A Titanic Tale
bA Titani


April 3, 2005

The Big Picture

by Joel Hirschhorn

In 1947, 4.7 billion movie tickets were sold. By 2003, the number was only 1.57 billion. Edward Jay Epstein ("News From Nowhere: Television and the News") offers an informed, scholarly explanation of why, despite doubling of population over 58 years, there were 3.1 billion fewer moviegoers. Through meticulous use of charts and statistics, he traces Hollywood from a provincial turf under the iron influence of enterprising, uneducated immigrants to a vast entertainment economy dominated by six corporate giants -- Viacom, Time Warner, NBC, Universal, Sony, Fox and Disney. Much of the material will be familiar to insiders, but this broad, ambitious canvas should prove a valuable education for those seeking to enter and understand the entertainment industry.

Moving from early 1900s to the present, "The Big Picture" analyzes creation of the studio system, shaping of star image, budgets, development hell, creative and cost-oriented particulars of advertising, the DVD revolution and the power of celluloid politics.

Epstein launches his chronicle with a detailed look at the days when Warner Bros., Columbia, 20th Century Fox, RKO, Paramount and Universal controlled nearly all movie houses until ordered by the Justice Dept. to end their block-booking and divest either their distribution arms or their theaters. Television and the House Un-American Activities Committee's actions also terminally weakened the studio system.

The book is factually impressive but initially dry and bloodless. It springs to life when concentrating on the personalities that conceived and reshaped Hollywood. Adolph Zukor is a fascinating success story, a furrier who invested in amusement arcades featuring a new invention by Thomas Edison -- the hand-cranked machine that created an illusion of motion by rapidly repeating still pictures.

Lew Wasserman, deviser of packages that tied stars, directors, producers and writers together, is forcefully portrayed. Steve Ross emerges as a pioneering visionary who sought to own more than simply content (films, music rights, TV programs, books) -- his goal was to own the means to deliver entertainment to homes, focusing on cable and paving the way for the WBthe WB's partnership with American Express.

Other intriguing, larger-than-life figures are Rupert Murdoch, who has defined his life as "a series of "interlocking wars"; Walt Disney, the maverick who recognized the importance of TV while the majors were boycotting it; and Sumner Redstone, whose philosophy is, "Success isn't built on success -- it's built on failure, frustration and catastrophe."
Epstein's knowledgeable analysis of outside film investment is one of the book's more interesting aspects, a growing tendency that drew strong attention when Redstone instituted a "risk-averse" financing strategy that required all of Paramount's pictures to receive at least 25% of their financing from outside sources. Discussing questionable bookkeeping practices, Epstein quotes David Mamet's cynical showbiz play "Speed-the-Plow" -- "There is no net."
New writers and directors may cringe a bit, and rightly wonder how any film gets made when Epstein targets development hell, citing the numerous scribes who toiled for 10 years on the "Superman" script without gaining a green light. He also points out how many individuals and divisions each movie must satisfy, including equity partners, co-financiers, merchandisers, video chain stores, foreign TV outlets and toy licensees.

Epstein highlights how far we've come, for better or worse, with a frustratingly truthful scenario, quoting a Sony marketing exec who defines the public in categories: over 25 years old, male or female, white or nonwhite, then further fractionalizes these groups so that the exec can accurately state, "if we release 28 films, we need to create 28 different audiences."

One of the book's most illuminating observations about modern promotion is the idea that a picture's merit is a secondary factor in its success. Richard Cook, Disney studio chairman, explained the poor box office for "Treasure Planet""Treasure Planet" on Thanksgiving weekend 2002 thus: "We did not make it look appealing enough."
In the Hollywood of the '30s and '40s, movies were targeted primarily for adults, until Disney came along and set the stage for a youth market. Chapter "The Midas Formula" demonstrates that billion-dollar-earning movies from 1999 to 2004 were based on children's stories, comicbooks, serials, cartoons and theme park rides. Redstone refers to it as "fantasy gratification," and it's a sharp reminder that the days of Louis B. Mayer are long gone when Epstein invokes his book's title with an overall thesis: "There may still be movies made for grownup audiences to see in theaters, but they will play an ever-smaller part in the big picture."

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