Epstein — The Big Picture

[cross-posted on Albion’s Seedlings]

Epstein, E.J., The Big Picture: Money and Power in Hollywood, Random House, 2005.

If your last visit to the cinema was a disappointing mix of overpriced tickets and salt-and-sugar concession snacks, followed by a postage stamp theatre blaring rock music, 15 minutes of advertising, with sticky floors and oafs talking on their cell phones during the feature film, you’re not alone. And if you felt that the movies on offer were only suitable for teenagers, antinomians, and nihilists, you were correct. They were made that way on purpose.

Edward Jay Epstein, previously known as a writer on political events, has crunched the numbers and written a book on Hollywood like none seen before. Part introduction to film making, part-history, part-economics, “Big Picture” describes the studio system of the first half-century of the film business as it reached its peak of power and simplicity in the late 1940s. Before the era of television, theatres and creative talent were owned by a handful of studios. The product was cranked out on Hollywood back-lots at minimal cost. The cheaper the film, the more profit at the studio’s theatres across the nation. Post-war restrictions by foreign governments meant the foreign market was a significant but only small portion of studio profit. Theatre tickets and concession sales were the goal.

With a captive weekly domestic audience over 100 million, studio films (mixed with a package of newsreels, cartoons, serials, “trailers”, and B-films) were relentlessly adult oriented without being “adult” in content. The only exception, and indeed the only Gentile movie mogul of the time, was Walt Disney. He was convinced that kids were the market.

Flash forward sixty years — after the anti-trust legislation which forced studios to divest their theatre chains, after the appearance of television and the catastrophic drop in cinema attendance, after the anti-trust legislation which forced TV networks to divest their production houses (quickly scooped up by the movie studios), after Disney began minting money with character merchandising deals, after the appearance of home videotape players (VCRs) and video stores, after the appearance of DVDs and the big-box retail stores, after the resurgence of foreign appetite for Hollywood films — the world is entirely different.

Now the Hollywood film industry is dominated by six huge entertainment companies (Paramount, Fox, Sony, Warner Bros. Disney, and Universal). Each integrates broadcast, pay- and satellite TV networks under one umbrella. Some have theme parks and publishing companies. Each has vast merchandising ties with fast-food, music, Internet, and clothing companies (if they don’t actually own those companies). All have monopolistic foreign distribution subsidiaries that can shuffle money between branches to minimize taxes. These giants spent $18 billion dollars in 2003 to create and promote of 80 films around the world, and were rewarded with $6.4 billion in cinema revenue. A net loss of roughly $11 billion.

How Hollywood turns that $11 billion from scary red to perpetual black is part-and-parcel of why your average movie experience is nonsensical feast of noise, pyrotechnics, computer-generated image (CGI) special effects, inane celebrities, and supernatural bulls**t. It’s why dialog is at a minimum, the endings are happy, the movie running times are under 128 minutes, the popcorn is insanely salty, the ratings are usually PG-13, and every plot line requires lots of car chases, monsters, and explosions. Nonetheless, only a tiny handful of the films you see in the theatres will actual make money during theatrical release (known as “current production”). The handful of films that will gross more than a billion dollars follow a similar formula:

All of them:

1. are based on children’s stories, comic books, serials, cartoons, or, a theme park ride.
2. feature a child or adolescent protagonist.
3. have a fairy-tale-like plot in which a weak or ineffectual youth is transformed into a powerful and purposeful hero.
4. contain only chaste, if not strictly platonic, relationships between the sexes, with no suggestive nudity, sexual foreplay, provocative language, or even hints of consummated passion.
5. feature bizarre-looking and eccentric supporting characters that are appropriate for toy and game licensing.
6. depict conflict – through it may be dazzling, large-scale, and noisy – in ways that are sufficiently non-realistic, and bloodless, for a rating no more restrictive than PG-13.
7. end happily, with the hero prevailing over powerful villains and supernatural forces (most of which remain available for potential sequels).
8. use conventional or digital animation to artificially create action sequences, supernatural forces, and elaborate settings.
9. cast actors who are not ranking stars – at least in the sense they do not command gross-revenue shares.

In one word, “Spiderman” — in two words, “Harry Potter” — in four, “Lord of the Rings.”

This formula must now also accommodate the domestic tastes and governmental concerns of the eight major foreign markets for Hollywood films that contribute as much or more to profits than domestic income (which includes Canada). In order of financial importance, they are Japan, Germany, Britain, Spain, France, Australia, Italy, Mexico. While the rest of the nations of the world contribute their share to Hollywood wealth, the design and formulation of films is driven only by these eight foreign countries.

Hold on a minute, though. The formulaic kid-bait and toy franchising represented above is only occasionally represented at awards time. Wasn’t last year’s Golden Globes a festival of gay and transsexual awakening? Yes, indeed it was. For part of the emotional cost of making bilge for children from 8-80 is a deep ennui amongst the creative and management talent that feeds the “sexopoly” – the six-company beast. In order to boost morale and acquire prestige, studios, stars, and directors also participate in making movies of interest to them and those they admire. The result is a number of films that will certainly lose money in the cinemas, have only a small chance of recouping costs in DVD or during free TV broadcast, but which will appeal to the creative talent which otherwise is engaged in making merchandisable blockbusters. Make a blockbuster, get an “art-house” film, and maybe an Oscar, as a reward.

