March 20, 2019

At Pepperdine, ruminations on Hollywood’s patrimony straight from its (Jewish) patriarchy

Last week, I drove out to Malibu so I could listen to a bunch of Hollywood Jews wax poetic on ethnic identity.

The Pepperdine University panel, part of a 6-week series of events honoring Hollywood’s Jewish moguls, was titled, “American Dreams and the Big Screen: Projections of Jewish Faith, Ethnicity and Culture Through the Generations,” only it was heavy on actual projection and light on ethnic posture.

Instead, the panel doubled as a tribute to fathers and sons, with panelists Bruce and David Corwin, owners of Metropolitan Theatres, producer Hawk Koch and son Robert, an entertainment attorney, as well as uber-producer Walter Mirisch and son Lawrence Mirisch, of the Mirisch Agency each reflected on Hollywood’s glittering past and then puzzled over its future.

When asked by moderator, Craig Detweiler, the director of Pepperdine’s Center for Entertainment, Media and Culture, to what degree he identified with Hollywood’s Jewish character, Mirisch spoke instead about his formative love for film.

“During a very difficult time in U.S. history and in my family’s history,” Mirisch said, referring to the Great Depression, “movies provided an unbelievable escape.” The producer of the films “Fiddler on the Roof,” “West Side Story” and “Some Like It Hot” added that “It was always my ambition to spend my life creating this extraordinary kind of entertainment. I was only trying to fulfill a boyhood ambition.”

Hawk Koch, who currently serves as prexy for the Producer’s Guild of America, and is the only second-generation president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in its history, was animated by a different need. “I never saw my father,” he told the 40-person audience of his producer father Howard W. Koch. So when his father took him to work one day, and it happened to be on a movie set, Koch Jr. was instantly gripped. Maybe it was the cowboys and Indians, he said, or maybe the fact that his father teased him with Hollywood glitz. “Guess who gave me my first horseback ride?” he prodded his young son. “Clark Gable.”

Bruce Corwin said he recalled his own father, Sherill, donating their family-owned movie theaters to synagogues who needed overflow space on the high holidays. “It was a way of saying, ‘We want to contribute to the Jewish community, we want to participate,’” Corwin said.

“Just for the record,” his equitable son David added, “we rent theatre space to any religious group who wants it.”

Rob Koch said he tried to stay away from “the family business” but all was futile under the sun. Even after attending law school, Hollywood sucked him back in. “Being a producer now, though, is different than it was,” he lamented, citing a shrinking number of studio movies, a “condensed” star system, and additional reluctance to fund anything other than tent-pole blockbuster films.

Mirisch’s son, Larry, agreed. “There was always some caution in [my father’s] encouragement,” he said of his initial plans to join the entertainment industry. But, it was too fused into his bloodstream. “I’ve been on film sets my whole life,” he said.

“I really wanted him to be an astronaut,” Mirisch pere joked.

“If pumping gas is what you want to do,” Koch said of his son’s ambitions, “do what you love.”

But even the accomplished elders know that their offspring have inherited a different world. After watching a long reel of clips that Mirisch Jr. compiled of Mirisch Sr. – including press highlights, Oscar acceptance speeches and scenes from the films, “The Pink Panther,” “The Magnificent Seven,” “In The Heat of the Night” and the original, 1968 version of “The Thomas Crown Affair” – it became all too clear to everyone in the room that Hollywood just don’t make ‘em like they used to.

“In the old days, if studios made 15 films, probably 10 films per year made absolute financial sense,” Hawk Koch said. “The other 5 was about going with their gut – and led to films like ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Chinatown.’”

But could it really be The End of the Affair?

“It’s true that deals are more difficult, more complicated,” Larry Mirisch said. “But I would suggest the problem we face has to do with the content of films.” There is a pitiful paucity of “movies about people, stories that have heart,” he added. “Today people are making movies about things, and people can’t relate. Finding projects that have some emotion in them is incredibly difficult – and the competition is tremendous.

“That’s why all the great filmmakers are moving to television – HBO and Showtime are giving them what the Mirisch Co. used to do.”

But, Hawk Koch wondered, “How do we get young people interested in those movies? Do they go to the Landmark, the Arclight, the Laemmle? Will they watch those kinds of films? Because ‘Transformers’ is not going to win best picture,” he quipped.

As Oscar season falls upon us, it is worth celebrating what this weird race for kudos and commercialism adds to American culture, filling in the gaps of what is so wantonly absent from all those summertime flops: deep, searching, complicated drama — the stuff of good storytelling, just like Jewish tradition has taught.