We've Got Hollywood Covered

How Woodstock Saved Hollywood


Everyone "knows" that the space program yielded Tang — not true — and the personal computer — true. (One could argue the Internet as well, but that’s another story.)
Few people imagine, however, that without the Woodstock Festival — which happened a mere three weeks after man landed on the moon (and was widely celebrated last weekend) — we wouldn’t have "Batman" (both Tim Burton’s version and the newer "Dark Knight"), "Superman" HBO and "The Sopranos" and "Entourage," Time-Warner Cable (maybe the less said about that, the better!), AOL, People, Entertainment Weekly, all those Superbowl DVDs Sports Illustrated is always giving away, the CW (again, maybe the less said, the better) and, heck, just for the kids, the entire videogame industry as well as, well, Chuck’E’Cheese.
And I’m not kidding. In fact, Woodstock saved Hollywood as we know it.
In a piece for the recent book "Woodstock Revisited," I was asked to revisit my experience there–and, well, you know what they say about the ’60s…but I was just a kid and therefore have an excuse for not remembering it very well.
On the other hand, years later, as a correspondent for Newsweek, I got to meet one of the key players behind Woodstock — and learned what happened after.
The late, lamented Steve Ross was, in 1969, a funeral-home manager who had parlayed his family’s investments in the death business into a lucrative firm renting out the limos required for stately funerals during the week to celebs. And then he had smartly decided that since limos needed places to park while waiting for their celeb clients, he got into the parking lot business.
Hence Kinney National, his holding company.
But Ross, like Donald Trump a generation later, was from the outer boroughs and had grander dreams that funerals, limos and parking lots.
So he leveraged his investments to buy a near-bankrupt movie-and-recording operation called Warner Bros.-Seven Arts. He bought it not for the venerable Warner Bros. studio, whose glory days had been decades before, but rather for Seven Arts, its recording operations (begun by Frank Sinatra and friends).
Looking around New York at the time, Ross noticed that while kids weren’t going to see movies anymore — who could blame them: In fact, all of Hollywood was in trouble — Paramount was nearly out of business and trying to sell its studio, Universal, with a failing movie business, was trying to follow Disney into the theme-park business, Fox was selling off it’s backlot to become Century City, etc.
Worse, among 1968’s big offerings was "Paint Your Wagon" (with, get this, Clint Eastwood singing). But the kids, Ross noticed, didn’t care — they were listening to rock n’ roll.
So he bought Warner-Seven Arts with the idea of closing the movie studio and concentrating on the music labels. Against his better judgement, he let a friend, Ted Ashley, a top agent, convince him to keep the studio alive for another year and let Ashley — who, like every agent up to and including “Ari Gold,” yearned to get into production — run it.
Then came Woodstock. The promoters were running out of money and, a week or so before the Fest, approached Warners with the idea of making a movie. For $50,000, Ashley purchased all movie and soundtrack rights, went out and hired every kid from the NYU and Columbia film schools who could work a camera and/or edit the thousands of feet of film generated — including a young Marty Scorcese — and voila! produced the biggest movie of the next year, "Woodstock."
Which by some accounts has (with its recent DVD rerelease) grossed more than $500 million over the years making it, by a return on investment basis (ROI for Wall Street financiers), the most profitable movie in history.
And, in the process, saved Warner Bros. Pictures and showed Steve Ross the value of cross marketing and merchandising — which led him to buy HBO to show Warner movies and then acquire what at one time was the world’s largest cable network to show HBO; acquire Atari so Warner movies could be made into video games; and start Chuck’E’Cheese, where kids could play Atari games while chowing down on pizza, etc., thus creating the largest media conglomerate in the modern world.
The other studios quickly followed Ross’ lead — Universal Pictures now owns NBC and the Spanish-language Univision, to make sure it has an outlet for its shows (the way Paramount once owned CBS and Showtime, until it ran into money problems), Disney bought ABC and ESPN (the most profitable franchise in entertainment history) and so forth.
And none of it would have existed without Woodstock.
Hail, hail rock ‘n’ roll!!!!


Peter McAlevey is a motion-picture producer and former correspondent for Newsweek. His latest movie is "Kill Her, Not Me