A Titanic Tale
bA Titani

Weekly Standard

April 24, 2005

Hollywood Means Business

by Martha Bayles

HAVE YOU NOTICED THAT THE silver screen is looking a bit tarnished these days? I'm not being metaphorical. If you are old enough to remember gazing up at immense, brilliant screens alive with crisp, clear images, then you are probably too old to enjoy complaining about the dingy screen flickering with blurred images that is the rule in today' s multiplex--because if you do bellyache, the reply, invariably, is that SukEmIn Theaters use only state-of-the-art technology, and that maybe you need to stop by the optometrist at the other end of the mall.

Take heart. The tarnish is real, according to Edward Jay Epstein. In lucid detail he explains how theaters cut costs by employing just one projectionist to run several screens, with the frequent result that neglected machines jam, allowing the projection lamp to burn a hole in the film. "To prevent such costly mishaps," Epstein writes, "multiplexes frequently have their projectionists slightly expand the gap between the gate that supports the film and the lamp. As a result . . . films are often shown slightly out of focus." Likewise, theater owners are loath to change projection bulbs, which cost $1,000 apiece. So even the sunniest sequences look like nuclear winter.
Does anyone care? Not really, says Epstein. Theater owners are in three different businesses: showing movies; showing advertisements--previews, which must be shown as part of their contract, don't generate any revenue--and selling popcorn and soft drinks. The only business that makes a profit for them is the third, so it makes sense to cater to teenage males, who gobble the most popcorn and slurp the most soda. This demographic is reputed not to give a hoot if the picture is fuzzy and dim, as long as they can see the explosions.

As for the good people in Hollywood, they are just as happy if the rest of us stay home and watch DVDs, because that is where they make their money. If nothing else, The Big Picture will cure you of ever confusing today's entertainment industry with the old pre-World War II studio system. Back then, the neighborhood theater was where the action was, with 90 million Americans ("about two-thirds of the ambulatory population") attending every week. The tickets cost a few dimes, and the program included a newsreel, a comedy short, a serial, a cartoon, a "B feature," and "the main attraction." These offerings all came from the same six or seven big studios, who also owned the theaters. So the profit (called "box office" because all those dimes got collected in a strongbox) went straight back to Hollywood.

The press still reports on "box office" as though it were profit, but as Epstein shows, "in 2003, a relatively good year, the six studios lost money on the worldwide theatrical release of almost all their titles." This is because, first, the moviegoing audience is much smaller than it used to be: In 1957 Americans bought 4.7 billion tickets; in 2003 they bought 1.57 billion. Second, the audience for a given film must now be "created": In addition to the cost of production (which now averages about $63.8 million) and of prints for theaters ($4.2 million), the studio must spend $34.8 million for advertising. After the ritual of theatrical release, the real profits begin to flow: from foreign release (also something of a ritual), licensing to cable and satellite TV (pay dirt), video rental (dwindling), DVD sales (growing), related merchandise like soundtracks, toys, and games (double pay dirt), theme parks (requires planning ahead), and finally, sequels (nice work if you can get it).

The reader will catch the drift. The most lucrative movies are those that fire on all seven cylinders. Ordinary mortals call these "blockbusters," a term derived from the wonderful world of munitions. But the industry calls them "locomotives," because they drag a lot of dead weight behind them. Without gigantic, repeatable successes like Indiana Jones, Terminator, Die Hard, Star Wars, Star Trek, Back to the Future, Batman, Harry Potter, The Fellowship of the Ring, Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Shrek to keep them in the black, the six major studios would have run into the red 30 years ago.
1. Of course, in Hollywood, distinguishing between the red and the black is itself an art form. The industry's tortuous "logic of money and power" has been explored by a number of recent books, some by insiders like David Puttnam, others by outsiders who, like Epstein, managed to worm their way in. What one learns from these investigations is that the deepest, darkest secrets in Tinseltown have nothing to do with sex, drugs, blasphemy, or politics, and everything to do with money. Quoting David O. Selznick's famous quip that Hollywood was "built on phony accounting," Epstein shares recipe upon recipe for cooking the books--and, after comparing the sharp practices of the Walt Disney Company to those of Enron and WorldCom, delivers one of his few laugh lines: "Clearly, Mickey's handlers had been to business school."
Naturally, one is shocked, shocked, to learn all this. At a certain point, though, one wants to know why it matters.

