The Big Picture
1905, John P. Harris opened the world's first movie theater,
the Nickelodeon, in Downtown Pittsburgh across from Kaufmann's.The
plaque that commemorates this reads, "This was the
beginning of the motion picture theater industry."
For the next five years, Western Pennsylvania was a mecca
for the budding film business, where the Warner brothers
from Youngstown, Ohio, were inspired to open their first
movie theater in New Castle.
Pittsburgh also helped invent the early "film exchanges"
that began a model for movie distribution as well as spawned
early talent such as director Edwin Porter via Connellsville
("The Great Train Robbery") and producer David
O. Selznick ("Gone With The Wind").
It is fitting on this underreported 100th anniversary of
the world's first movie theater that Pittsburghers should
take note of Edward Jay Epstein's compelling new book.
It is hardly news that the movie business is no longer run
by European immigrants but is part of huge conglomerates,
or that films these days are often more about branding and
marketing than telling compelling human stories.
What Epstein does is to put a face on those corporations
and offer a detailed primer on how the movie business works
today and how that in turn affects the movies we see.
Epstein writes that "in 1947 the six major studios
earned over 95 percent of their revenue from their share
of ticket sales at North American movie houses, which came
to $1.1 billion, making movies, after grocery stores and
automotive sales, America's third-largest retail business."
He juxtaposes those figures with the entertainment industry
today, equally lucrative but now driven largely by home
entertainment -- DVDs, television and video games.
In 2002, Americans spent $24 billion in video rental stores
After paying homage to early studio moguls such as the Warner
Brothers, who fled the East Coast after Thomas Edison threatened
lawsuits about his motion-picture patents (as is too often
the case, Pittsburgh is not specifically mentioned in this
early history), Epstein insightfully profiles the personalities
who helped create a new age of Hollywood.
He tells the stories of the men behind the studios:
Walt Disney, the outsider whom Hollywood did not take seriously
until "Snow White" became the first $100 million
Lew Wasserman, a publicist for Cleveland vaudeville acts
who became the head of MCA and Universal and the most powerful
man in entertainment.
Steve Ross, who went from running funeral homes to running
the world's largest media corporation, Time Warner.
Australian Rupert Murdoch, who leveraged his newspaper empire
to buy Fox Studios and the television stations that became
the Fox Network.
Sumner Redstone, the Harvard lawyer who used his litigation
skills to take over Viacom and then Paramount.
Akio Morita, the engineer who invented the Walkman and whose
company, Sony, bought Columbia Pictures.
Epstein vividly describes how each of these men contributed
to new models that changed everything about how the business
works -- from Disney focusing on youth culture and product
licensing to Redstone buying Blockbuster Video and changing
the way the studios do business by tapping into the home
Epstein then delves into the business affairs of this sexopoly.
To the author, these six studios have gone from being "dream
factories" to "clearinghouses" because they
emphasize deal-making over film-making.
He does an admirable job trying to wind his way around the
complicated studio accounting systems to offer rare glimpses
of how the money is made and spent.
Epstein also demystifies the contemporary process of film-making
in the digital age, from the development process to distribution,
and details how "the five thousand dues-paying members
of the Screenwriters Guild of America, two thousand agents,
and thousands of directors, producers and executives"
and of course, the stars, all fit into the "new logic
of money and power," where the word "logic"
is clearly intended ironically.
Epstein argues that the system is broken, producing expensive
products (in 2003, the average studio "greenlight"
cost $130 million per film) that too often lack the great
storytelling for which Hollywood was once famous.
Having been involved in the Steeltown Entertainment Summit,
which brought back many of this city's most prominent entertainment
expatriates (www.steeltownentertainment.org), I thought
I could hear in some of them the same longing that underlies
"The Big Picture":
The system once again needs to reinvent itself, and perhaps
Pittsburgh might be involved, returning to its roots as
a media pioneer.
(A visiting professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Carl
Kurlander has worked as a Hollywood screenwriter and television
writer/producer. His e-mail is email@example.com