By James Kenney
“Bonnie and Clyde.” “The Wild Bunch.” “Midnight Cowboy.” “Easy Rider.” “Point Blank.” These were the films audiences were embracing by the late 1960s, as the old-school Hollywood machinery was sputtering, delivering overproduced roadshow backfires like “Star!,” “Doctor Doolittle,” and “Darling Lili” to dwindling public interest.
Aging Hollywood directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, and Charlie Chaplin were putting out inferior product such as “Topaz,” “Seven Women,” and “A Countess in Hong Kong.” The studios, bleeding red, and not knowing what to make of upstart filmmakers like Dennis Hopper and Sam Peckinpah making critically venerated product that also made money, responded by temporarily tolerating their unseasoned ideas: Hollywood became for a brief golden period a directors’ paradise, where filmmakers such as Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, Friedkin, Bogdanovich, Ashby, and Rafelson were given reign to make projects largely as they saw fit, resulting in what many feel is the ultimate period of American filmmaking, “the 70s” (which really began in the 60s with “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Easy Rider” and “the Wild Bunch”).
Naturally, following this first wave of uncompromising artists was a second wave of art where the director was still very much in charge, but certain visionaries were proving much more amenable to working in exploitable genres, leading to Spielberg’s “Jaws,” Lucas’s “Star Wars,” and Carpenter’s “Halloween” while the auteurists with less innately commercial instincts began to stumble, their expensive projects such as “One From the Heart,” “At Long Last Love,” and “Raging Bull” not resulting in guaranteed box-office or critical success.
By the mid 1980s the producers were determinedly back in control, as the likes of Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson grasped they could test market films like television commercials, hire television commercial directors such as the Scott brothers and Adrian Lyne, and put out often ludicrous but archetype-driven nonsense like “Flashdance” and “Top Gun” and clean up financially. Everything from that point to our present quagmire has just been a tightening of these screws, the filmmaking decision process shifting wholly from qualitative to quantitative decision making, all discussion centering on “projects” and “tentpoles” and “extended universes.”
But, for a splendid instant in the late 60s, the studios were scared.
Scared of the filmmakers, whom at least they could see, and scared of the filmgoers, who were proving an increasingly absent abstract concept snubbing the product they were expensively producing while showing up for oddball visions like “Harold & Maude,” “M*A*S*H,” and “Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song.” Even more obviously identifiable commercial product like “Love Story” couldn’t be easily calculated – the film starred an unremarkable television actor and a model, had no major overpriced stars or veteran studio director with a “track record.”
But curiously, before the floodgates disintegrated and movies like “Emmanuelle,” “The Exorcist” and “Walking Tall” (all unthinkable as big-studio releases a decade earlier) topped the box-office charts, one studio, 20th Century Fox, made an earnest if unconventional effort to reach out to “Today’s Youth” and meet them halfway, in (as Fox’s press materials announced) “an unprecedented effort to establish an annual dialogue between the college generation and the creators of motion pictures.”
While Fox was still rolling out expensive three-hour roadshow presentation of product like “The Bible” and “The Sand Pebbles,” they set up “The First Annual 20th Century-Fox College Weekend” for April 28th, 1967, involving previews of two upcoming Fox releases, press conferences, panel discussions, and private interviews with writers, producers, directors, actors and 20th Century Fox’s “key executives,” including the president of the company, Darryl F. Zanuck, and David Brown, vice president and director of story operations. More than “50 Eastern college newspaper editors” were summoned to participate in a dialogue with motion picture creators.
As Fox’s press release describes the situation:
With the strong feeling that the company is producing more and more films that will be of interest to college students, and with the ever-growing interest of students entering the industry, the discussions and panel sessions will center on the problems of making creative films in Hollywood.
They also proposed to host further weekends in the mid-West and the West Coast, with Chicago and Los Angeles the next two cities on the agenda after New York.
Oddly, the two films the studio chose to showcase for this audience don’t seem immediately identifiable as “youth programming”: Stanley Donen’s “Two for the Road,” about difficulties in a long-term marriage and starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney, and “The Flim-Flam Man”, a family comedy starring George C. Scott, Sue Lyon and Michael Sarrazin, directed by Irvin Kershner (later to helm “the Empire Strikes Back”).
The weekend’s schedule proves most interesting:
Friday, April 28:
7 pm: A cocktail party in the Roman Room located at the 444 West 57th street Holiday Inn.
7:45 pm: Depart by bus to the Tin Lizzie Steakhouse, 140 West 51st St.
9:45 pm: Depart restaurant to walk to Radio City Music Hall, 50th St. and 6th Ave. to see “Two For the Road”; Gather in the front lobby – a fox representative will assure participants’ entrance.
Saturday, April 29:
9 am: Breakfast with Stanley Donen and Frederic Raphael (“Road”’s screenwriter, who also wrote “Eyes Wide Shut” for Kubrick) – at the Roman Room in the Holiday Inn.
10:30 AM Walk to the 20th Century-Fox, 444 West 56th St Screening of “the Flim-Flam Man” in the 6th Floor screening room.
12:30 PM Depart Fox by bus for the Yale Club, 50 Vanderbilt Ave.
1 PM Lunch at the Yale Club, 18th floor.
3 PM Final session dialogue, in an adjoining room at the Yale Club.
5:30 PM Cocktail Party – the Yale Club
8:30 PM Dinner at Act I, Allied Chemical Tower, 16th Floor, 42nd street and Broadway.
