from The Genius of the System, Thomas Schatz.
Critics and bystanders who concern themselves with the plight of the Hollywood screenwriter don’t know the real grief that goes with the job. The worst is the dreariness in the dead sunny afternoons when you consider the misses, the scripts you’ve labored on and had high hopes for and that wind up on the shelf, when you think of the mountains of failed screenplays on the shelf at the different movie companies…
brother, I hear you, but also c’mon, it beats working for a living.
An old-timer in the business, a sweet soul of other days, drops into my room. “Don’t be upset,” he says, seeing my face. “They’re not shooting the picture tomorrow. Something will turn up. You’ll revise.” I ask him what in his opinion there is to write, what does he think will make a good picture. He casts back in his mind to ancient successes, on Broadway and on film, and tries to help me out. “Well, to me, for an example – now this might sometimes come in handy – it’s when a person is trying to do something to another person, and the second fellow all the time is trying to do it to him, and they both of them don’t know.” Another man has once told me the secret of motion picture construction: “A good story, for the houses, it’s when the ticket buyer, if he should walk into the theater in the middle of the picture – he shouldn’t get confused but know pretty soon what’s going on.” “The highest form of art is a man and a woman dancing together,” still a third man has told me.
It’s a famous and apparently true story that Howard Hawks cast Lauren Bacall (birth name Betty Perske) in To Have and Have Not opposite Humphrey Bogart, after his wife Slim saw her on the cover of the March 1943 issue of Harper’s Bazaar. The cover was shot in Kodachrome under the eye of Diana Vreeland.
Wikipedia, in the article on photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe, editorializes:
The young woman looks either waiting to go inside to donate or about to leave the Red Cross blood donor room. The expression on her face is nonchalant with a suggestion that she does not attend the blood donation clinic regularly. Her eyes are empty. She may be disappointed or sad or helpless just as any other American woman knowing the reality is no one can escape. The audience can sense the uncertainty in the air of the time from her expression.
You brought back a wilder, more anarchic comedy with “Beavis and Butt-Head” in the nineties. At the time, it reminded me of the ferocity of the Three Stooges and other early filmed comedy.
Yeah. It had disappeared for a while. I think for a lot of us—the old folks—there was a time when we were kids, in the seventies or eighties, and the Three Stooges would come on late at night on some weird channel, and it just seemed amazing. I’m a huge Three Stooges fan. It’s interesting to me that when film first had sound, it didn’t take long for people to realize that possibly the best use of that technology was just somebody smacking another person in the head. I’m always arguing with sound mixers about this, because now they layer all the sounds, and it’s funnier when it’s one pure, distinct sound like the Three Stooges had, which is probably just some guy sitting there with a coconut or smacking something. Those sounds are hard to beat. But they now have the ability to layer twenty different sounds, and it ends up being one big, mushy, meaningless, loud sound.
anyone remember the Three Stooges Nintendo game?
How about this:
Did working dreary jobs help you when it came to writing comedy?
Puts it in perspective. There’s so much material I’ve got from working so many jobs. A lot of the writers that I’ve worked with, same thing. It usually ends up being a good experience.
I remember there was a book I grabbed at a bookstore a long time ago, “Ernest Hemingway on Writing,” and I expected him to be, like, “You’ve got to suffer,” and this and that. But one thing that stood out was something he wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The good parts of a book may be only something a writer is lucky enough to overhear or it may be the wreck of his whole damn life—and one is as good as the other.” I think that’s a pretty honest thing for him to admit. I remember conversations pretty well. Can’t remember people’s names, but I remember their life story and other details.
They didn’t know what it took to sell tickets to young people, and I remember Francis Coppola saying to me, “Just go in there and tell them you know the answer. Just tell them. They don’t know. They don’t know you’re lying. You walk in there and you say, “This is your lucky day because you want to make money in movies, and I want to make money in movies, and I know how to get money.”
