Up Close and Personal

Editor's Note: The following is the text of screenwriter/director Frank Pierson's commencement address to the 2003 USC film school graduating class.

I've been around a long time. As I look out at all of you graduating today, I think back to my graduations. All the kids in my graduating class from elementary school are dead.

All the people in my junior high school graduation are dead.

All the people in my high school graduation are dead.

The people I graduated from college with are all mostly dead.

Are you all feeling okay?

You will soon be the Hollywood of tomorrow, and I'm here to give you a little taste of the past. And my sense of the future you face.

Hollywood was once a small company town, where everybody knew everybody, and if you dropped your pants at a party or punched a reporter or danced with a prostitute in the parking lot, it wasn't on "Entertainment Tonight" tonight. It was even hard to get arrested. Every studio had a publicity department which paid the Los Angeles cops to stay away from show business people. The police didn't arrest movie people. They drove them home.

We all went down to the film factories every day -- at Warner Brothers even actors, directors and writers punched a time clock until the mid-'40s. We ate in the studio commissary, where the writers' table was preferred seating because the jokes were better there. If the New York writers were in town, slumming, sneering at the movies and cashing big fat paychecks you found yourself sitting next to Dorothy Parker or F. Scott Fitzgerald. You could wander off to a sound stage and watch John Huston or Willy Wyler shooting a scene with Bogart or Hepburn or Peck. No security. We all knew each other.

It was up close, and personal.

In the '30s screenwriters formed a union. Their first and only demand was that producers give writing credit only to writers who actually worked on the film. They were denounced on the floor of Congress. Variety said they were Communists. Darryl Zanuck, the head of Twentieth-Century Fox, dictated a letter for all of his contract writers to sign. It was on their desks when they arrived for work; a letter of resignation from the new Guild. With it was a note from Zanuck ordering them to join a union Twentieth-Century Fox was forming especially for them. If anybody refused they were fired.

Philip Dunne, an ex-New Yorker writer, and one of Fox's major talents, went to Zanuck and told him nobody was quitting the Guild. Furthermore, he pointed out that if Zanuck fired all the writers who were Guild members, he would be firing the front line of his championship polo team.

It was the start of the Writers' Guild.

Up close and personal. We knew the boss. And we certainly knew who was boss.

Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia, was a legendary bully, who admired Mussolini and had his office designed to resemble Mussolini's -- with a long approach into blinding lights, and himself behind a desk, raised a foot above the floor, ranks of Oscars his studio had won behind him.

He said he made only pictures that he wanted to see, and once the public stopped wanting to see what he liked, he'd quit. Not for him delegating decisions to demographers, pollsters and marketing experts. Nobody knew what a demographer was in those days.

In the '60s, when the old glove salesmen and carnival touts who built the studios began to grow old and retire to play golf or try to gamble away their fortunes, their grip on the business loosened. For a while independent producers flourished. New companies, new writers and directors burst the bonds of studio imposed style and discarded the habits of the stage.

In this fluid and diversified atmosphere there was freedom and creativity, and a minimum of bureaucratic control. The '60s and the '70s produced movies now looked upon as a Golden Age: The Godfather, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Dr. Strangelove, The Taxi Driver, Chinatown, Clockwork Orange, Annie Hall, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Midnight Cowboy, Mash, All the Presidents' Men, Network, Bonnie & Clyde, and a couple I like, Dog Day Afternoon and Cool Hand Luck. Even Easy Rider a wild card that symbolized the anarchistic spirit of that drug ridden time was a Columbia Studio release.

Then, on Wall Street, it began to be noticed that a single blockbuster movie could make in a weekend what a substantial business made in a year.

Warner Brothers was bought by Seven Arts, Seven Arts was bought by Kinney Services, which consisted of a chain of mortuaries and liveries, and the whole mess now is owned by America Online/Time/Warner along with HBO, Warner Books, Turner networks and CNN. Viacom owns Paramount, CBS, Showtime Cable and the Blockbuster chain of video stores. Of the 100-odd primetime shows that will premiere on the four networks this fall and winter, more than 30 -- including CBS newsmagazines -- will be made by one or another company owned by Viacom. Another 25 or so will be made by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, which owns Fox network. That is almost 50 percent of the new shows controlled by two companies, one owned by a man notorious for his micro management, narrow right-wing political philosophy, and his willingness to use his ideological power.

We had been having too much fun to notice -- the barbarians were inside the gate. The polo games, the writers' table, Jack Warner's lunch time tennis matches with Errol Flynn, the cops as our friends, all were a thing of the past. We began to see Harvard Business School MBAs sit in on story conferences.

Lawyers multiplied.

As the huge debt created by mergers was added to the rising costs of making little but blockbusters, the risks of making a film forced the businessmen to be risk averse, to play to the least critical audience: Teenage boys with disposable income.

The problem is how to keep this "average" moviegoer, male, 16 to 25, high school education at best, doesn't read books, gets his news from the eleven o'clock news if he bothers at all, never heard of Mussolini and thinks Korea is another part of downtown LA -- this couch potato, this pimply undereducated oversexed slob with the attention span of a chicken -- how do we keep him awake and interested, while staying awake and interested ourselves.

