Billy Wilder directed some of the greatest films of midcentury, including Double Indemnity, Some Like it Hot, and my personal favourite Wilder film, The Apartment. But Wilder was pretty sceptical of emerging tech, as we can see from this 1986 acceptance speech at the American Film Institute.
The opening of his speech actually sounds like he’s about to come out in support of new technological advances in Hollywood:
I’ve been here for over 50 years — that’s more than half a century — and all through those years I’ve watched Tinseltown vacillate between despair and fear. First it’s going to be the sound that will kill us, then it was going to be television, then cable, then pornography, then cassettes, and now that terrifying new word: microchip.
But somehow, Wilder makes a strange turn, interpreting predictions about the future of the movie business as somehow neglecting the people who make the movies. Which, in fairness, is still very much a concern for media creators today.
They tell me that these guys working in the Silicon Valley, they really believe that pretty soon we will not need theatres anymore, nor studios for that matter. We will have (or they will have) invented tiny little screens which you can attach to your steering wheel, or big 20-foot screens on the ceiling of your bedroom. And then someday somebody is going to press a button and send this signal to a satellite which in turn will light up 5 million screens all the way from Albania to Zanzibar. Fantastic, isn’t it? All the hardware is there, beautifully programmed, bravo. Except for one little detail… what about the software? What are they going to do on all those screens? Who is going to write it? Who is going to direct it? Who is going to act it?
For all I know, these wise guys are trying right now to supplant the human factor. Microchips that will replace the human brain, and the human heart. Mechanical gadgets that can simulate emotions — dreams, laughter, tears — well, so far they have not succeeded. Not yet anyway. So relax, fellow picture makers, we are not expendable. The fact is, the bigger they get, the more irreplaceable we become. For theirs may be the kingdom, but ours is the power of the glory.
In the end, Wilder seems to come down on the side of believing that many aspects of the old studio system will survive. And Wilder was right in a lot of ways. The rise of YouTube and amateur-made video hasn’t completely upended the movie industry.
Hollywood’s secret that’s hiding in plain sight? Mainstream movies are still an immensely profitable business. Despite last year being much weaker than average for ticket sales, the last decade has seen pretty consistent profits for the major studios.
Wilder’s outlook for Hollywood isn’t all that different from Roger Ebert’s in 1987. The big difference seems to be that Ebert was more welcoming of what technology might do for the movie business.