A Titanic Tale
bA Titani

New York Times Review

March 20, 2005

Hollywood Confidential

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 get.
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.

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