The industry gets rich from licensing and merchandise now, instead of from theatrical release. The accountants sauté the books now, instead of broiling them. But what does this say about the movies themselves? Are they better or worse because of these changes? Or just different?
One of the biggest differences between old and new Hollywood has to do with censorship. Epstein explains how, in the old days, the Motion Picture Association of America and the Motion Picture Export Association created the Hays Office to prevent what one Paramount executive called a "race to the bottom" involving an ever-increasing investment in "salacious or controversial subjects." This self-imposed censorship was also seen as good for business because it "headed off the possibility of foreign or independent competitors distributing such fare to American theaters."

During the 1960s and '70s, the demise of the Hays Office, combined with the liberationist mood of the time, led to a no-holds-barred race to a bottom that was not only salacious and controversial, but also thoroughly spattered with fake blood. Many people believe that this race is still being run. But as Epstein notes, the huge popularity of the DVD is starting to slow its pace. Because DVDs are so cheap to produce, they are easier to sell than videotapes (which are more profitable as rentals). But with the shift toward sales, new pressures have appeared. Mega-retailers like Wal-Mart prefer to sell movies it considers family-friendly. So, quite often, movies are re-edited to meet this requirement. (This is basically what Mel Gibson just did with The Passion of the Christ.) For the same reason, mass merchandisers like McDonald's prefer to sell product tie-ins that do not frighten little children--which means more Spider Man vs. Green Goblin Dioramas and fewer Texas Chainsaw Massacre Leatherface String Light Sets.

At this juncture, questions abound. Are these new pressures good or bad for the movies? It's hard to imagine even Wal-Mart imposing the kind of rules that made the Hays Office ridiculous, such as requiring married couples to be depicted sleeping in twin beds. But does freedom always improve art? Or to put it more provocatively, does censorship always hurt it? What is the proper place of public morality in popular art? Is it different from the place of morality in elite art? What is the appropriate standard by which to judge Hollywood movies?
Epstein provides no answers to these questions, which would be okay if he made it clear from the start that they were beyond the scope of his book. But he does no such thing. On the contrary, he spends the last five chapters whipping up a veritable cloud of aesthetic, moral, and political issues that he is plainly ill-equipped to deal with.
I say ill-equipped because, while Epstein's authorial stance is carefully neutral, one bias stands out very clearly: He is not a moviegoer. To illustrate his various points he keeps citing the same four films: Terminator 3, Gone in 60 Seconds, Natural Born Killers, and The Bourne Identity. None of these is memorable--except, perhaps, Natural Born Killers, which is memorable the way root canal work is memorable--but each has left a paper trail that Epstein finds useful. This poverty of reference is not a problem as long as the topic is finance, or the steps by which a movie is pitched, developed, "green-lighted," prepped, photographed, and assembled by armies of highly specialized technicians. (After all, the book Picture, Lillian Ross's classic study of how movies were made back in 1951, was based on a single film, MGM's The Red Badge of Courage.)
But when the topic is the movies themselves, it would behoove one to know a little bit about . . . well, the movies themselves. To know, for example, that Men in Black I and II were not serious treatments of "[Steven] Spielberg's premise . . . that the government systematically lies about disturbing phenomena to avoid panicking its citizenry" but hilarious spoofs of that premise, long after it became a cliché. (My favorite line: "No, ma'am. We at the FBI do not have a sense of humor that we are aware of.") But let us return to the DVD. Epstein draws a wonderfully clear diagram of what might be called the cash-flow hydraulics of Hollywood. It is clear because he organizes this part of the book into brief, compulsively readable stories about the people, organizations, and inventions that have shaped the entertainment industry over the past half century. One story tells how Steve Ross of Time Warner and Akio Morita of Sony resolved a lawsuit over a relatively minor matter (Sony's hiring away of two Time Warner executives) in such a manner as to serve a much larger purpose, that of allowing both behemoths to pursue their interest developing the DVD. The result could not have been happier: one company selling billions of shiny little discs, and the other selling millions of sleek machines on which to play them--all without violating the antitrust law!
But like the new censorship, the new technology raises the quality question. The advent of the DVD has paralleled that of the CD. Not only has it influenced the packaging of new material, it has stimulated the re-packaging of old. We may regard with mixed feelings the prospect of buying our favorite childhood TV shows in immaculate-looking boxed sets, but that is only the tip of the marketing iceberg. The DVD is making whole libraries of movies as available and accessible as the paperback made whole libraries of books. Will this help to educate the public about the history of film, thereby developing its taste and improving quality overall? Or will it degrade taste by reducing the experience of watching a movie to something you can do any time, anywhere, on your ever-miniaturizing laptop? (Lawrence of Arabia . . . Coming soon to a video phone near you!)
Granted, it is probably too soon to assess the aesthetic impact of the DVD--not to mention the whole "digital revolution" of which the DVD is but the leading edge. But Epstein's reluctance to address the quality issue also hobbles his attempts to come to grips with the enormous change that stands at the heart of his study: the one that occurred in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the power in Hollywood shifted away from the moguls who founded the studios and toward the top stars, the top directors, and the agents who perfected that power in the new "art of the deal."

