The Teenagers Take Over
Chaos in the Movie Theater & Pop Culture in Transition
It is hard to imagine now, what with our daily ‘media-saturated’ existence, that there was an era when the all-immersive cross-convergence of movies, music, television, et. al. did not exist . . .
But yes, once upon a time, back in the wild & wooly world of the mid-1960s, the popular music and film industries were two very distinct camps — ones who usually just sat across the room from each other — glaring.
And although there were the occasional successful cross-pollinations (The Beatles’ Hard Days Night in 1964 and Elvis’ Heartbreak Hotel in 1957 quickly come to mind), overall, rock films had traditionally been considered a novelty item developed purely for a small niche audience — and a rather risky one at that.
However, since the end of World War II, the traditional demographic profile of filmgoers had been drastically changing. Tellingly, the attendance at movie theaters, after peaking in the post-war year of 1947, was now on a seemingly long steady downhill slide.
Most disturbing to Tinsel Town execs were the radical changes in popular taste, as well as shifts in the strata of the entertainment business which were even now working away to steal Old Hollywood’s modus operandi:
*B.I.S. (“butts in seats”) . . .
The Beginning of the End for Classic Hollywood
In 1948 the eight major studios (Paramount, MGM, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, RKO, Universal, Columbia Pictures, and United Artists) were slammed by what came to be known as the Paramount Decree.
For many years the studios had enjoyed an oligopoly — a vertical integration of the production, distribution, and exhibition of their films (i.e.: Paramount Studios films were shown in theaters they also owned.) Concurrently with the practice, the studios had been under investigation dating back to the days of the silents for what many considered monopolistic and unfair business practices.
Much litigation and legal wrangling eventually followed, but when the studio’s appeal was finally overruled, the Supreme Court decision stated in no uncertain terms that the film studios must immediately divest of their chains of distribution outlets— the very theater chains which for years had showcased each studio’s respective product and served as their ambassadors to the general public.
Also, as television began elbowing its way into American living rooms (sets dominated the living room in 83% of US households by the late fifties) the traditional cinema revenue stream continued to diminish.
The studios knew they had to change their tack quickly.
Hollywood responded with various projection gimmicks and roadshow exhibitions designed to lure patrons back to the cinema. These efforts included such novelties as 3-D movies, widescreen historical epics & musicals, and eventually, even low-budget genre films billed as ‘Drive-in Double-Features.’
Additionally, the studios realized that they would have to diversify into other areas of media production if they were ever going to stay afloat.
Music records, made-for-tv movies, and even the creation of entire runs of television series (easily shot on each studio’s preexisting backlot) all eventually became dire prescriptions for survival.
Shaken and scared by the rapid and tumultuous changes occurring to their industry, the powers that be also began aggressively developing and marketing much of their major filmed output to a place they had never even previously given serious thought — the emerging youth market.
Textbooks and Switchblades
The film that truly inaugurated this cinematic trend was the raucous and controversial Blackboard Jungle, released in the early spring of 1955. Written and directed by Richard Brooks, and starring Glen Ford, Sidney Poitier, and Vic Morrow, the hard-hitting drama served as a form of fictionalized expose’ of the challenges of teaching in the inner city.
Even the film’s opening credits packed a wallop — with the musical accompaniment to the film’s front titles — Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” — frequently causing teenagers to riot in the aisles in theaters across the nation.
Understandably so, the aforementioned ‘youth picture’ did little to ease studio hesitancy in marketing to this prospective new audience — that is, until the fateful year of 1963.
In that year the film studios found themselves at a dire crossroads. In terms of sheer output, it was the worst on record, with just over 120 movies being released — less than half the record average of 247 set some 15 years earlier.
And as if things weren’t bad enough, the weakening of the (Hays) Production Code — whose subsequent downfall became our contemporary ratings system — largely worked to benefit small-time theater operators such as ‘art houses’ and other independent outlets.
Because of their low profile and lax rating enforcement, small theaters were able to show much racier foreign and independent films — films which would usually fall well outside of the Hays Code’s jurisdiction. The cachet of seeing “exotic” films (a code phrase inferring something previously strange or forbidden) drew the more daring of moviegoers in droves. The arthouse era would continue unabated until the dawn of home video in the late 1970s.
Yes, the multiple and diverse trebuchets assaulting Castle Hollywood had, it seemed, finally brought the battlements down, marking the beginning of the end of the old Hollywood studio system and the once vaunted Golden Age.
But once the dust had settled, modern moviegoers were the true benefactor of the spoils — for, with Old Hollywood’s grasping attempts to reconnect with their audience and the subsequent cracks in the armor of the old guard, new blood was allowed to storm the drawbridge and thereby change the system from within.