Paul Schrader talking about the studios in the early ’70s.
A whole dozen or fifteen filmmakers came in that gap with that sort of braggadocio, and they got empowered, and some of them actually did make money.
from Rock Me On The Water: 1974 The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television and Politics by Ronald Brownstein, which we got at Chevalier Books on Larchmont.
Hollywood and Highland, 1907. Source.
There was a municipality called Hollywood. It existed from 1903 to 1910. This Hollywood gave up its independence to Los Angeles in exchange for water. Los Angeles was about to arrange for a steady supply via William Mulholland’s Los Angeles Aqueduct, and thirsty Hollywood needed in. (Will this happen to other cities? Countries?)
What is the definition of Hollywood? Here is a map that appears to show the old municipality, I found it on Pinterest (barf) and cannot trace it to a source, this is the closest I get:
Here’s how the LA Times defines Hollywood:
Also seems to be a dead link, I found it here.
AboutHollywood.com tells us this:
Although it is not the typical practice of the City of Los Angeles to establish specific boundaries for districts or neighborhoods, Hollywood is a recent exception. On February 16, 2005, Assembly Members Goldberg and Koretz introduced a bill to require the State to keep specific records on Hollywood as though it were independent. For this to be done, the boundaries were defined. This bill was unanimously supported by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and the LA City Council. Assembly Bill 588 was approved by the Governor on August 28, 2006, and now the district of Hollywood has official borders. The border is shown at the right, and can be loosely described as the area east of Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, south of Mulholland Dr., Laurel Canyon, Cahuenga Blvd. and Barham Blvd., and the cities of Burbank and Glendale, north of Melrose Avenue, and west of the Golden State Freeway and Hyperion Avenue.
But how to explain this sign, found on Melrose and Flores (the southwest corner, in fact!) which would push the boundary of Hollywood further west than anyone is prepared to acknowledge?
Another staff writer with a rather unconventional but valued talent was Kate Corbaley. At $150 a week, Corbaley was one of the few staffers whose salary was in the same range as Selznick’s…
Her specialty was not in editorial but rather as Louis Mayer’s preferred “storyteller.” Mayer was not a learned or highly literate man, and he rarely read story properties, scripts, or even synopses. He preferred to have someone simply tell him the story and he found Mrs. Corbaley’s narrational skills suited him. She never received a writing credit on an MGM picture, but many in the company considered her crucial to Mayer’s interest in stories being considered for purchase or production at any given time.
That’s from Thomas Schatz, The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era.
Storytelling is a current obsession in business. A few days ago I searched “storyteller” under Jobs on LinkedIn and found 35,831 results. Amazon, Microsoft, and Pinterest are all hiring some version of “storyteller,” as are Under Armor, Eataly and “X, the Moonshot Factory.” The accounting firm Deloitte is hiring Financial and Strategic Storytellers (multiple listings, financial and strategic storytellers are sought in San Diego, Miami, Chicago, Charlotte, Tampa, Las Vegas, and Phoenix).
It’s reported in City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s that one afternoon in May, 1936, Kate Corbaley summarized a novel that was already perceived as hot property. She told Louis B. Mayer
a new story about a tempestuous southern girl named Scarlett O’Hara.
Mayer wasn’t sure what to think, so he sent for Irving Thalberg, who declared:
Forget it, Louis. No Civil War picture ever made a nickel.
(This seems improbable: in 1936 Birth of A Nation would’ve held the record as one of if not the biggest movie of all time? Must track this tale to its source, will report.)
The sheer number of movies Hollywood cranked out during the peak of the studio system is wild. In 1936, for example, Paramount released 69 movies, RKO had 39, Fox had 50 movies, MGM put out 48 movies, Warner 56, Universal 34.
This was the factory-like story production processes Faulkner was working under.
Thomas Schatz’s book The Genius of the System is of daunting thickness, but it’s very readable, and I like the thesis: despite the factory nature and control by the money guys rather than the directors, real style and art was achieved.
