A Titanic Tale
bA Titani

Sun Sentinel

May 15, 2005

Star Power

by Lane Kelley

F. 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 theaters."

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."

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