Gross Points

Three smart new books analyze movie giganticism. Bigger may not be better so far as viewers—and readers—are concerned, but it's definitely the future.

Once upon a time, to say something was "Mickey Mouse" was a put-down. Simple, stupid kid stuff, not sophisticated enough for adults—you know the derivation. Once upon a time, too, movies were made for adults, and it was Walt Disney's—and later Michael Eisner's—great success to realize that his independent studio, not then one of the Hollywood majors, could tap into a much bigger market with toys, TV, and filmed entertainment not intended for grown-ups. Eventually the other studios followed suit, which is why the Harry Potter and Spider-Man franchises are the Gone With the Winds of our day. Edward J. Epstein makes that and several other excellent points in The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood (Random House, $25.95), which is more a sober business book than a CEOs-gone-wild exposé like DisneyWar. The personalities of executives like Eisner and the stars in their employ isn't what's important here; The Big Picture and two other new movie books are all about process. Hollywood's old economic model was putting our asses in seats. Today, Epstein argues, it's licensing intellectual property—what we used to call movies —via TV, cable, DVD, soundtracks, amusement-park rides, video games, cell-phone ring tones, etc. The old notion of quality—that a studio picture like The Best Years of Our Lives could run for months in a studio-owned theater—has crumbled in our present digital, youth-oriented marketplace. After 1948, when antitrust laws prompted the studios to sell their theaters, the short-running, wide-release model became dominant, as laid out in Open Wide: How Hollywood Box Office Became a National Obsession (Miramax, $23.95). That era didn't truly start with Jaws and Star Wars, either. Co-authors Dade Hayes and Jonathan Bing, both journalists for Variety, point to earlier summer monsters like The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, which favored spectacle over story and benefited from massive TV advertising aimed at teens. "Opening movies is a smash-and-grab business for the studios," they write. The movie itself becomes a loss leader for the murky back end of the business, where—as The Big Picture details—accounting gimmicks hide true studio profits. (Epstein quotes David Mamet's famous showbiz dictum: "There is no net.") You know that sinking feeling you get after being cheated into seeing a film because the TV ad made you laugh? In essence, the movie has become the commercial—the expense and inconvenience you bear in service of the studios' long-term earnings. Open Wide gives the depressing sense that a new movie is inseparable from its marketing campaign; what used to be the final product is just initial product research. The opening-weekend gross becomes a mere variable that predicts the more important "ancillary" business—now actually much larger than the initial box-office tally. Yet those opening- weekend numbers also contribute to the marketing hype. In examining three 2003 releases (Sinbad, Terminator 3, and Legally Blonde), Hayes and Bing have the best access, the breeziest style, and the firmest street-level feel for how movies are actually made. Epstein takes the overview, a kind of Wall Street Journal perspective that suffers from some musty sources (e.g., actor/economist Ben Stein) and lending too much credence to DVD commentary tracks from bitter directors. Still, you forgive the occasional factual error— it's not Robert Shay but Robert Shaye who founded New Line Cinema—for the insights. Since theater owners make much of their money from concessions, Epstein writes, the cup holder was "the most important technological innovation since sound." Weighing in from the critics' section, Tom Shone's Blockbuster: Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer (Free Press, $26) embraces Star Wars and the Indiana Jones pictures, contra the usual valorization of brooding, adults-only '70s cinema by Peter Biskind, David Thomson, and company. For Shone, Spielberg and Lucas broke down the "cinematic apartheid" between high and low culture, between movies made for kids and adults. That kind of audience straddling doesn't always work, but "no world containing the glory that is Pixar is worthy of anybody's despair." Blockbusters like The Incredibles aren't a bad thing. Like most critics, Shone is stronger on opinion than organization—especially compared to The Big Picture and Open Wide. Half the reason he wrote the book, it seems, is to go back and review the hits of his boyhood in '70s England. But he also snags some good interviews, like Spielberg admitting that the power of marketing hurts studios when they don't keep their promises of quality entertainment to filmgoers: "But it doesn't stop them from coming back next week to see if the next studio can keep the same promise." Nor does it stop us from reading Entertainment Weekly or watching Entertainment Tonight. The Hollywood marketing juggernaut steams ahead, now trailing a stream of books as well. Yet one idea Shone raises (but doesn't develop) is how the classic blockbuster, the blockbuster that truly works and has legs, is one that arrives unheralded (like The Terminator or the first Star Wars) or draped in bad buzz (like Jaws and Titanic). Epstein explains the economics, and Hayes and Bing the marketing, but nobody can quite define the mystery of what makes a hit. Like the shark, like the rebel alliance, or like the beast from 20,000 fathoms, it comes from nowhere. When you try to aggressively lead an audience, as with the recent American Godzilla remake, hype fatigue can pre-emptively ruin the actual moviegoing experience. There's nothing new to discover; it's all been given away by the marketing. Though today there's more trash being written about trash movies, I think there's also more good movie writing in general, as these three books demonstrate. Shone shows us how the '70s monopoly of highbrow critics failed to fully appreciate the youth movies being made. (Tellingly, he quotes Pauline Kael at the cultural tipping point: "I'm not crazy about movies with kids as the heroes"—years before Harry Potter.) And Hayes and Bing see some value in Internet buzz and bloggers who help sniff out the turkeys before we suffer through them. It's true that long-running films like Sideways or Kinsey, not intended for kids, are rare today. But it's also appropriate, and perhaps fitting, that they'll reach more viewers and have a longer shelf life on DVD, filed right alongside the new wave of modern movie books. bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
comments powered by Disqus