Again, Epstein tells some great stories. His potted biography of Lew Wasserman leaves no doubt as to who was the key player in this transfer of power. And he re-roasts some fine old chestnuts about the sore oppression of talented people under the moguls. For instance, he recalls the famous 1939 court case that forced Bette Davis to knuckle under to Jack and Harry Warner, as well as the 1944 case that struck down an extension clause in Olivia de Havilland's contract on the grounds that it amounted to "involuntary servitude."

Given how Epstein narrates this sea change, the reader might expect him to conclude that movies are the better for it. Borrowing from Neal Gabler's classic An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, he portrays the studio heads as concerned less with art than with avoiding controversy, keeping the business afloat, and (a distant third) winning social acceptance from the still anti-Semitic American mainstream. Summarizing these pressures, he writes that they "reduced entertainment to a product based not on aesthetics but on the abacus of cost efficiency."

So the product is now based on aesthetics because, instead of Adolph Zukor, Carl Laemmle, William Fox, the brothers Warner, Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, and Darryl Zanuck, the people in charge are now Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Martin Scorsese, Robert DeNiro, and Tom Cruise? It is important to ask this question in a neutral tone that does not elevate one list of names over the other, because it is a real question, and the answer is far from obvious. Indeed, it may be that aesthetic considerations have weighed the same in both eras--which is to say, not as much as we might like, but not nothing, either. As Epstein describes the actual work of making movies, his peculiar avoidance of aesthetic questions grows even more peculiar.

Consider the section called "The Value of Pseudoacting." Here Epstein revives the hoary cliché that film acting is child's play compared with the serious business of performing on stage. The example he gives is of Patrick Stewart, who plays Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the Star Trek movies. With a faint but unmistakable air of condescension, Epstein informs us that "Stewart, his Hollywood success notwithstanding, described himself as first and foremost a stage actor." Epstein then regales us with what we already know--namely, that film acting involves endless retakes of scenes that are never done in sequence, often with stand-ins and other illusion-destroying artifices--with the clear intention of showing how pathetic it is for a Hollywood actor like Stewart to "portray their acting as a form of spontaneous art."

