The Big Picture
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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."
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