The Movie Business

I. The Studios

A story is making the rounds, according to Edward Jay Epstein in a recent Hollywood Economist, of a film project turned down by Paramount “that had attached stars, an approved script, and a bankable director, by telling the producer: ‘It's a terrific idea; too bad it hasn’t been made into a movie already or we could do the remake.’ ”

Still, Paramount is one of the big six studios, and no one expects much from them anymore. Thank God for the indies, what’s left of them. But as Barney Gimbel writes in a recent edition of Fortune: “The movie is bad, and everyone in the screening room knows it. But Jon Feltheimer, CEO of Lions Gate Entertainment, isn’t fazed. ‘Just because it sucks doesn’t mean we can’t make a few bucks with it, he says... ‘What kind of deal are they offering?’”
The big six studios, which now control 96% of all movie ticket sales and 98% of all television advertising--in addition to near monopolies in radio, music, and publishing--have evolved over time into multi-billion dollar, vertically integrated, international marketing businesses (marketing celebrities, for the most part) and they rarely pretend to be anything else. Like all big businesses, they try to minimize risk and seek predictable returns, usually by pandering to the masses. If it weren’t for their effect on culture, no one would care.

But they do effect culture; indeed for much of the world they are culture, insofar as it’s American. And culturally speaking, American films have long been a worldwide embarrassment, even a liability. They’re deliberately loaded up with gratuitous sex, violence, and vulgarity. They’ve played an undeniable role in corroding the bedrock values of a formerly Christian society. And when the ching-a-ling begins to die down here, they’re sent as our unofficial cultural ambassadors to every other country in the world. They’re tangible proof of Oscar Wilde’s dictum that America has gone from barbarism to decadence without suffering the intrusion of civilization in between.

But to blame the producers of this swill for the mess they’ve created is wrong. They’re businessmen; they swim in the sea of commerce, not culture. If they could make money affirming Western culture instead of subverting it, as they did throughout the Golden Age of Hollywood, they would gladly avoid the flack and do so. They didn’t stop making decent entertainment because of some Satanic infestation. They quit because after the government took away their carefully cultivated weekly audiences by denying them the right to distribute their own pictures in their own theatres--thus throwing them all in the same multiplexes together--they became so vulnerable to negative press reviews that they had to look for products that could offer some immunity to critical spikes and their subsequent commercial bombs. And to find that, they had to look to that part of their audience that didn’t read reviews, that responded more to celebrity marketing and carney show enticements like sex, violence, fear, and vulgarity. In short, they turned to teenagers, especially uneducated ones. The formula reads: movie star idolatry plus multi-million dollar ad campaign plus bad taste equals critic-proof returns.

II. The Press

If it’s hard to believe that the press could be so powerful as to transform an entire industry, it’s nonetheless true. Samuel Johnson once wrote that artists were like horses, and critics like flies, whose bite could sting the horse with a pain that eclipsed every other reality. Once it was over, though, the artist remained a horse, and the critic remained a fly. But things changed in the last half of the last century; the flies became more lethal, and in the performing arts at least, many of the horses now die from the sting.

The arbitrary power of a single man--the New York Times reviewer--has long been the curse of Broadway, for example. Millions of dollars, years of work, and hundreds of careers have been ruined overnight by the judgment of people like Frank Rich--for twenty years the lead reviewer of the Times--who made no secret of his professional disinterest in the field, his relative distaste for its products, or his desire to be working somewhere else, specifically the National Desk of the paper. It’s much the same for film, blown up to a national scale: old time film distributors all have stories of how their theatre bookings got canceled, hour by hour, as the New York Times hit the news stands going west.

How this all came about isn’t generally understood. The daily papers, led by the Times, maintain that their primary obligation is not to the art form of film or theatre, but to their readership, who look to the paper for advice on the entertainment value of its play and movie listings, not their artistic merit. They therefore hire reviewers--man-on-the-street journalists with no professional training or experience in film or theatre--rather than professionally trained critics. Which is a lot of power to put in the hands of a cub reporter, hot off the obituary page, hoping to advance to the foreign desk, often with no interest in the arts at all.
True critics--Hilton Als, Robert Brustein, Roger Ebert, Rex Reed--don’t write for the dailies, and as experts in the field they have other things to talk about beside their personal reactions, i.e., how the production compares to its predecessors in its genre; and the quality of its writing, direction, acting, music, or design; all of which require comprehensive knowledge to judge. Most importantly, critics are doing what they want to do; they’re actually a part of the film or theatre worlds, and therefore part of literary history.

