TOM SHONE and Edward Jay Epstein probably love the movies.
No one would immerse himself in the topic deeply enough
to write a book about it, as each of these men has, without
having an affection for or at least a fascination with Hollywood
and its ways. So it's a bit odd that as you read their often
absorbing accounts, you can feel whatever joy you still
associate with going to the movies slowly draining away.
The ritual of moviegoing had, of course, become a somewhat
pale pleasure already, thanks to $10 tickets, impersonal
multiplexes and whatever impairment it is that allows Hollywood
to combine A-list stars with a $54 million budget and get
''Gigli.'' But Shone, in ''Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned
to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer,'' shows us that the
slicksters who market films have become so adept at manipulation
that it doesn't even matter anymore whether the movies are
any good. And Epstein, in ''The Big Picture: The New Logic
of Money and Power in Hollywood,'' suggests that, like quality,
the moviegoing audience itself is becoming irrelevant.
Shone's volume is the more entertaining, Epstein's the more
illuminating. Shone, a former film critic for The Sunday
Times of London, succumbs frequently to a gee-whiz tone
and seems especially star-struck by Steven Spielberg. Yet
the journey from ''Jaws,'' where his book begins, to ''The
Lord of the Rings,'' where it ends, is still a descent into
cynicism, for the reader if not the writer. Ah, for those
blissful days when one primitive special effect and a two-note
musical theme could set the county abuzz!
Shone traces the blockbuster mentality to ''Jaws,'' Spielberg's
1975 phenomenon, and to George Lucas's ''Star Wars'' two
years later. His description of the way the success of those
two films surprised everyone, including their relatively
unknown makers, has the nostalgic glow of another Lucas
film, ''American Graffiti.'' Spielberg tells of being floored
when he pulled into a Baskin-Robbins and realized that everyone
in line was talking about his little shark film, and then
being floored again when he arrived home and the television
news was showing a feature on ''Jaws'' mania. As for Lucas's
space epic, so untried were its production methods that
when Lucas showed a preliminary version to friends, they
thought they were looking at a catastrophic flop. ''Part
of the problem,'' Willard Huyck, a screenwriter who was
there, recalls, ''was that almost none of the effects had
been finished, and in their place George had inserted World
War II dogfight footage, so one second you're with the wookie
in the escape ship and the next you're in 'The Bridges at
Toko-Ri.' It was like, George, what is going on?''
What was going on, it turned out, was a seismic change in
the way movies are conceived, made and marketed. Having
seen nine-figure box-office returns from ''Jaws'' and ''Star
Wars,'' the big studios set out to duplicate those numbers,
in the process discovering toy and burger tie-ins, sequels,
prequels and, eventually, video (and now DVD) sales and
rentals. The calculated pursuit of the blockbuster led to
spectacular financial successes and dandy filmmaking (''Titanic,''
''Jurassic Park,'' ''Men in Black''), but it also soon squashed
the sense of excitement that had accompanied ''Jaws'' and
''Star Wars,'' films people stood in long lines and drove
long distances to see. Studios began opening their big films
on thousands of screens at once -- no chance for lines to
form or word of mouth to be a factor. No chance, in other
words, for genuine excitement, just the manufactured variety.
Shone takes a while getting through the chronology of all
this, thanks in part to an annoying tendency to lapse into
critic mode, dwelling on particular scenes from not-very-memorable
movies like ''Speed'' (1994) as if most of us saw them just
yesterday. It's also never quite clear how he's defining
''blockbuster.'' ''Alien,'' for instance, which made $40
million in the United States in 1979, receives extensive
attention, while ''Star Trek,'' which made $56 million that
same year, goes virtually unmentioned. In Shone's dictionary,
it seems, ''blockbuster'' means ''whichever big names would
give me interviews.
His book compensates for those flaws with a rich collection
of moviemaking anecdotes and effervescent phrasings like
this one from a particularly fine chapter on Robert Zemeckis's
time-traveling 1985 hit: ''If you are looking for a movie
that perfectly symbolizes the state of arrested development
that is American cinema, 'Back to the Future' is your movie:
an episode of 'Leave It to Beaver' as scripted by Feydeau,
a teen sex farce with no sex, a family comedy that contemplates
incest, and as sturdy a disquisition on man's place in the
webbings of fate as any movie with Huey Lewis on the soundtrack
has ever quite managed to be.''
1. Shone makes an assortment of points in the course of
his genial narrative, but the one that registers most starkly
comes when he reaches the 1998 remake of ''Godzilla,'' a
big-budget mess remembered primarily for a one-joke promotional
campaign the marketers drew out forever. ''If you were a
7-year-old child when you first read the slogan 'size matters,'
'' Shone writes of the big lizard's catchphrase, ''you were
8 by the time you saw the movie it advertised. If you were
a potato crop, you would have been harvested and turned
into French fries. If you were a joke, however, there was
a high likelihood that you would have worn a little thin.''