Auterism itself would not be worth bothering with if it hadn’t been so influential, effectively stalling film history and criticism in a prolonged stage of adolescent romanticism. But the closer we look at Hollywood’s relations of power and hierarchy of authority during the studio era, at its division of labor and assembly-line production process, the less sense it makes to assess filmmaking or film style in terms of the individual director – or any individual, for that matter.
Should we look at the old studio system trying to find cases where a rare director snuck art past the suits? Or should we look at it and see a miraculous time, when thousands of artists and craftspeople came together for a brief period to create the collective dreams of a nation?
Schatz gives a good short summary of his work and the rise and fall of the studio system in this 1989 Fresh Air interview.
In The Offer, Paramount +’s show about the making of Paramount Pictures’ The Godfather, you can see dramatized some of the problems from the end of the true studio system days. The show was shot on the Paramount lot, doubling as the Paramount lot from 1971. There’s a studio, but when they start a movie, they start from scratch. Casting, finding the right people for technical roles, chain of command, getting a workflow going, dealing with the unions, the mob: all these are begun anew for each production. Poor Al Ruddy has to solve each problem fresh. Robert Evans is there, but he’s no Thalberg, with central command over all the gears in the machine. When the movie’s, it’s over. Everything resets. In the year The Godfather came out, Paramount put out sixteen pictures.
Sometimes companies manage to recreate the cohesion of the studio system. Take Pixar, for example, or the Marvel movies. How about Hallmark movies? Individual directors and producers can have runs like this too: Selznick was doing it by 1935. But at nowhere like the studio scale.
Studios had specialties, flavors: MGM had musicals, Universal had monster movies, Warner Brothers had gangster pictures. In 2022, do the streamers have anything like this? I know what BritBox is.
Gracenote, a Nielsen company, listed more than 817,000 unique program titles across U.S. traditional TV and streaming services, with many of those titles featuring hundreds of individual episodes and chapters. Back in December 2019, there were just over 646,000 unique program titles.
The Paramount decree in 1948 stopped the studios from owning the theaters. One of many blows, along with TV, shifting lifestyles, etc that forced change on the system. But we’ve re-evolved back around on vertical integration. Disney, for example, is a studio yet owns its own distribution: Disney +. Is that a violation of the Paramount decree? Let’s look into it:
As part of a 2019 review of its ongoing decrees, the Department of Justice issued a two-year sunsetting notice for the Paramount Decree in August 2020, believing the antitrust restriction was no longer necessary as the old model could never be recreated in contemporary settings.
They trade sex stories. Capote tells of a homosexual fling he had with Errol Flynn. Marilyn: “It’s not as if you told me anything new. I’ve always known Errol zigzagged. I have a masseur, he’s practically my sister, and he was Tyrone Power’s masseur, and he told me all about the things Errol and Ty Power were doing…. So let’s hear your best experience. Along those lines.”
Capote: “The best? The most memorable? Suppose you answer the question first.”
Marilyn: “And I drive hard bargains! Ha! (Swallowing champagne) Joe’s not bad. He can hit home runs. If that’s all it takes, we’d still be married. I still love him, though. He’s genuine.”
Capote: “Husbands don’t count. Not in this game.”
Marilyn (nibbling her nail, really thinking): “Well, I met a man, he’s related to Gary Cooper somehow. A stockbroker, and nothing much to look at– sixty-five, and he wears those very thick glasses. Thick as jellyfish. I can’t say what it was, but–”
Capote: “You can stop right there. I’ve heard all about him from other girls… He’s Rocky Cooper’s stepfather. He’s supposed to be sensational.”
Marilyn: “He is. Okay, smart-ass. Your turn.”
Who was this mysterious man?
