The Essential Tinseltown

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As a professor of cinema studies and English, Peter Decherney had been steering Penn students through the twisty, tangled history of Hollywood for 10 years when he decided to write his latest book, Hollywood: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Since it was slated for OUP’s “Very Short Introduction” series, Decherney knew he had to squeeze a hundred-year-old industry into a slim paperback—no small task. After teaching students about Hollywood for so long, though, morphing his Penn course into book form proved to be surprisingly painless. It involved some Kerouac-like bursts of writing, and resulted in a 160-page, 7-inch-tall volume that’s deceptively full.

“I like to think of it as the TARDIS from Dr. Who,” jokes Decherney. “It’s bigger on the inside.”

The book starts off in the pre-Hollywood era, with Thomas Edison’s company creating peep-show viewers called Kinetoscopes. “Edison never lost sight of his goal,” Decherney writes, of “joining image and sound.”

In the jog through Hollywood history that follows, Decherney elucidates the “constant change and perpetual crisis” that the industry has weathered. He also explains how politics, technology, and current events have shaped Hollywood, and throws in facts that will please movie buffs and trivia lovers alike.

Decherney got hooked on film as a kid. He’d watch Saturday morning movies with his film-buff dad. “Double Indemnity was a formative one for me,” he says. “I thought, ‘Wow, I want to learn more about this.’”

Last year he released a short documentary, Filmmaking for Democracy in Myanmar, which he says explains why he’s still so smitten with the art form. The film shows a country in political upheaval, struggling with widespread poverty and drug addiction—and its thriving movie industry.

“A lot of resources are being poured into [the movie business in Myanmar] because they think one way to rebuild a culture is for people to be able to tell their stories,” Decherney says. “That’s a primary need—just as important as trying to develop new agricultural business.”

Decherney will make his MOOC (massive open online course) debut with EdX this summer. “Hollywood: History, Industry, Art” will trace the history of Tinseltown, from Edison and the birth of film to the rise of the internet.

Along with brief video lectures, Decherney has been filming interviews with notable people in the movie biz to prepare. (Many are Penn alumni, including Mean Girls director Mark Waters C’86 and industry veteran Warren Lieberfarb W’65, who is credited with turning the DVD into a widely accepted format.)

He’ll offer an alumni-only version of the MOOC this fall from October 20 to November 19, and will host an on-campus event for participants during Homecoming. (Registration will open this summer at alumni.upenn.edu/education.)

Decherney spoke with Gazette contributor Molly Petrilla C’06 about some of the Hollywood history covered in that online course and in his new book.


What was it like going to see a movie in the early 1900s?

The film itself was only one part of the experience. The exhibition space contributed a tremendous amount. There were often narrators and different kinds of musical accompaniment. Sometimes performers would voice different characters. If you saw the film on Chestnut Street, it would look very different from the same film being shown on Walnut Street.

What were the actual films like?

They were short, they were shocking—they were much closer to virtual amusement-park rides than the longer, absorptive narrative films that we expect to see in movie theaters today.

Why is that?

One argument that I like—which comes from Tom Gunning—is that film was helping people adjust to the shocks of technology and culture in the early 20th century. Film can help us move through space and time in new virtual ways. Putting a film camera on a train, for instance, helps us understand how we’re flying through space virtually.

You write that by 1922, 84 percent of American film production was happening in Los Angeles. How did that happen?

There are a few reasons. One is that the light is good and the weather is good, so you can shoot all year-round. That was especially important before lights were powerful enough for studios to start shooting inside. Before about 1913, everything had to be done with sunlight. Another important reason is that there are many different kinds of terrain within a short distance from Hollywood: desert, beach, mountains. The locus before that was Fort Lee, New Jersey, because at the time, it looked wild enough to shoot Westerns there.

How and why did Hollywood invent the blockbuster?

Starting in 1968, there’s a period where all the studios are purchased by large conglomerates or they expand to become multimedia conglomerates themselves. They all start making films that are really larger franchise—or “tent pole”—films: ideas and narratives that can be spread across media.

They started coming up with a formula for making blockbusters. It had to have products that were pre-sold and stories that already had a built-in audience, like a popular book or a Broadway show. They started buying the rights to books before they were published and making sure they were bestsellers. Another part of the recipe was that films had to be high-concept, which meant there had to be one simple idea that could express the whole film. A famous example where the high concept might have been too good was Snakes on a Plane.

Did you uncover anything that was new even to you?

It’s often not the studios who develop new technology. Computer-generated images were really pioneered in the 1980s by mini-majors—smaller independent companies that were trying to become major studios. They made films with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone that used computer-generated images. Now that’s a staple of Hollywood films, but it was pioneered by small independent companies.

That theme comes up repeatedly: Hollywood absorbing its competition, whether it’s indie film companies, CGI technology, or even home video. It’s like this blob that manages to absorb any competition and only grow stronger.

Exactly, like an octopus. When independent film in the 1980s and ’90s created a lot of successful companies that found markets Hollywood wasn’t addressing, [the Hollywood studios] bought those companies. Eventually every major successful independent film company became part of a Hollywood studio—or the studios built their own. We can see that happening now with internet companies, like when Disney bought MakerStudios [which produces videos for YouTube channels].

What else is unfolding now?

The studios are making bigger and bigger blockbusters. That’s clearly something Hollywood can do that no one else can match. No one else can put $200 million on the screen. Those investments—when they’re successful—are so successful that almost nothing else they do matters. On the other hand, they’re also doing lots of really interesting things to diversify and keep their fingers in lots of media pies.

How we define Hollywood might change as well. It may not be six or eight major companies. We might think of Hollywood as being much larger and more complex, and connected to lots of different smaller companies.

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