According to Epstein, the former studio system of the mid-twentieth century has morphed into the entertainment giants who focus on being financial clearinghouses for the lucrative home entertainment market (games, toys, DVDs, TV broadcast). All else is financially trivial. WalMart, through its loss-leader DVD sales, is now the largest single customer for Hollywood. And the eight foreign nations listed above provide more income that the US/Canada market. Giving the customer what they want drives the film business.

What’s the Anglosphere angle?

The complete absence of civic culture in modern movies. The movies made for kids and adolescents are, by design, denatured and created in the form of over-simplified hero tales. And the “art house” loss-leaders created to placate Hollywood’s egomaniacs are about individuals casting off the cultural, moral, and sexual constraints of their societies to find personal liberation (sound familiar?). Since the merchandising blockbusters must satisfy the international market, the “hero tales” transmit little more about American culture than US teens are good with guns. And the “art-house” films are mostly about outdoing the rest of the world in the denigration of Anglosphere domestic culture and sanctifying appropriate victims.

Now there may be some indirect value to educating the world that the average 20 year-old US marine or soldier is raised to enthusiastically deal death from childhood, but this hardly goes very far in explaining the actual reasons for American or Anglosphere success to the rest of the world. The values of decentralized decision-making, hammered out in town halls and parishes across the Anglosphere in boring multiplicity, day after day, never appear in any Hollywood films. Granted, the subject matter isn’t sufficient dramatic to sustain the interest of children, teenagers, or foreigners. Nonetheless, it’s the foundation upon which these giant entertainment corporations are able to wield so much international power.

Conservative columnist Ben Stein once described Hollywood culture as “high school with money” with the Caucasian businessman now the only universally acceptable movie villain. It’s ironic then that all the corporations but Sony are American-owned, and all feed the international market with product managed (if not financed) out of the US. Here’s a classic messy dynamic Anglosphere undertaking, overwhelmingly successful and adaptable, yet entirely oblivious of its origins and civic sustenance.

The next time you scan the marquee looking for something interesting in the multiplex, it’s worth recalling – you’re not the audience. You are just so not the audience.

9 thoughts on “Epstein — The Big Picture”

  1. Doesn’t seem to explain the vast adult film industry that ballooned with the VCR and now the internet. Talk about InstaProfessor’s Army of Davids. Heh.

  2. Thank you, James. Thank you for adding so much to this blog & to our understanding.

    Will Netflix have any effect? Since we started subscribing, we now watch a movie (or its equivalent) at least once, often twice, a week – like we did in the seventies. For decades, we have seldom entered the local multiplex – only when our children dragged us there as a familial event – and usually we were sorry we’d gone. (I loved the time the girls wanted to see the YaYa Sisterhood movie and my husband & son-in-law balked, instead they got to see the Nazis arise from the dead as terrorists – or some such.

    Now, we can stake our a director – say John Ford – and watch a series of his movies. We can stake out a time. Or we can live in variety: The Letter, Through a Glass Darkly, Johnny Cash at Montreaux, Kolya, The Informer. At one time, they did make movies for adults.

  3. I think that there is something more than this dynamic going on. Hollywood’s famous aversion to Republicans has to take its bow in the sad mix that creates art house nihilist propaganda. I can live with blockbusters that cater to a lowest common denominator demographic but the art house films that are “rewards” for blockbusters should have at least a minority of conservative and pro-Republican films, if they are truly only rewards.

  4. “Doesn’t seem to explain the vast adult film industry that ballooned with the VCR and now the internet.”

    It’s not seeking to. Nor is it seeking to explain youtube, or Saturday morning cartoons. Just seeking to explain big-time Hollywood productions.

  5. I love movies, but rarely bother going to one of the current movie barns. The prices are ridiculous, and even the big deals are usually a disapointment—cliche’ ridden, and full of bad acting and expensive effects that have about as much dramatic depth as a birdbath.

    It is interesting that after all the anti-trust and other statist fussing, the entire industry ends up run by six mega-operators. Another inspiring success by our helpful government regulators.

    The only up side I can see in all this is that the general tone of many of these stories is, as the author describes, an almost mythic hero tale. I found the various themes in Rings to be generally positive, as are Harry Potter’s stories.

    Since the target audience, at least in the US, is the “boom echo” or millenial generation, and my two high schoolers love these kinds of books and movies, I’m hoping the recurring themes of standing firm against evil and courage in the face of danger have an impact.

    I guess even a cloud of crappy movies has a silver storyline in there somewhere.

  6. I find the above commentary fairly bizzare. For every Spiderman and Lord of the Rings, there are dozens of other films that follow that 9-point formula much more slavishly and yet are disappointments at the box office, if not outright flops. The difference is these hit movies are great films.

    You might not like these genres, but virtually every comic book fan would agree that the two Spiderman films are in the top 5 comic book movies ever; ditto for fantasy and Lord of the Rings.

  7. Sol – I think the point is that those 9 characteristics are necessary, but not sufficient for success – you can still screw the pooch on execution – Battlefield Earth had most of them and it flopped. However, a movie without those points is almost certainly not going to make over a billion. The one exception I can think of is Titanic – but it featured CGI and a teenaged protagonist.

    I liked the LOTR, but I’m a Tolkien fan, and I despised that Peter Jackson left out the Scouring of the Shire – the whole point of the Hobbit involvement in the WOTR was to make them grow up and take care of themselves. And adult point that the kind of perpetual teenager like Jackson (who often doesn’t wear shoes to work – another sign of immaturity) would not wish to include. Also, the movies left out or downplayed the other main adult theme in the books – the theme of death and the passing away of good things with time – which absence played into the teenaged mindset described above.

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