Veronica “Rocky” Cooper. From her Wikipedia:
Veronica Balfe was born to Veronica Gibbons and Harry Balfe, Jr. Following her parents’ divorce, she lived in Paris with her mother. Balfe did not see her father for many years, but kept in touch with her grandfather, who owned a ranch in California. Balfe saw her father a few years before his death in the 1950s. Her mother married Paul Shields, a successful Wall Street financier.
An avid sportswoman, Balfe was known to her friends by the nickname, “Rocky.” 
Aside from that and this, the man seems to slip through the internet. But what else do you need to know, really?
Always the possibility that Truman Capote made all this up for whatever reason.
Alcohol was his salve against a modern world he saw as a conspiracy of mediocrity on its ruling levels. Life was most bearable, he repeated, at its simplest: fishing, hunting, talking biggity in a cane chair on a board sidewalk, or horse-trading, gossiping.
Bill spoke rarely about writing, but when he did he said he had no method, no formula. He started with some local event, a well-known face, a sudden reaction to a joke or an incident. “And just let the story carry itself. I walk along behind and write down what happens.”
Q: Sir, I would like to know exactly what it was that inspired you to become a writer.
A: Well, I probably was born with the liking for inventing stories. I took it up in 1920. I lived in New Orleans, I was working for a bootlegger. He had a launch that I would take down the Pontchartrain into the gulf to an island where the run, the green rum, would be brought up from Cuba and buried, and we would dig it up and bring it back to New Orleans, and he would make scotch or gin or whatever he wanted. He had the bottles labeled and everything. And I would get a hundred dollars a trip for that, and I didn’t need much money, so I would get along until I ran out of money again. And I met Sherwood Anderson by chance, and we took to each other from the first. I’d meet him in the afternoon, we would walk and he would talk and I would listen. In the evening we would go somewhere to a speakeasy and drink, and he would talk and I would listen. The next morning he would say, “Well I have to work in the morning,” so I wouldn’t see him until the next afternoon. And I thought if that’s the sort of life writers lead, that’s the life for me. So I wrote a book and, as soon as I started, I found out it was fun. And I hand’t seen him and Mrs. Anderson for some time until I met her on the street, and she said, “Are you mad at us?” and I said, “No, ma’am, I’m writing a book,” and she said, “Good Lord!” I saw her again, still having fun writing the book, and she said, “Do you want Sherwood to see your book when you finish it?” and I said, “Well, I hadn’t thought about it.” She said, “Well, he will make a trade with you; if he don’t have to read that book, he will tell his publisher to take it.” I said, “Done!” So I finished the book and he told Liveright to take it and Liveright took it. And that was how I became a writer – that was the mechanics of it.
Stephen Longstreet reports on Faulkner in Hollywood, specifically To Have and Have Not:
Several other writers contributed, but Bill turned out the most pages, even if they were not all used. This made Bill a problem child.
The unofficial Writers’ Guild strawboss on the lot came to me.
“Faulkner is turning out too many pages. He sits up all night sometimes writing and turns in fifty to sixty pages in the morning. Try and speak to him.”
a non-industry friend asked me to summarize the current dispute between the WGA and the ATA. I did my best:
Anyway. We welcome comment!
George Clooney says yes. The reason why is because this hotel, along with nine other fancy hotels, the Bel-Air here and some in London and France, are owned by the Sultan of Brunei. Clooney:
At the head of it all is the Sultan of Brunei who is one of the richest men in the world. The Big Kahuna. He owns the Brunei Investment Agency and they in turn own some pretty spectacular hotels.
A couple of years ago two of those hotels in Los Angeles, The Bel-Air and The Beverly Hills Hotel were boycotted by many of us for Brunei’s treatment of the gay community. It was effective to a point. We cancelled a big fundraiser for the Motion Picture Retirement Home that we’d hosted at the Beverly Hills Hotel for years. Lots of individuals and companies did the same. But like all good intentions when the white heat of outrage moves on to the hundred other reasons to be outraged, the focus dies down and slowly these hotels get back to the business of business.
