Peter Bart: Hollywood Needs A Big Hit To Spark Its Recovery; So What Is The Next ‘Midnight Cowboy’?

Hollywood’s great re-awakening seems at hand. Sort of.

The cameras are rolling, the theaters are opening, the wannabe blockbusters have nailed new playdates. Even Bob Iger last week revealed his exit date, marking his kingdom’s new era.

But when the curtains rise, will the audience applaud?

Paradoxically, I was reading a new book this week that posed a metaphor for the Hollywood moment. Titled Shooting Midnight Cowboy, the book by Glenn Frankel portrayed the shadow of doom hovering over a movie about to start shooting 50 years ago. Its young director, John Schlesinger, was semi-suicidal because the critics had just savaged his latest picture. With Cowboy, had he again chosen the wrong cast and the wrong setting?

His studio seemed to share the young Brit’s paranoia. Fearful of its gay subtext and potential “X” rating, United Artists had cut his budget and reduced his pay to $100,000. His young star, Jon Voight, annoyed Schlesinger by repeatedly asking “what’s the motivation of my character,” to which Schlesinger would shout, “All you’re looking for is a good f*ck.”

Schlesinger, age 36, almost pulled the plug on Midnight Cowboy, which ultimately opened to ebullient reviews and Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. Arguably, its unlikely triumph gave cinema a new vigor and Hollywood a wake-up call.

Hence the parallel: A cool analysis of today’s obstacles has led some industry gurus to share Schlesinger’s abject paranoia. The audience seems to have moved on, tucked securely into its home screening rooms, passively awaiting Netflix’s nurture. Could a movie like Black Widow seriously intrude upon the world’s billion-dollar binge?

To be sure, Hollywood’s cheerleaders have faithfully come forward with their optimistic quotes, from Jason Kilar of WarnerMedia to Tom Bernard of Sony Classics (“Theaters will come back strong”). One or two hits can change everything, they point out. Midnight Cowboy itself symbolized that transformative miracle.

Francis Coppola in a speech to the Academy tells about his 1972 encounter with Kirk Kerkorian, the man who then owned both MGM and Las Vegas casinos. Having just seen The Godfather, Kerkorian asked the filmmaker, “Why did you make an art movie about gangsters?” Coppola replied: ”I, too, like risk.” Kerkorian blanched.

From its origins, Hollywood has been addicted to risk, and its risks of the moment seem like those of a start-up. Will the troubled negotiations over windows be resolved to the satisfaction of both creators and exhibitors? Will the hybrid distribution strategy work for the studios or its stars? For that matter, will actors and their agents, or managers, embrace the complex new compensation formulas that provide bonuses (but not gross receipts) if and when a movie becomes a hit on its platform? Gal Gadot and director Patty Jenkins received between $13 million-$15 million on top of their regular compensation as prospective bonus payments covering Wonder Woman 1984.

As blockbuster streamers break ground with new formulas, filmmakers in the indie arena have become increasingly fretful: The keys to indie success seem anachronistic in today’s environment – festival openings followed by a limited release building word-of-mouth support. Films like Parasite and Moonlight played for 20 weeks in key theaters. “A model dependent on building an audience will simply not be able to sustain itself in this new world order,” argues Ted Mundorff, the former chief of Landmark Theatres who became COO of ArcLight Cinemas/Pacific Theaters.

Given all this, the saga of Midnight Cowboy is even more remarkable. As depicted by Frankel, every step in the film’s development seemed out of step. Dustin Hoffman, who had cleverly mastered Ratso Rizzo’s limp and homeless demeanor, was unexpectedly conscripted to first play a clean-cut Wasp in The Graduate. “Dustin likes dancing on the third rail,” warned a casting agent.

On the first day of the Cowboy shoot the crew encountered a sanitation workers strike, New York’s streets were littered for seven days by rotting drifts of garbage. Surviving the rubble, Schlesinger and producer Jerome Hellman were next devastated by the “X” rating handed down by the MPAA ratings board, whose chairman alluded darkly to the film’s “homosexual frame of reference.” By contrast, the simultaneous rating from the Catholic code was more lenient, its official newsletter praising the film for depicting “a rich and poignant relationship which has the ring of humanity at its purest.”

Life magazine quickly responded with a cover depicting Hoffman and John Wayne, side by side, under the banner, “Dusty and the Duke: A Choice of Heroes.”

The concept of a heroic Ratso delighted Hoffman. Wayne was less exuberant; he promptly decided to seek firmer ground in True Grit.

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