Good: Fascinatingly describes the evolution of the
modern marketing- and brand-driven global media giants.
The Bad: Some of Hollywood's thorniest problems
get scant discussion.
The Bottom Line: A rich adventure that will change
the way you look at movies.
In 1937, Walt Disney Co. made history with the release of
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs . The first full-length
animated film produced in the U.S., it was derided by many
movie moguls as folly, since Disney had expended vast resources
on a film catering largely to children. But time would demonstrate
Disney's sagacity, which extended far beyond the question
of audience. For Snow White was also the first
movie to have tie-in merchandise and its own soundtrack
album. In short, the movie was just one part of the enterprise.
The model first divined by Walt Disney 70 years ago is what
now defines the entertainment business. Today's Hollywood
is built around ancillaries, from video-game spin-offs to
boxed DVD sets and theme songs offered as cell-phone ring
tones. The evolution of the modern marketing- and brand-driven
global media giants is meticulously documented by Edward
Jay Epstein in The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money
and Power in Hollywood .
Epstein captures the sweep of an industry over the past
half-century by using a variety of devices, from historical
profiles to anecdotes to financial tables on the players.
In illustrating the industry's changes, he provides an enlightening
tour of what he calls the "sexopoly" -- Viacom , Fox , NBC
Universal, Time Warner, Sony, and Disney. The Big Picture
lacks the magnetic narrative of other great Hollywood
business books, such as David McClintick's Indecent
Exposure . And in a volume that's rich on analysis
of Tinseltown's bottom line, one might want a bit more on
the thorniest issue facing studios now, digital piracy.
Still, Epstein's taut chapters are absorbing.
The author is no novice in chronicling business. His 12
earlier books include Dossier: The Secret History of
Armand Hammer and The Rise and Fall of Diamonds:
The Shattering of a Brilliant Illusion . In The
Big Picture , Epstein explains why so many studios
-- seemingly aping Disney -- are channeling their resources
into big, special-effects-driven fantasies with licensable
characters and targeted at juvenile audiences. The Hollywood
executives of the 1990s, Epstein writes, had good intentions,
wanting "to help produce movies that would measure up to
the ones they and those around them had admired -- such
as classic films directed by Frank Capra, Howard Hawks,
John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock." Even now, many seek to
maintain some level of prestige through smaller, much less
profitable films that are developed by studios' independent
arms. However, Epstein points out, the average cost of making
these indie films has risen drastically, to $61.6 million
apiece in 2003, adding to studio losses and giving executives
pause. In the end, it's the kid flicks that win.
The costs and logistics of modern moviemaking provide Epstein
with some of his richest material. For example, actor Russell
Crowe's face was scanned into a computer and then digitally
placed on the faces of several of the 79 stuntmen used in
the movie Gladiator . It took eight months of expensive
computer wizardry to make it appear to be Crowe in all the
scenes. But under the terms of special insurance that banks
and outside financiers demand to cover a film's "essential
elements," stars are mostly not allowed to do their own
stunts, lest an injury delay production. Indeed, insurers
may shy away from some actors: After Nicole Kidman sustained
a knee injury in 2000, the producers of Cold Mountain
had trouble getting coverage for her. They succeeded
only after she agreed to put $1 million of her own salary
into an escrow account that would be forfeited if she failed
to maintain the production schedule.
The author also digs deep into Hollywood financial schemes.
For instance, Arnold Schwarzenegger "lent" his services
to Terminator 3 . His pay of $29.25 million went
instead to the actor's company, Oak Productions Inc., a
maneuver that allowed Arnold to avoid certain tax liabilities.
The Big Picture takes the reader beyond the balance
sheet with chapters on Hollywood's political and social
influence. In one anecdote, Epstein recounts how, during
the late 1990s, the White House Office of National Drug
Policy Control worried that movies were having a harmful
effect on public attitudes. So, the agency paid studios
to insert antidrug themes into film scripts -- then reviewed
them to make sure the message was coming through.
Such tidbits make Epstein's failures all the more striking.
He notes that technology is transforming the way movies
get delivered, but he never reflects on the dark side of
tech -- the possibility of a sequel to the disaster that
gutted music sales. Intellectual-property theft is clearly
a front-burner issue for every studio: According to some
industry estimates, as many as 600,000 copies of films are
being downloaded illegally every day.
For anybody who is a film buff, The Big Picture
will be a fine adventure. But once you learn what goes on
behind the scenes, you may never again look at a movie the