But now there’s a new law going into place in Brunei. Says Clooney:
The date April 3rd has held a unique place in our history over the years. Theologians and astronomers will tell you that Christ was crucified on that date.
On April 3rd Harry Truman signed the Marshall Plan, arguably the greatest postwar intervention in the history of man. The first portable cellphone call was made on April 3rd. Marlon Brando was born on that day.
But this April 3rd will hold its own place in history. On this particular April 3rd the nation of Brunei will begin stoning and whipping to death any of its citizens that are proved to be gay. Let that sink in. In the onslaught of news where we see the world backsliding into authoritarianism this stands alone.
Here’s the thing though. The last execution of any kind in Brunei was in 1957.
It’s not like they’re stoning people all the time. The 1957 execution actually happened while Brunei was a UK protectorate.
Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, four years ago:
In 2014, a 24-year-old Saudi Arabian man was sentenced to three years detention and 450 lashes after a Medina court found him guilty of “promoting the vice and practice of homosexuality”, after he was caught using Twitter to arrange dates with other men.
A year ago, in Hollywood:
On Wednesday night, M.B.S. was welcomed to a Hollywood dinner hosted by producer Brian Grazer and his wife Veronica, alongside William Morris Endeavor boss Ari Emanuel, who is finalizing a deal with M.B.S. for a $400 million stake in Emanuel’s talent agency. The guest list was saturated with executives, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Disney’s Bob Iger, Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel, as well as tech entrepreneur Kobe Bryant, whom the prince reportedly made a special request to meet. Having traded his traditional ceremonial garb for a suit, M.B.S. kibitzed with former Trump aide Dina Powell and Vice co-founder Shane Smith; discussed the exploding use of Snapchat in Saudi Arabia; and asked Kobe how he got his Oscar. Topics that were deemed off-limits included the 32-year-old’s bombing campaign in Yemen, which has killed thousands of civilians; his abduction of Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, in November; and the decidedly un-Hollywood-like repression of independent media and journalists, one of whom was recently imprisoned for five years for “insulting” the royal court.
And guess what? The Four Seasons
is 45% owned by the Kingdom Holding Company of Saudi Arabia!
For whatever reason, Brunei likes to fantasize, pretend, and profess to having Sharia law. Hollywood likes to judge them for that, while obviously not being serious about caring about human rights in countries where it’s more important to do business and whose hotels it would be more inconvenient to boycott.
One of the easiest things in the world is to point out hypocrisy. I think George Clooney is cool. But why are we always picking on poor Brunei? Because it’s easy?
What we’re pretending to be mad about, what we’re pretending to do about it, what Brunei is pretending their punishments are: it’s all make-believe.
I will boycott the Beverly Hills Hotel I guess. But I’ll be sad about it because I think it’s a beautiful, cool landmark. I especially like the Fountain Coffee Room.
I predict in a few years we will once again forget about our mission to improve things in Brunei.
From a list of cool things in Michael Ovitz memoir:
10. Sun Tzu Move II: “I’d wash my hands 30 times a day and insist that my assistants not touch my food.”
11. As a result, he never got sick, except when he took vacations.
12. Sun Tzu Move III: “When the leading figures in television entered our lobby, we kept them waiting long enough to be spotted by anyone who happened to be in the building.”
by Richard Rushfield in his newsletter The Ankler ($45 a year to subscribe, recommended if you are interested in Hollywood).
Rushfeld points out, how many agents even have a favorite philosopher?
I got down this Penguin edition. Impressed with this John Minford translation:
How do we even translate whatever character represents “dispositions”?
Whom did Ovitz consider “the enemy”? WMA? When Sun Tzu used the word enemy, what other meanings could that word have had, in English, I wonder?
Dr. Melfi tells Tony Soprano if he wants to become a better gang leader, he should read Sun Tzu. How much would it help him?
The sequence beginning around 3:30 is captivating.