YET ''size matters'' did its job, because that's how gullible
we all are: the film, terrible by all accounts, still brought
in $375 million worldwide. ''By 1998,'' Shone writes, ''what
was in place was a system where it is perfectly possible
for a studio to buy our curiosity for the space of a single
weekend, which was all the time the studio needed to make
back its money.'' The art of filmmaking begins to sound
like nothing but the art of the carnival barker, with us
as the suckers.
But wait: perhaps that equation, glum as it is, is too simplistic.
Shone hints now and again that Hollywood's figures on production
costs and box-office receipts don't reflect a meaningful
reality, but he basically buys into them anyway; Epstein,
in ''The Big Picture,'' dismantles them. In a succinct,
startling opening chapter, he outlines the transformation
of the movie business since the end of World War II, a time
when studios didn't have to worry about getting people into
theaters because weekly moviegoing was a national habit;
now, they have to cultivate an audience for each movie individually.
''In 2003 they wound up paying more to alert potential moviegoers
and supply theaters with prints for an opening than they
were getting back from those who bought tickets,'' Epstein
says, adding bluntly, ''Even if the studios had somehow
managed to obtain all their movies for free, they would
still have lost money on their American releases.''
Epstein, whose previous books have zeroed in on targets
like the Warren Commission and television news, sets the
scene by transporting us back to Oscar night, 1948, a moment
in time when the old studio system, with its self-made titans
and starry glamour, seemed invulnerable. In fact, it was
about to topple, thanks to antitrust litigation and to an
insidious little invention called television. The story
of how the system rose again, in a profoundly different
form, takes up the first part of Epstein's book.
He details the way, one after another, the old studios were
acquired by multinational corporations, and he profiles
some of the men who were at the heart of the transformation,
like Akio Morita of Sony and Sumner Redstone of Viacom.
Their stories leave you admiring their ability either to
force innovation or to adapt to it -- Morita pushing CD
technology; Redstone ironing the kinks out of the video
rental system and making it mesh with the studios' interests.
These changes were taking place amid a swirl of acquisition,
so that today what used to be proud, self-contained studios
are relatively small parts of giant conglomerates: Viacom,
Time Warner, G.E., News Corporation, Sony and Disney.
Having sketched this framework, Epstein tries to shed light
on how movies exist inside it: where their budgets and revenue
fit in, how creative and corporate decision making mesh
(a complex subject indeed, as demonstrated by the recent
Oscars: none of the best-picture nominees even cracked the
top 20 in earnings for 2004). Many of his insider details
involve two movies, ''Gone in 60 Seconds'' (2000) and ''Terminator
3: Rise of the Machines'' (2003), but hey, in the closed
world of Hollywood accounting, one takes the leaks one can
Epstein gets us closer than most to a comprehension of the
movie world's numbers games, but he doesn't quite take the
final step of putting it all together in terms that residents
of the real world can grasp. He breaks down the $187.3 million
budget for ''Terminator 3'' into its component categories,
for example, but never tells us specifically why everything
is so darned expensive. More than half a million dollars
for makeup? That's a lot of lip gloss. And $691,000 for
''dubbing in dialogue''? Since when is there dialogue in
a Schwarzenegger movie?
Still, by the time Epstein is through it's abundantly clear
that what we think of as Hollywood is, in accounting terms,
a high-stakes hall of mirrors. The same corporations that
own the studios own the television and cable outlets where
films are rebroadcast, the theme parks that promote film
characters, the record companies that make soundtracks,
and on and on. Studios, he notes, are not so much makers
of movies as they are clearinghouses, collecting money from
a hundred enterprises associated with any given film and
then parceling it out to an army of participants and investors.
Those Monday morning box-office figures we hear every week
suddenly feel as phony and naïve as the Oscars.
One thing, though, seems beyond dispute: the studios don't
care whether any of us go to the movies or not, or whether
their movies stay in theaters for a day or a month; the
real money is elsewhere -- for instance, in home video.
''The benefits of prolonging a film's run in the theaters
are now negated by the loss that would be sustained by delaying
its video opening past the point at which it can benefit
from the movie's advertising campaign,'' Epstein writes.
''And box-office grosses, which may reflect no more than
expensive advertising campaigns, are clearly no longer the
principal concern of the studios.''
It's a disillusioning notion -- all that advertising, all
those awards shows and low-cut gowns, sustaining a fiction.
A suspicion arises when reading Epstein's somewhat dizzying
book: these corporate giants don't actually need us at all,
whether in the theaters or in the video stores or in line
at Disney World. If our ten spot for a movie ticket is irrelevant
to them, wouldn't our $15.99 for the DVD be as well? So
much paper-shuffling and shell-gaming seems to be going
on in the clearinghouses-formerly-known-as-studios that
if you showed up there with a boxful of actual cash, no
one would know what to do.
Hollywood, like the world of ''Terminator 3,'' seems on
the verge of becoming a self-perpetuating machine, no human
participation needed. The audience is obsolete. Large parts
of many films are already computer-generated, so flesh-and-blood
actors may become extinct too. Movies will be made on microchips
and marketed to microchips, while still other microchips
tally the profits. And out here in the real world we'll
go back to doing what we did before there were movies. Er,
what was that exactly, anyway?
Neil Genzlinger is a staff editor at The New York Times.