Reviewers, conversely, often hate their jobs--a job where a superior assigns them, regardless of their personal taste, to absorb two hours of ‘entertainment’, three times weekly; and then requires them--as if they were permanent students--to write reports on how they liked it. Frequently, they don’t.
Theatre and film are vulnerable at birth: every run begins with an empty house, and all the funds invested on the stage or screen have to be met somehow by investments in the empty seats in front of them. If a production has no compulsive hooks like sex or horror, and if it hasn’t cast one of the dozen or so celebrities who can pack the house with their name alone, then the initial audience for that production is almost completely dependent on the press reports. It’s a rule of thumb in the independent film world, for example, that the review in the leading daily paper counts for some eighty per cent of its audience. Uniquely vulnerable to attack by reviewers who know, and care to know, nothing of the history, operations, finances, or aesthetics of the field they cover, many film and theatre companies in America have been driven into bankruptcy by people whose opinions would otherwise count for nothing, without the imprimatur of their papers.

III. Theatre

Over the past half century, American theatre has pulled itself from the brink of ruin into a renaissance of activity that is surely one of the great triumphs in our cultural history. While independent film still labors as a business in the business world, suffering its perpetual cycles of bust and boom, theatre has remade itself by changing its financial basis from commercial to non-profit, which has allowed it to become a manifestly cultural, as opposed to a business enterprise.
In its heyday, Broadway routinely presented the works of Shakespeare, Shaw, and Miller, but by the 60’s the power of a single press report to kill a play had turned it into a carnival where musical revivals, big-star drawing-room comedies, and sex shows like Oh Calcutta! were just about the only fare. At the time, everyone assumed that theatre was dying, with money-grubbing producers and suddenly philistine audiences to blame. But it was closer to the truth to say that producers then, like studios now, had merely sought immunity from disaster by targeting their offerings to that segment of their audience that didn’t read the papers or care what was in them.

And it was actually only Broadway, not theatre per se that was in trouble. The regional theatre movement sprang up to fill the vacuum with an explosion of creative activity that over the past half-century has transformed American culture. The tax-exempt structure of its companies, coupled with the absence of commercial motive, changed everything. Commerce is basically about exchange, after all, in which parties seek at best a neutral trade in value. Culture, on the other hand, is an enterprise in which parties share a common interest. Even if the play’s no good, one reasons, at least the ticket money went to support the Theatre. This fact tends to mollify the critics and to leverage both performers and unions into reasonable behavior as well, since nobody needs to worry that their work will result in a goldmine for the producers, and everyone is working, in a sense, for a higher good. Most importantly, by taking the commerce out of theatre, it allows commerce itself to be part of the cultural partnership by joining the ranks of contributors.

Companies like the Public Theatre, Arena Stage, the Wooster Group, or the Magic Theatre, unknown fifty years ago, are truly public institutions now, just as they were intended to be, galvanizing their communities in the same way that universities do. And the audiences turned out not to be so dumb at all: not only are they eager for challenging fare, they’re willing to pay for it in advance by season subscription. Many theatres sell two thirds of their seats before rehearsals even begin, which gives directors tremendous artistic freedom in the selection of material. It also means that plays the reviewers savage no longer close overnight, which in turns means that word-of-mouth reports--the best advertising of all--has a role in every production, balancing reviews. These factors give regional theatres more cultural scope and a better financial base than Broadway has ever enjoyed.

Forty years later, two such non-profit companies reside in two of the great old Broadway theatres, where they put on plays by Shakespeare, Shaw, and Miller for consistently full houses at Broadway ticket prices, while the commercial houses right next door remain trapped in the boom or bust cycle of the earlier production system.

IV. Film

Could a similar division work for studio and independent film? There was a time, after all, when Hollywood and art house movies co-existed peaceably: Hollywood had movie palaces, art films had independent theatres, each had their own distinct audiences and venues, and for all practical purposes the former was commercial and the latter, let’s say, non-profitable. The atmosphere in the art house circuit was once so healthy that director Luis Buneul continued to cast his films with unknown actors even after his own success made it possible for him to cast stars, explaining that he preferred unknowns because they didn’t distract the audience from the story.
But the decline of the cities, the rise of suburbia, the fall of the studio distribution system and the subsequent multi-plexing of America has changed the situation radically. Independent theatres have been wiped out by the chains, and Jackass, the Sequel now screens in the same multiplex with The Station Agent. Which do you think has the better chance? Individual films sparked by artistic and cultural concerns can’t possibly compete in the marketplace with a colossal commercial entertainment business, skillfully focused on its bottom line. In such an environment, one of the world’s great filmmakers, Werner Herzog, hasn’t made a feature in the past 20 years, while David Lynch has been reduced to distributing his current feature, Inland Empire, by himself.