What’s going on here? We are right to be confused:
So I’m told in this one:
Some of the Oxford Very Short Introduction books aren’t that helpful. Some are great. I got a lot out of this one. I didn’t know this story about Lucille Ball, for instance:
when Harvey Weinstein’s then-lawyer Lisa Bloom said he’s “an old dinosaur learning new ways”
Somehow came across the name Hortense Powerdermaker and I knew I had to have her book.
Some good observations:
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang:
How about this?:
Me, I’m trying to be like Mr. Well Adjusted:
Amazing letter from The Academy. Imagine sending out an email in which you described your own organization’s action of slightly adjusting membership rules as “courageous.”
I spent the ensuing weeks across a table from Nic, hashing out plotlines. It gave me a chance to study him at close quarters. No one was more vehement about character and motivation than Nic. Now and then, he’d do the voices or act out a scene, turning his wrist to demonstrate the pop-pop of gunplay. He was 37 but somehow ageless. He could’ve stepped out of a novel by Steinbeck. The writer as crusader, chronicler of love and depravity. His shirt was rumpled, his hair mussed, his manner that of a man who’d just hiked along the railroad tracks or rolled out from under a box. He is fine-featured, with fierce eyes a little too small for his face. It gives him the aura of a bear or some other species of dangerous animal. When I was a boy and dreamed of literature, this is how I imagined a writer—a kind of outlaw, always ready to fight or go on a spree. After a few drinks, you realize the night will culminate with pledges of undying friendship or the two of you on the floor, trying to gouge each other’s eyes out.
I love True Detective and I loved, loved reading this profile of Nic Pizzolatto in Vanity Fair (from which I steal the above photo, credited to Art Streiber).
I did have a quibble, though.
Here’s what profile writer Rich Cohen says about F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood:
Early in the history of film, when the big-time writers of the day, Fitzgerald most famously, were offered a role in the movies, they decided to write for the cash, forswearing deeper participation in a medium they considered second-rate. Perhaps as a result of this decision, the author came to be the forgotten figure in Hollywood, well paid but disregarded. According to the old joke, “the actress was so stupid she slept with the writer.”
Credit and power are shared. But by tossing out that first season and beginning again, Nic has a chance to finally undo the early error of Fitzgerald and the rest. If he fails and the show tanks, he’ll be just another writer with one great big freakish hit. But if he succeeds, he will have generated a model in which the stars and the stories come and go but the writer remains as guru and king.
Not sure this is totally accurate. I’ve read a decent amount about F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood. The more you read, the more it seems like Fitzgerald really loved Hollywood, and tried really hard to be good at writing movies, and was distressed by his failures. Fitzgerald loved movies:
When Fitzgerald worked on movies, it seems like he worked hard, was hurt when he was (frequently) fired, which sent him into tailspins that made things worse. But he was trying:
Those are from the great Marc Norman’s book, highly recommended:
Or how about this?:
That’s from this great one, by Scott Donaldson:
Now, that’s not to say that Fitzgerald always did everything perfectly:
(from this one, very entertaining read:
On the other hand, William Faulkner did well in Hollywood. He’s credited on at least two movies — The Big Sleep and To Have And Have Not, that you’d have to put in the all-time good list. If he’d never written a single book, you could look at those credits and call Faulkner a pretty successful screenwriter.
What did Faulkner do differently than Fitzgerald? Possibly, his secret was caring less:
Murky, to be sure.
But you might say: the big difference in the Hollywood careers of Fitzgerald and Faulkner is that Faulkner teamed with a great director, Howard Hawks, who liked him and liked working with him.
That’s what Pizzolatto did too. He teamed up with Cary Fukunaga. Cary Fukunaga directed all eight episodes of season one of True Detective (and a bunch of other things worth seeing).
Fukunaga’s not mentioned once in that Vanity Fair article. That’s crazy.
Anyway. I’m excited for season two, it sounds super interesting.