Among the colleges partaking were: Harvard, Yale, Brown University, Villanova, University of Pittsburgh, University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, Drexel Institute of Technology, Syracuse University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Radcliffe College, Boston University, American University, University of Connecticut, Rutgers, Seton Hall, Brooklyn College, St. John’s University, Adelphi University, Nassau Community College, Hofstra, CCNY, NYU, Pace College, Columbia and Hunter.
And how did the cutting edge of American youth react?
Well, not so well, if a letter from T.E.D. Klein, who at the time was attending Brown University (where he wrote his thesis on H.P. Lovecraft) is any indication. Klein later would go on to receive great acclaim for his work, winning some awards and writing the novel “The Ceremonies,” the collection of essays “Providence After Dark and Other Writings” and the screenplay for Dario Argento’s “Trauma,” among other things.
Klein wrote to Rudy Franchi, a representative of Fox, on May 15, 1967, after attending the weekend’s festivities. Klein’s response is both erudite and mildly insufferable if not condescending, fairly recognizable characteristics in late 60s college students, as they understandably were rather flummoxed with the older generation regarding not just Hollywood and its suspiciously outmoded and unhip product, but Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement and the Warren Commission and all that. On the other hand, Klein and others were indeed in college, not in the jungle near Than Khe, and they did get a bunch of free food and drink at the Yale Club and face-time with the likes of the New York Times’ lead critic Bosley Crowther and filmmakers Kershner and Donen. It was a group of predominantly (if not wholly) white young men interacting with a group of older white men to determine some future for the film industry, if not to alter the actual content than to certainly alter the marketing of said product.
As Klein responded:
Dear Mr. Frenchi:
I am very happy to hear that Twentieth Century-Fox consider the “College Weekend” a success, since your company obviously spent a great deal of time and money in organizing it. Personally I enjoyed your hospitality very much, yet don’t really think that the weekend accomplished anything.
Undoubtedly a lot of kids have written letters to you criticizing the affair – most of us, after all, are critics! – but I hope you understand that, with whatever reservations I have about the success of the experiment, I am very grateful for having been invited.
The panel discussion, I feel, was a complete waste of time, except that it was of course interesting to see Zanuck, Crowther, Valenti and [Richard]Goldstein [of the Village Voice] in person. (And the event was perhaps worthwhile for Fox’s publicity department – we really do like the creative young filmmaker, there is a place for him in Hollywood, etc. etc.) No one, I’m sure, was particularly convinced by any of the bull that was thrown around – it seemed that the speakers chose to examine the question rather than actually answer it – and the only aspect that interested me was the personality clash between Mr. Crowther and the arrogant but interesting Mr. Raphael.
At the discussion a very interesting question was raised by the fellow from Yale, and no one seemed to respond to it. He asked just why the two films we saw over the weekend where chosen in the first place. Ostensibly they had some special relevance to a college audience, but I couldn’t find any. In fact, I think both were examples of what a college audience – at least what passes as an “intellectual” one – would find slick, typically “Hollywood,” and dull. “Two for the Road” might appeal to middle-aged married people and to those who flock to anything Audrey Hepburn appears in, but when I saw it with seven or eight of my fellow collegians, we all groaned at the triteness and artificiality of the dialogue, the predictability as to what would happen next (e.g. Finney says, lying in the sun, “My skin is made of asbestos,” and you know he’ll get an awful burn; he says that he’ll never pass a hitch-hiker when he has a car and you know that in the next cut that’s precisely what he’ll do; etc.), and we were all terribly bored and happy to get out.
As for “The Flim-Flam Man,” the only relevance to a college audience that could have had would be the name of George C. Scott, who is very popular right now (along with Lee Marvin – both are regarded as funny and cool). As one of the guys said after seeing the movie, it was “nice family entertainment,” and little more. It will probably do well, and I hope so, as it was, after all, fairly pleasant and occasionally funny and the director and producer seemed like nice people, etc.
Which brings me to the best part of the weekend – talking with the men responsible for the films. Fascinating, nice to see that they’re human beings (who, though fallible, can like many artists convince themselves that they’ve created something truly great), and wish the breakfast-table lunch-table discussions could have been longer.
The weekend was memorable because it was well-planned and lots of fun. I’m afraid that if you hoped all the college kid would leave with a much more sympathetic attitude toward Hollywood – or at least a different image – you are mistaken; but thank you very much anyway.
I was able to find no evidence that Fox held the further College Weekends promised, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t. But there was a schism between the “college kids” and the studio people that wasn’t to be bridged by a lunch at the Yale Club. That being said, the schism wasn’t that big – these young college students, male and white, were not that different than the people who invited them and no doubt more than one (such as Klein who, among other future jobs, was a script reader at Paramount ) joined the industry later at some level. But they were confident, as the young often is, that they were different, searching for something new and more “real” than what came before, and with the characteristic indifference of youth, Klein suggested he liked the free food, wanted more of it, but otherwise was unresponsive to the studio’s efforts. Hey, I myself like both “Two for the Road” and “the Flim-Flam Man,”– I would have written a much more enthusiastic letter. One suspects the handwritten message to Franchi found at the top of Klein’s letter suggestive of the studio’s puzzlement about the whole thing – “Rudy – noted – Is he typical”?
If Fox had trouble parsing this crowd of Yale, Harvard and Brooklyn College newspaper editors, contemplate the head-scratching and hair-pulling at the grosses of “Sweet Sweetback” only a couple years later…