Scott Fitzgerald said in his last novel, a tale of Hollywood,
that "not a half-dozen men have been able to keep the
whole equation of pictures in their heads," and Fitzgerald's
estimate has held up pretty well over time.
In 1939, a year before Fitzgerald made the claim, movie
director Frank Capra wrote that six producers were responsible
for 90 percent of all movies being made. Now comes Edward
Jay Epstein a half-century later, basing his new book, The
Big Picture, on how a Big Six still dominates the film industry,
only now it's not men but corporations -- Disney, Sony,
Time Warner, News Corp., Viacom and NBC Universal.
What's changed since Fitzgerald's day is that movies have
gone from being an entertaining way to make a lot of money
for movie moguls to being a way to make tons of money for
actors and directors. Actor Tom Hanks, for example, got
an upfront fee of $29.5 million for Saving Private Ryan,
and then he collected 16.5 percent of every dollar the film
earned at the box office, which was another $30 million.
Director Steven Spielberg cut the same percentage deal.
"In this new era," Epstein writes, "stars,
not studios, reap the profit their brand names bring to
a film ... studios in the new system no longer expect to
earn their profits from showing their products in movie
Movies now are mostly loss leaders for the studios. Giant
conglomerates "routinely" lose money from the
deals they cut with the talent, says Epstein, but they have
to make the movie so they can sell the broadcasting rights
to television networks and then turn it into a DVD and maybe
a toy tie-in with a hamburger chain.
The men who engineered this shift all capitalized on something
else besides movie-making. Walt Disney was the genius of
the bunch, developing a Pied Piper strategy that used animated
films to lure kids-- and their parents with billfolds --
into theaters, then into the toy store (or the Disney Store)
with merchandise tied to the movie. Disney's strategy rules
the business to this day, with movie executives now dreaming
of joining "the billion-dollar club."
The industry now depends on blockbusters, but it wasn't
that way during the glory years of the studio system, when
movie moguls kept a lid on costs by having contract players
such as Clark Gable and Bette Davis. Then, in 1950, Jimmy
Stewart's agent, Lew Wasserman, pulled off a landmark percentage
deal for the actor in the movie Winchester 73. Instead of
getting his usual $50,000 fee, Stewart got half the profits
of the movie thanks to Wasserman, and after that the sky
was the limit for movie stars. Epstein: "The average
earnings per film for the Top 10 stars of 2003 was roughly
30 times what the equivalent stars had earned in 1948 under
the studio system (even after correcting for inflation)."
Stewart's deal sank a big ax into the studio system, the
same way that Curt Flood's landmark court case against Major
League Baseball in the 1970s paved the way for huge player
contracts. Epstein writes that while there may be similarities
between the old and new regimes -- the movie studios are
still based in Hollywood, with backlots and soundstages
-- the new order really did not evolve out of the old studio
system. "Like the alien pods in its sci-fi movies,
it appeared with surprising suddenness and replaced it."
The main problem with this book is Epstein's overall strategy
of avoiding the usual La-La Land gossipfest of entertainment
writers. He succeeds at it too well in the first half of
the book, with a teasing scene of Oscar night 2004 in the
opening pages and then shifting to profiles of the creators
of Hollywood's new reigning order -- Disney, Wasserman,
David Sarnoff, Rupert Murdoch, Akio Morita and Sumner Redstone
-- that suffers from long stretches of dry exposition.
But Epstein's detachment serves him well when it comes to
making judgments about today's movies. I kept waiting for
him to quote Warren Beatty in Bulworth, wondering in a roomful
of Beverly Hills bigwigs why it is that mega-million budgets
produce such bad movies. "It must be the money that
turns everything to crap," Beatty's Bulworth says.
Epstein never makes such a bald statement, but he piles
on the facts and anecdotes so much that it hums between
the lines. The corporate mindset hooked on kid-movie blockbusters
now uses the same technology for non-kid movies. Epics such
as Gladiator are now back in style, due to the relative
cheapness of computer-generated animation for crowd and
battle scenes. The problem for movie-makers is knowing when
to stop with the animation. Epstein tells us that in Gladiator,
the filmmakers grafted Russell Crowe's head onto a stuntman's
body so that it really looked like Crowe was fighting in
a battle scene when he really wasn't. Epstein says the day
is coming, and soon, when the "filmless film"
is produced totally on a computer.
"At that point," Epstein writes, "the distinction
between movies and cartoons will be largely eliminated."