Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s motto is “Ars Gratia Artis”, it appears on the company logo inscribed into a ring of film that surrounds “Leo” the roaring lion that is at the heart of the companies brand image. The Latin phrase translates to “Art for art’s sake”, but how many studios truly believe in this concept. Is the motion picture industry the one art form where cash is king and art is an afterthought? More so than any other art based industry including music, the bottom line comes first and if they make some art along the way that’s a bonus.
Where would the movie industry me if the money men took a step back and let the artists run the industry? Would it be a case of the lunatics running the asylum and all the studios would go bust, or would the products be so great that they would make money along the way? To go back to the comparison with the music industry, manufactured bands who want to be rich and famous often make it big for a short time, make lots of money then disappear without a trace. Whatever amount of success they have often pales in comparison to genuinely talented artists who are in it for the love of the music.
The late 20’s through to the end of the 40’s is often referred to as the Golden Age of Cinema. Many people dispute this as it was controlled by the big studios and their moguls, it was also the time of a huge amount of censorship. It was the time of the “Studio system” where stars were bound up in studio contracts and the vertical integration of production, distribution and exhibition was designed to dominate the industry. But constraint often inspires creativity and this era produced many classic movies, Citizen Kane and Casablanca to name just two. The system came to an end in the late 40’s following a Supreme Court ruling and things would never be the same again. But did they really change that much from an artistic point of view?
The lunatics did run the asylum for a while, or at least the actors ran a studio when in 1919 D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks founded United Artists. By the end on the 1940’s the studio existed in little more than name, producing and distributing very few movies. Of the original stars who set up the studio only Pickford and Chaplin remained. Following the US government revoking Chaplin’s re-entry visa the pair agreed to sell the studio to Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin, a pair of lawyers turned movie producers. Throughout the 50’s 60’s and 70’s the studio produced many classic movies and launched the James Bond series, but it was a long way from the ideals of Griffith, Chaplin, Pickford, and Fairbanks.
Then came Heaven’s Gate. The director Michael Cimino, had won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director for The Deer Hunter (a film I don’t think has aged that well and its crown as a classic may be slipping) and was given unusual creative freedom. There are lots of articles about this by people who know the story far better than me, look them up. The important thing here is the result and the fallout. The film had a budget estimated at $44 million (around $140million when adjusted for inflation), it took around $3million at the US box-office. Around this time the company was sold by Transamerica (a holding company that had acquired it a few years before) to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It is estimated that they paid around $350 million. Was this for the artistry of the companies back catalogue or its value in the emerging home video market? I will let you decide. So there we are back at the beginning. The company that proudly bares the slogan Art for art’s sake purchased the company that was set up by artists for arts sake.
Heaven’s Gate may have seen the end of what is often referred to as New Hollywood, but the echoes of the era are still been felt and many exponents of the time are still making movies, they include: Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, John Carpenter, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Clint Eastwood, William Friedkin, Terrence Malick, Roman Polanski and Ridley Scott. There are also great directors who work outside or on the edge of the system like Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater. Their films may sometimes suffer from being bloated and or self indulgent but this is a small price to pay. Most interestingly are the directors like Christopher Nolan and Danny Boyle who work within the system but make it work for them in a similar way to the auteurs of the golden age.
So what’s the conclusion? Sadly I have no insight or profound words. As a cynic, I truly believe that the studios are in it for the money but as a film lover I believe there are artists (actors, writers, directors and other creative people) in the industry who are in it for the love and for the art, and once in a while they create art. True art, Art for art’s sake.