Why Hard Times Won't Mean Good Times at the Movies Again

Brother, can you spare $12?

As the 1932 election neared, with nearly half the nation's labor force out of work or marginally employed, the call resounded for "strong" leadership. Hollywood shifted from the outrageously cynical to the hysterically crypto-fascist—Washington Merry-Go-Round (the government is run by lobbyists and crooked pols) gave way to Gabriel Over the White House (new president divinely inspired to declare martial law) and This Day and Age (teenage vigilantes wage a war against crime), both of which opened near the beginning of Roosevelt's term. In early 1933, Warner Bros., the studio most identified with FDR, declared its own "New Deal in Entertainment": In 42nd Street, Warner Baxter's tyrannical stage director demonstrates that one might defeat the Depression by making a Broadway show. The utopia of full employment had never been more vividly dramatized than by Busby Berkeley's screen-filling dance formations.

The following year's Stand Up and Cheer! had Baxter tapped by FDR himself to head the new Federal Department of Amusement, a cross between Hollywood and the WPA. The new agency's first mega-production, "I'm Laughing," featured everyone in America—welders and seamstresses, cops and chorus girls, blacksmiths, hillbillies, and the white actress who performs in burnt cork under the name "Aunt Jemima"—united against self-pity. "I'm laughing, and I have nothing to laugh about," is the new anthem. "But if I can laugh and sing and shout—brother, so can you!"

After a dozen more numbers, including one introducing five-year-old Shirley Temple (embodiment of optimism and, soon, Hollywood's biggest star), Stand Up and Cheer! ends by proclaiming the end of the Depression. The movie's visceral metaphors of social organization have cured the malaise.

Can Hollywood do it again?

The U.S. suffered through three and a half years of economic misery before the New Deal arrived; the Obama administration arrives after only three and a half months. Since October, Hollywood studios have been terminating franchises and buying out employees. The audience has remained constant, although revenues have declined. Warner Bros. saw a 9 percent fall in its third-quarter earnings—despite the colossal success of The Dark Knight. Stock prices are down, but much scarier, from the industry's point of view, has been the drop in DVD sales. (Especially scary since a movie's theatrical release is largely a means of promoting DVD sales.)

This is only the beginning. Fox has announced a sequel to Oliver Stone's Wall Street (yawn), but nothing like Depression-era topical showmanship has begun to kick in. The independent Wendy and Lucy, with Michelle Williams as a jobless vagrant, now seems prescient, and recent releases ranging from WALL-E and Milk to The Wrestler and Gran Torino have certainly profited from the current mood of anxious Obamoptimism. The rags-to-riches romance Slumdog Millionaire is the prime beneficiary, although the 13 Oscar nominations accorded $150 million bummer Benjamin Button suggest the industry's touching vote of confidence in itself. And therein lies the rub. Hooked on tent poles and blockbusters, dreaming of dinosaurs, the movie industry has long since ceased to be nimble enough to adapt to crisis.

A reorganized and self-regulated Hollywood bounced back in 1935, but times were different then. Movies were America's universal culture. Now, they're not even close. Like then, the technology is changing—but in a far different way. Movies are expendable. Folks will give up $12 tickets, cancel Netflix, and cut cable to save their high-speed Internet connection. With the president's fireside chats posted online, the new Hoovervilles will certainly have broadband. Is there a downsized future for Katzenberg's product? As one bankrupt mogul said to another, "YouTube?!"

Maybe free online movies are strictly for the indies. But if times get worse and the studios want to get real, they'll have to find the audience where it lives: Hulu for Hollywood.

jhoberman@villagevoice.com
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