Posted on Friday, March 31st, 2017 by Kristin Hunt
Netflix’s latest documentary is an ambitious affair that combines legendary directors, World War II, and the disembodied voice of Meryl Streep. Five Came Back is a multi-part tale of five directors who temporarily left Hollywood to create propaganda for the U.S. military in the 1940s. It’s based on the 2014 book by film journalist Mark Harris, and it managed to snag modern movie icons like Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and Guillermo del Toro as talking heads. Streep serves as the narrator.
It’s easy to see why Netflix went all-out on this incredible piece of movie history. But hopefully, it’s not done with Harris just yet. Because he wrote another book about Hollywood history concerning a quintet, and it’s begging to be the next Netflix docuseries.
Before he entered the trenches of WWII history with Five Came Back, Harris published Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. This 2008 book was a curious case study – it examined the eventual Best Picture nominees of 1967. Sounds pretty specific, right? But 1967 was an unusually stacked year. Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and Doctor Dolittle (okay, they weren’t all gems) were up for the top prize. Harris didn’t just catalog some fascinating behind-the-scenes stories from these productions. He also used them to explain the collapse of the old studio system and rise of a new class of young, rebellious filmmakers.
By “old studio system,” I mean the period spanning the 1920s through the 1960s, when a small handful of movie studios ruled Hollywood (“The Big Five” were Fox, Paramount, Warner Brothers, RKO, and MGM). They kept actors under strict contracts, produced everything in-house, and, for a time, directly controlled their distribution into movie theaters. This system had a slow, painful death that finally arrived in the late 1960s. Immediately after this demise, a new generation of hippies and film school grads sprang up to rebuild the industry from scratch. You probably know some of their names – Spielberg, Coppola, Lucas, Scorsese.
Pictures at a Revolution unfolds right in the middle of those two heavily studied periods of Hollywood history. That’s reason enough to check it out, but the book offers so many compelling tangents, it’s hard to pick just one to highlight. The unbelivably catastrophic set of Doctor Dolittle helps illustrate why movie musicals crashed and burned. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night provide an opportunity to discuss Sidney Poitier’s uncomfortable position in both Hollywood and the civil rights movement. The Graduate gamely grapples with the concept of “leading man.” And if you’re wondering why the morality code that stifled movies for decades finally dropped dead, look no further than that spray of Bonnie and Clyde bullets.
Pictures at a Revolution is a fantastic book that any movie lover should read. But why does it deserve a film adaptation – and the wider audience that comes with that?
Movies Are in Another Tight Spot
This is not the best time to be in the movie business. Experts have been forecasting an industry apocalypse seemingly since the dawn of the new millennium. As the dismal 2016 summer box office numbers poured in, media analyst Hal Vogel told Variety, “The theater business has weaker prospects going forward than at any time in the last 30 years.” Blockbuster pioneers Spielberg and George Lucas predicted an implosion (and $25 movie tickets!) in 2013. Harris himself penned a eulogy in 2011 with his GQ article “The Day the Movies Died.”
They’re not just being dramatic. Back in 1940, over half of the adult population went to the movies once a week. Today, less than 10% does. Much of that shift has been chalked up to cold hard capitalism. Why shell out $35 for a movie ticket, popcorn, and soda when you could renew your streaming subscription for $10?
But money isn’t the only factor at play here, and this makes Pictures at a Revolution incredibly relevant. There are many reasons why the old studio system bit the dust, but chief among them was a failure to connect with the new generation. Sound familiar? Most of the alarm bells in 2017 are being sounded over millennial moviegoers, who are increasingly staying home to stream. But modern Hollywood can’t just blame its problems on damn fickle kids with their damn iPhones. It’s also being incredibly stupid about how it reaches those audience members. Sequels, remakes, and franchises undeniably make money, but they’ve saturated the market so thoroughly that they’ve begun cannibalizing each other’s profits. And in its quest to pump out tentpoles with international potential – “Hulk smash” translates in every language – Hollywood has failed to make distinctive, enticing wide releases for millennials who already have an endless catalog of Hulu, HBO, and (of course) Netflix titles at their fingertips.
That’s not the only missed connection between the studios and potential audiences. Women and minority moviegoers are absolutely crucial to the industry’s success, but films still sideline them onscreen. This lack of representation also plays out in the Pictures at a Revolution pages dedicated to Poitier, who had an arduous career as essentially the only black man allowed to headline movies at the time.
The industry had to change then, and it needs to change now. The question is who’s going to lead the charge this time. Sounds like a perfect prompt for some documentary talking heads, no?