Unfortunately, this dismissal of Stewart's acting, and of film acting in general, is not helped by Epstein's evident ignorance of Stewart's career, which began in the fabled repertory theaters of Lincoln and Manchester, followed by a world tour with the Old Vic Company, a 27-year association with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and a sojourn at the Royal National Theater before joining the cast of the new Star Trek TV series in the mid-1980s. Movie acting is for Patrick Stewart what golf is to the folks in Sun City. But that doesn't mean there's no skill involved.
Speaking of the theater, it might be worth taking a moment to consider how Epstein's mode of analysis would illuminate that realm. The theater industry, if you'll pardon the expression, is a lot older than the movie industry. But think of all the regime changes it has gone through. In ancient Greece, it was part of a religious festival sponsored by aristocratic citizens who competed fiercely for performance spots and prizes. In Rome, it was the plaything of plutocrats, who cared more about the lavish special effects than about the drama (sound familiar?). In ninth-century Europe, plays were performed in church by priests. In Renaissance Italy, there was the elegant proscenium of Aleotti and the funky commedia dell'arte of the streets. In Elizabethan England, the Globe Theater was run as a profit-making venture by entrepreneurial actors and other investors. The French bourgeoisie plunked down good francs to see realistic drama. And in spite of themselves, the Communists gave the world Bertolt Brecht and the post-Revolution Moscow Art Theater. What is the point? To quote one of those entrepreneurial actors, "The play's the thing." Under all of these regimes, the theater has been dominated by a lot of junk. (Even the Globe Theater featured bear-baiting on off nights.) But in most eras, the junk has been punctuated by a few great works, which is why we bother to pay attention at all.

It's the same with movies. The studio system produced some beautiful movies, often against steep odds. It also produced some colossal duds, under ideal conditions. And so does the present regime. Regardless of which variable you pick--censorship, technology, changing modes and manners of work, shifting calculations of audience taste--they all coexist with the creation of both good and bad work. One simply cannot judge on these external bases.
In the end, Epstein takes refuge in politics, which, when it comes to the arts, is definitely the refuge of scoundrels. On the left, the cliché is that the 30-year reign of the blockbuster is living proof that Marx and Gramsci were right: Movies are not works of art (or even craft) but excrescences produced by multinational capitalism to reinforce its hegemonic constructed consciousness.
Ask a professor of film studies what Hollywood stands for these days, and you'll be lectured at length about how the movies have retreated from the political engagement of the late 1960s and '70s into reactionary fantasies of American power and glory, albeit transposed into unrealistic settings. This is pretty tiresome, but so is the cliché, still being recycled on the right, that movies are nothing but a 1960s-style culture war being waged by all those left-liberals in Hollywood. Ask a talk radio pundit what Hollywood stands for these days, and you'll be harangued about scurrilous attacks on every established institution in America, from religion to business, the military, and (maybe) the government. This argument was set forth most memorably by Ben Stein in the late 1970s, and it still makes enough intuitive sense for Epstein to adopt it as the frame of his "big picture." Unfortunately, the frame no longer fits.
I hate to sound like a professor of film studies, but among other things, this particular critique fails to tell us anything about the blockbuster phenomenon. Nor does it do much to explain the current rift in Hollywood, between high-minded left-liberals who still struggle to enlighten the public with politically tendentious movies, and low-minded apolitical types who get rich making movies as stupid as they are ethically challenged. It is especially ironic to read Epstein's poker-faced account of how the villains in Hollywood movies are always "murderous, duplicitous, cynical businessmen" and "greedy executives of multinational corporations."
Here again, he is echoing Ben Stein. But a better source might be his own book, which devotes 300 pages to describing the not murderous, (usually) but definitely duplicitous, cynical, and greedy multinational corporations to whom he gives the ominous-sounding title, "the sexopoly." Can't you just imagine the trailer? An honest scholar . . . seeking the truth. . . . But when you mess with the Sexopoly, watch out. . . . Before you know it, you're playing a deadly game of hide-and-seek, desperately trying to save your own thesis. . . . Licensed action figures on sale at Borders bookstores everywhere.
Other Reviews

The webmistress can be reached at