A Titanic Tale
bA Titani

Baltimore Sun

March 20, 2005

Following The Money In A Hollywood Corporate Age

by Paul Moore

Each week, most newspapers publish the movie industry's Top 10 weekly box office grosses. To the press and to most consumers, this chart is the barometer of financial success for films.

But as well-respected journalist Edward Jay Epstein writes in his meticulously reported new book, The Big Picture, the size of those box office receipts has little to do in defining success in today's Hollywood. The major studios receive about five times as much revenue from home entertainment as from theaters. This "new logic" has altered the way movies are developed, produced, marketed and distributed.

Epstein traces the decline of the old studio system, which for decades maintained control over actors through multi-year contracts and controlled distribution and exhibition through their movie theater ownership. The new conglomerates - Time Warner, Viacom, Fox, Sony, NBC Universal and Disney - exist to collect revenue from a variety of sources derived from the control of intellectual property.

Walt Disney, who operated outside the studio system, was the first to appreciate the commercial possibilities of movies beyond mere ticket sales. In the 1930's, he began licensing the Mickey Mouse image to other industries, making him a pioneer in the sort of branding that is pervasive today.

The Big Picture examines the powerful dynamic among stars, agents, writers, directors and the connections that all of them have with the current studios, which Epstein refers to as "clearinghouses." Great sums of money flow through these corporations in a dizzying array of licensing deals and complex arrangements.

Epstein cites the 2003 action movie Terminator 3: Rage of the Machines, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, as a model of how the new system works. With its huge budget, multi-faceted production, star veto-power, global marketing plan and massive home-entertainment distribution, Terminator 3 is a textbook example of how today's Hollywood works. Whether it is a good movie is beside the point.
Much of the book is a step-by-step look at the process of how movies are made. Epstein examines development (and "development hell"), writing and rewriting, principal photography, music scoring, editing, advertising and distribution. These painstakingly-reported sections are occasionally tedious but essential for the reader to get the "the big picture."

Epstein is not a critic agonizing over the absence of artistic integrity in the movie industry today. He notes that movie executives still covet Oscars and Golden Globes, media recognition and artistic bragging rights, which explains why the big studios have specialty film units designed to produce the less commercial, more sophisticated movies that may receive critical acclaim.

Epstein believes the growth of digital technology and the power of the global youth market will further blur the distinctions between theatrical releases and the new digital delivery systems - video on-demand feeds, interactive cable boxes, Internet modems and DVD players.
"To be sure there still may be movies made for grown-up audiences to see in theaters," he writes, "but they will play an increasingly small part in the big picture."

After reading this book, I'm afraid Epstein is probably right.

Paul Moore is The Sun's public editor. A movie enthusiast, he has reviewed a number of books about films for The Sun.

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