those were tiny compared to what was to come later. It became that much easier to experiment, to do things like Last Tango in Paris, because the stakes across the board were correspondingly smaller. After The Exorcist and Jaws and Star Wars, the only way to do anything was to shoot for as broad an audience as possible and cross your fingers, over and over again.
Making films for intelligent audiences was something Woody Allen did — an indie maverick who could set up his own deal. It wasn't something for a company or a studio, even if that studio was named Miramax — a company determined to churn out its own variety of Oscar-fodder product (all graced with one of the ugliest and most soulless corporate logos ever spat out of a computer). And as more and more of those very people-not-projects directors died (the book ends with the death of Hal Ashby, he of Being There and the undeservedly-unseen The Landlord), the whole thing became package- and project- driven, not story- or even concept-driven. (Jaws was optioned while it was still in galley form; Spielberg swiped a copy of the proofs and read them over the weekend, and first thing Monday morning stuck his neck out to do it.)
And now, a segue into my usual concerns:
I've talked before about how the real customers for this stuff now are the distribution pipelines — the Best Buys, the Canal+s, the Loewses. Talk about how digital distribution or what have you levels the playing field is misleading: yes, I can get a book into print and even sell it on Amazon, but that means nothing to the millions of people who know nothing about it and wouldn't know where to go digging for it. I'm still also skeptical on how much of an audience you can swing your way with FaceTwitTubeSiteBook™ — if only because such things seem to work best for flash-in-the-pan stuff, and don't lend themselves to being repeatedly exploited, because people are generally smart enough to know the difference between real fandom and AstroTurf.
So what works, especially on the dozens-not-millions level that people like me occupy? Building and keeping an honest and immediate audience for your work, I guess. A personal connection between you and your fans. Not letting the machinery of promotion get between you and the people you're actually trying to reach. And not convincing yourself that spending $500 on a newspaper ad that won't even get read by your intended audience was a good idea.