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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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."
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."
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."
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
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
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.
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.