Hollywood missing out on stories of the times

Where is Michael Douglas when you need him? Our domestic economy is in tatters, the stock market is roiling, financial icons are imploding — there is blood in the streets of downtown Manhattan, as it were, and a hundred Gordon Gekkos could get their comeuppance. And yet, it's flabbergasting that so few moviemakers seem disposed to mine such a fertile field for stories. (However, I am waiting for the TV movie project announcement on Alexandra Dupre at any moment.)

Sex is sexy, but so are money and power, and we're seeing a lot more of it in real-life New York right now than we are in the movies.

Wouldn't it have been fascinating to be in (or to reimagine) the Bear Stearns boardroom when word came down that the venerable institution, whose stock had traded as high as $170, was being bailed out for a paltry $2 a share? And to make things even more irksome, to be gobbled up by longtime rival JPMorgan?

We are living in a gilded age that is fast losing its luster, and I bet there are paying audiences who would relish somebody's astute critique of this fascinating chapter. No doubt the History Channel will get to it at some point, but where are the mainstream entertainers?

This is something of a rhetorical question as there just aren't as many movie producers willing to take a chance on or put together the talent for thoughtful, dare I say literate, mainstream movies anymore. I'm not talking about setting all such movies in the business world, but rather using a relevant setting to talk about contemporary issues, characters and relationships.

A lot has happened in Hollywood since Gekko spat out one-liners like "Tell me something I don't know" or "Lunch is for wimps" as well as the quip that became the unofficial adage of the '80s: "Greed is good." Who even writes like that anymore? Or options books that aren't graphic novels or dark thrillers? The Oliver Stone-directed and co-scripted "Wall Street" was not a blockbuster in 1987, but folks made money off it. And there was a sizable grown-up audience accustomed to going to see such fare.

No longer.

While they all insist that "great storytelling" is the thing they're after, the conglomerates are under constant pressure to reduce their financial risks, leverage their assets, pump up the volume, dumb down or homogenize their movies for the global marketplace. Literate middlebrow fare seems the last thing that anyone admits to wanting to make.

Tentpole-obsessed as they are, studios largely have lost their appetite for the middle-budget range (unless they're making a gross-out comedy). And given the long lead times for making topical films, they leave it to the small screen to rip stories straight from the headlines. Or to George Clooney. Or to Ed Pressman, who is developing a "Wall Street"-inspired follow-up tentatively titled "Money Never Sleeps." (Unclear is the pecking order among the producers' half-dozen current projects.)

At the recent ShoWest film exhibitor event in Las Vegas, the Hollywood studio slates looked slick, full as they were with ambitious animated fare, experiments in 3-D and big-budget prequel, sequel, remake, established or potential franchise fare. For their part, the specialty labels at these studios are — quite successfully of late — mining arty, Oscar-aimed esoteric fare.

Then there are the myriad little guys who struggle to put together genre fare, and go in and out of business at a dizzying rate. Right now The Hollywood Reporter is tracking some 250 movies in production in its charts, though most are either very big studio projects or very tiny indie films.

Someone needs to find a way to bring back the movie middle and make it entertainingly meaningful.