We have to remind ourselves that this viewer is only another aspect of ourselves, that we have also in us-as he does-a better part, that needs to be cultivated and to express itself. There is no single audience with a single personality. There is the larger audience-currently under-served-that has vast variety of appetites that we can, we must, satisfy.

We do manage every year to make a few films that satisfy both the lower appetite for thrills and excitement and at the same time provide the deeper satisfactions of art and truth for the viewers who are equipped to experience it.

To reach and touch the angel in the beast.

Everything else is just working for wages.

In justice there are great things that have been achieved by these companies-in 1960 to see a black, a Latino on the stage floor except as an occasional supporting actor would have been unthinkable. Now the mid level of the corporate bureaucracy and the working place are far freer and inclusive.

What has happened in Hollywood has happened to us all, because the focus of international business has shifted from production to distribution. And further -- whoever controls distribution shapes what is produced -- to what will fit under the seat or in the overhead compartment.

Agribusinesses have Kamikaze researchers trying to produce cube-shaped tomatoes easier to pack in boxes (and that will taste like the boxes if past experience teaches us anything). And of course we already have milk that all goes sour the same day. Watch the odd, the old, the personal, the traditional, the idiosyncratic, the family made or the regional disappear from supermarket shelves that are rented by the foot to international companies that then stock them with their own water and sugar products.

Our defense is the farmers' market, the yard sale, the auctions. We had hopes for the Internet, but that's being turned into a marketing tool. In the field of entertainment and the arts our last defense may be Tivo and the remote control.

Liberal critics have raised the alarm over corporate censorship, the exclusion from theaters and TV of anything except what seems marketable and the eliminations of anything that might offend somebody anywhere. But the danger of censorship in America is less from business or the religious right or the self righteous left, than to self-censorship by artists themselves, who simply give up. If we can't see a way to get our story told, what is the point of trying? I wonder how many fine, inspiring ideas in every walk of life are strangled in the womb of the imagination because there's no way past the gates of commerce?

This has not happened to us without warning. A rancorous idealist living in London during the Industrial Revolution wrote the following:

"Corporate globalization has left remaining no other connection between man and man than naked self interest, than callous 'cash payment.'. in place of chartered freedoms [it] has set up a single unconscionable freedom called Free Trade. . It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the Priest, the poet, the man of science into its paid wage laborers.

By the immensely facilitated means of communication, corporate globalization draws even the most barbarian nations into civilization. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls.

This constant change, uninterrupted disturbance of all social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the present from all past times."

I've cheated a little. In this "quote," I have substituted the phrase "Corporate Globalization" for the word "Bourgeoisie." The actual quotation is from Karl Marx, in the Communist Manifesto.

Marx's idea of how to solve the problems he raised we now know to be fatally flawed, establishing as deadly a repressive society as the one it briefly replaced, and as dull and one-size-fits-all as the one globalopoly threatens to smother us with now.

Marx went on to say this: "All that is solid melts into thin air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober sense the real conditions of life and his relations with his kind."

Could any conservative preacher state the case more clearly or with more passion?

You can seize the opportunity to set about meeting Marx's challenge -- to do something about it.

You are now our future, and this is the challenge you face. It is a bigger challenge than it seems because you cannot recapture something you never knew. It is your gargantuan task to create this spirit out of thin air, in the face of resistance and lack of interest, in your own style and out of your own imagination. Something new and as yet unknown.

To the studios the art of film and TV is a byproduct of their main business, a side effect, and like side effects, more likely to be a noxious nuisance than a benefit. I cry out to you to become a noxious nuisance, to make a personal investment of passion. It is a moral responsibility that arises from the role of movies in society.

Movies are more than a commodity. Movies are to our civilization what dreams and ideals are to individual lives: they express the mystery and help define the nature of who we are and what we are becoming.

You must become writers with ideas and passion, who write with force and conviction; you must become directors who have minds enriched by your lives and not a library of stunts and special effects. Be critics centered in your feelings and ideas in the culture and society, not in comparing grosses and applauding computer generated ballets of violence.

Go and make a cinema and TV that express our history and our ideas, and that foster respect for a civilization in real danger of self destruction. Be decision-makers with dreams and hopes instead of raw ambition. Tell stories that illuminate our times and our souls. That waken the sleeping angel inside the beast.

We need this from you as we need clean drinking water and roads, green parks and libraries; it is as important as the breath of democratic life. Somehow we need to keep alive in our hearts the vision of community, shared interests and understanding of our neighbors' needs, the sense of connection this fractionated society is losing.

We need to recapture the spirit of Main Street. Up close.

And personal.

That is both your challenge -- and your opportunity.

Godspeed and good luck.

We count on you.

Frank Pierson is president of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences and former president of the Writers Guild of America, West. His directing credits include A Star is Born, Citizen Cohn and Conspiracy. His writing credits include Cat Ballou, Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon.

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