Conclusion: The Million Dollar Movie

When I was a child, a local television station ran a "Million Dollar Movie" every day. Back around 1963, before the drive for constant variety became so great, I remember the station running the same movie every night of the week, and I remember watching it several times, just to get the flavor of it. I was nine.

The movie was David Lean's Oliver Twist, which I saw again this year for the first time in 32 years. It stood up quite well. Solely, the killing of Nancy, which I found terribly upsetting at age nine, had faded in impact, with all the movie murders I have seen since then.

Many of the "Million Dollar Movies" were made in the 1940's, era of the modest, expressive black and white movie, the small, well lit drama with great contrasts. These films are impossible to find on broadcast television today, except for PBS, but can be tracked down on cable, particularly the American Movie Classics channel.

The title, "Million Dollar Movie", was probably intended to convey a movie that cost a great deal of money back then. Today, a million dollar movie is a profound rarity, a movie made for a song. Making more of them might be the key to improving American cinema.

Not so many years ago, Elaine May's Ishtar, with Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty, was the most expensive bomb ever made, costing north of fity million dollars. This year, Waterworld took its place at the head of the list, a two hundred million dollar failure.

Movies fail today because they are incredibly expensive to make; their makers are unable with so much money at stake to experiment or take risks. So movies must imitate the familiar and be pitched to the lowest common denominator, causing most of them to be flat, stale and familiar. We have reached a stage where comedy and romance are forgettable and only violence excites us, so each year we are given more of it and it is more explicit.

Star salaries have gone through the roof not only because of the vanity and aggressiveness of actors and agents but because of a failure of the imagination. If you can't count on the story, you must hope that the stars will guarantee the success of the film. The result is that, when you can't get the first tier people, you still end up paying many millions to the second and third tiers-- actors who cannot guarantee an audience but will still bankrupt you. Union rules, separate casting directors and support staff for New York and Los Angeles based scenes, perks, vanity and waste guarantee that quite modest stories still cost fifteen or twenty million to make.

For the cost of Waterworld, the studio that made it could have made two hundred million dollar movies. There is really no doubt that you can make a movie for a million dollars. You might get by without many of the key grips and best boys and production accountants, drivers and gaffers and animal wranglers. You need a camera and a few actors and two or three support people to make a million dollar movie.

If we went back to making them, people would go see them. Some of them would become international successes, paying for many others. And the beauty of the million dollar movie is that you can make better movies geared to narrower audiences--movies mainly for minorities, for gay people or Indians or environmentalists or lovers of literature. You won't need Jim Carrey in every movie. You can use new actors, or get established ones to work in promising projects for scale. Some Hollywood actors and actresses are dying for real roles in which they get to play people, not objects.

Because you no longer need to serve the lowest common denominator, it would be possible to make intelligent movies again, beautiful ones, movies which provoke discussion and thought, movies in which not a single car explodes. Then you wouldn't need to ask the audience its opinion on how to end the movie. You could do what came naturally, make art and make money, all at the same time.