Moreover, the new thinking redirected film-school hopefuls into becoming bottom-line-oriented executives, he continues. "If movies were now seen as packages, then the new kings of the business would be marketers, who could make the wrapping on that package look spectacular even if the contents were deficient," Harris writes.
More room for creativity
In the quarter century since, studios have anted up bigger and bigger budgets in hopes of bigger and bigger paydays. And because the familiar is the easiest concept to sell, the budgets are generally assigned to sequels, reboots, TV show adaptations and comic books. With notable exceptions -- "The Silence of the Lambs," Quentin Tarantino's genre hopping, the occasional Clint Eastwood surprise -- it's the blockbusters that end up overwhelming the year-end box-office lists.
This year's list also features blockbusters, of course. But with "Magic Mike," "Lincoln," "Argo" and "Flight" topping or approaching that key $100 million metric, there are signs that mainstream, major-studio dramas are making a comeback.
The studios aren't taking the game for granted: They're targeting awards voters (and, not incidentally, audiences) with promotional "For Your Consideration" ads. If a major-studio film wins best picture, it will be the first to do so since 2006's "The Departed."
All this may also be an indication of the benefits of pop culture broadening, with more outlets offering more space for more creativity. As Steven Johnson pointed out in his 2005 book "Everything Bad Is Good for You," we're living in an age in which pop culture has grown richer and more complex, best expressed by the detailed storytelling in TV series such as "The Sopranos" and "Lost" that has attracted both big audiences and critical praise.
That hasn't been lost on filmmakers, says Michelle Satter, founding director of the Sundance Institute's Feature Film Program, a leading training ground for the entertainment industry. They have more options for getting their visions out there, whether it's TV, indie film, documentaries, the Internet -- or mainstream studio pictures.
"There's a blurring of the lines (among media) where filmmakers can tell their stories," she says. "The means of production are readily available."
Sundance has provided support to several filmmakers currently making waves, including "Dark Knight Rises" director Christopher Nolan, "The Master" maestro Paul Thomas Anderson, and Tarantino. They're the kinds of directors who know their crafts -- and their film history.
Another bright spot in mainstream filmmaking is the prowess that directors, writers and actors have brought to big-budget escapist entertainment. Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy was widely successful on many levels. "The Avengers" was already going to do well, but thanks to some clever touches by writer-director Joss Whedon (who co-wrote "Toy Story" and created "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") the film earned a sparkling 92% rating from critics on the review aggregator Rottentomatoes.com. The new James Bond film "Skyfall" has the usual incredible action sequences, but also some genuine grit; it's been ranked highly by reviewers and may become the most successful Bond film ever at the box office.
Avoiding bad social buzz
Meanwhile, some anticipated 2012 blockbusters -- the kind of easy sell Hollywood banks on -- went bust: "Battleship," the remake of "Total Recall," the Adam Sandler vehicle "That's My Boy." That highlights the role of the ultimate critic, the audience, says Thompson of "Thompson on Hollywood."
"With social media, you cannot just assume that a movie can be stupid and bad and just go out," she says. "(The studios) have to make them better -- they have no choice. They could get away with it before. They can't do that anymore." If a film is to have "legs" -- a long theatrical run -- it has to succeed beyond the first weekend, and that means getting the audience on your side so viewers don't post pans on Twitter and Facebook after Friday night's opening.
Some films have even been the victims of early critiques. Already, studios have rescheduled such big-budget tentpoles as "World War Z" and a "G.I. Joe" sequel, in the hopes that retooling will make them more palatable, says Thompson.
Now, along with "Nobody knows anything," the other Hollywood truth is the one from Ecclesiastes: There's nothing new under the sun. (Or, as Warner Bros. founder Jack Warner reportedly put it, "Great movies aren't made. They're remade.") This season's films have roots in a long-running musical based on a classic novel ("Les Miserables"), a major best-selling book ("Life of Pi"), ripped-from-the-headlines topicality ("Zero Dark Thirty"), and stories about one of the most renowned leaders in American history ("Lincoln"). "Les Miz" also has the box-office punch of big stars in Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway.
In other words, one can argue that these films are as presold as any branded comic-book movie.
But then again, stars don't open movies the way they used to, as Julia Roberts ("Mirror Mirror") could tell you. And even the most heavily marketed, notably anticipated films can fail. "John Carter," anyone?
So whether the current mix of mainstream success and critical praise is a momentary blip or a rising trend, it's something to be celebrated by mainstream moviegoers. Motion pictures, for better or worse, remain at the top of the pop culture food chain. They're expensive and often disposable, so when they're executed well -- when they actually succeed in moving us -- fans should hope that there's room for more.
"It's a great and exciting moment for filmmaking and creativity," says Sundance's Satter. "And the audience wants to be a part of it."