The subsequent increase in independent studios and producers — unencumbered by traditional studio interference — produced many of the edgier, more realistic and thought-provoking films which we commonly enjoy today as well as launching what has become known as the Hollywood Renaissance or New Hollywood, a period lasting from the late 1960s to the early 1980s.*
And the rest?
Well, you know how that phrase goes . . .
*(I’ll cover much more on the Hollywood Renaissance in a separate series of articles forthcoming. -kcj)
Once More Back to the Fifties (and That Rocky Marriage . . . )
Strangely, the crossover marketing of movies and their subsequent soundtrack albums (wherein the songs that make up the soundtrack form a type of musical commentary within the context of the film) actually has as its origins in . . . (Are you ready for it?)
. . . the fifties nostalgia craze which began in the early 1970s!
Additionally, the casting of popular music stars in movie roles, practically a given nowadays, has its genesis in the ‘Beige Age,’ as well.
In the United States, this popular and recurring fad was partially initiated in the summer of 1971 by Jerry Osborne (air-name: Dan Coffey), who introduced an “oldies” music format to KOOL-FM radio in Phoenix, Arizona. By December of that year, the station became one of the first in the nation to go ‘all-oldies.’ The successful trend was soon emulated in other markets, most notably with stations such as New York’s WCBS-FM in July of 1972.
Meanwhile, in the stage realm, the fifties were soon revived by the original 1971 Chicago performance of the musical Grease — also released as a popular film some seven years later.
Original Grease composer & lyricist Jim Jacobs initially described the show’s basic character arc as:
. . . a subversion of common tropes of 1950s cinema, since the female lead, who in many 1950s films transformed the alpha male into a more sensitive and sympathetic character, is instead drawn into the man’s influence and transforms into his fantasy.
The fifties craze was given even further steam by the 1973 release of George Lucas’ American Graffiti, a filmic paean to Lucas’ misspent youth cruising for girls and racing cars in the walnut groves of Modesto, California.
The owners of Universal Studios Pictures, anxious to monetize the film as expeditiously as possible, set about releasing through their MCA music arm an accompanying two-disc LP album. The release, titled 41 Original Hits from the Soundtrack of American Graffiti, reintroduced the public at large to such major fifties artists as Bill Halley, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly. The album subsequently went triple platinum and encouraged two further authorized MCA compilations of music from the era, as well as numerous unendorsed spin-offs, both musical and otherwise.
Meanwhile, On the Other Side of the Atlantic . . .
The nostalgia trend soon spread across the pond, and in the movie theaters of Britain in July of 1973, the must-see film of the summer was That’ll Be The Day.
Considered to be the British equivalent of American Graffiti, the film tells the story of Jim MacLaine (rock star David Essex) — a restless British youth who leaves home to find his place in the world and eventually meets kindred spirit Mike (played by the Beatles’ Ringo Starr). The two lads subsequently get into plenty of trouble as they shirk their responsibilities and chase women, but ultimately Jim has to decide on a ‘proper’ path for his life and dreams of becoming a rock ’n’ roll star.
As the film’s poster art teased:
“Can Jim make it as musician, or will he remain stuck in a mundane rut?”
Although the film did much to kick-off an English version of the fifties nostalgia craze, more importantly, it initiated the use of a new and ingenious film-funding model — one first utilized in Britain’s then-ailing movie industry. Bear in mind: The 1970s were tough times for British film, as much of the overseas investment previously relied upon had dried up.
So, inventive English filmmakers had to look elsewhere and, in this non-traditional form of financing pioneered by That’ll Be the Day screenwriter Ray Connolly and his producer Sandy Lieberson, a British music licensing company, Ronco (yes, that Ronco) — put up half the money for the forthcoming fifties coming-of-age film.
Luckily for all concerned, after the film’s subsequent success (and soundtrack album sales) the unique economic model was to serve as a template for many a film producer to come.
The fifties nostalgia craze eventually ran its course (although it would return in the late 80s with a vengeance) and had as its cinematic swan song Philip Kaufman’s excellent The Wanderers, released in 1979. In this very Peckinpah-esque tale, a group of street toughs try to find their calling in the new world of the 1960s, a place that has seemingly abandoned them.
The trend of rock and film cross-marketing having been set in place, it would persistently be on the mind of prospective film financiers from the early 1970s to the present day.
And it was probably very much this possibility which suddenly lit-up the eyes of one Producer Si Litvinoff (A Clockwork Orange) when Creative Media Associates agent Maggie Abbott hinted at the possibility of casting a certain carrot-topped rock star in the science-fiction film he was helming for director Nicolas Roeg.
More to come . . .
- AUTHOR’S NOTE: This essay is part of a chapter to Brittle Atlas — a forthcoming book on David Bowie’s darkest, yet most productive year.
- Kris Jones may be reached on Twitter via his Medium homepage: https://medium.com/@misterkris/
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