A two million dollar film may be able to compete with a $100 million film in terms of what’s on the screen, but it can never compete with the $60 million marketing budget--with national releases on thousands of screens--that is apt to promote the latter film. Film, like commercial theatre, is a serial start-up business: every seat is empty when the work begins. Studios have learned that a quarter of those seats will get filled with the right star’s name alone. The right amount of sex, violence, action and vulgarity can double that percentage through a blistering ad campaign and word-of-mouth. If the reviews are good to boot, you’ve got a hit; but even if the reviews are bad and the movie stinks the strategy still as a rule makes money.

Against that marketing formula--celebrities, marketing millions, and side-show vulgarity--an independent art film only has access to vulgarity. Unfortunately, the ever increasing baseness is driving the art right out of the business. What else is an indie film with no big stars to do? The fact that nothing is too low for a headline in the dailies has so perverted values that films which are nothing more than carnival side-shows now make it to center stage on tawdriness alone. Zoo, the story of a man who died from internal injuries from anal intercourse with a horse, was the big buzz at Sundance this year. Last year, it was the rape of a twelve-year-old girl. Two years before, it was a thirteen-year-old hooker. None of it shocks people anymore, except the kids who for excellent reasons aren’t supposed to see it. If this kind of thing were shunned, as it used to be, it would just die quietly, as it should. It has nothing to do with groundbreaking courage, and everything to do with decadence, as everyone’s known for way too long a time. Culture has always had hierarchies, and always will, and everyone should--must--be free to enjoy it all. But that hardly makes blatantly pandering movies like Grindhouse into works that deserve a moment’s critical attention.

You don’t see this kind of thing in theatre, by the way, because the individuals, foundations, and corporations who underwrite it would never allow it. They’ve given their own money for the enhancement of culture, after all, and they hardly want their names attached instead to its destruction.

At some level, everyone--even the press--understands the distinction. You don’t have to parade abused children or deranged sexoholics on the stage to get a theatre review, because the theatre, ultimately by virtue of its fiscal foundation, doesn’t put those kind of shows on anymore. Which means that the press has no choice but to cover what they do produce, which for the most part is laudably good.

Why the press should even cover Spiderman or Dumb and Dumber is one of the great unanswered questions in the West’s decline. It’s like covering Daniele Steele in the Book Review; Burger King in the Food Section; or a new commercial shoe box on the Architecture page: we all know they’re successful, not to say ubiquitous, but what’s to review? If they don’t review comic books, why comic book movies? Why are junk-food films deemed significant at all?

The press adheres to standards in other parts of the arts: it reviews literature, not best-sellers; architecture, not commercial buildings; dance, not disco; art, not comic books. Why then should Mission Impossible III be plastered on the front page of every Arts section in the country? The studios for the most part don’t even want the coverage: indeed, they’ve spent the last half century purposely steering their product to an audience that doesn’t read reviews.

Real critics rarely cover this kind of stuff. Why don’t the dailies consider hiring some of them, to cover authentic works of art, and leave entertainment to the carnivals and amusement parks where it belongs? Then when films like Being Julia, Black Book, The Painted Veil, Basquiat, Capote, The Last King of Scotland, The Constant Gardener, or Broken Flowers get released, the front page will be empty, as it always is in the Book Review, for a knowledgeable advocate to offer some insight into the achievements of a great artist’s work.

Which might also spare us the recurrent spectacle of arbitrary, literally mindless attacks on films like Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist, which was pilloried for its classicism; or Bob Dylan’s Masked and Anonymous, ridiculed for its obscurity. Both films did poorly, and the chances of enjoying future contributions from a great film classicist or a great lyric poet have been correspondingly reduced for everyone.

V. Commerce and Culture

Studios won’t make art films because art films don’t make money. Yet no one doubts that film is the emblem of our culture, and among the most powerful arts of all time. With the wealth and freedom to create any culture we desire, it’s inexcusable to allow market anomalies to dictate the distribution of a film or its value as a work of art. Imagine the outrage if we allowed that to happen with books. Culture has never been about making money: if our confusion on this score has led us to endure bad art and a decadent culture, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Most independent film production companies might as well be non-profit, for all the money they make; and by clarifying their purpose as cultural, they might well discover new avenues of financial support. When the purpose of an enterprise is cultural rather than commercial, the government has made it advantageous to be non-profit. This small adjustment in outlook can produce an enormous difference in results.

Many of the remaining independent movie theatres are already non-profit, as are virtually all of the festivals. How much would it take to create a national network of subscription-based, non-profit theatres, with new art films circulating in repertory? By opening in just one or two theatres, slowly garnering critical reviews and word of mouth, and expanding venues as their reputations take hold, art films could greatly reduce their need for either advertising or celebrity marketing to draw an audience. A network like this could begin with no more than five or ten theatres in as many cities around the country.

Why not take a cue from the golden age of movies, and put those films on double bills with animations and shorts, the way the they used to be? We’d then have a parallel system of distribution that the studios would find impossible to co-opt for the simple reason that they couldn’t, by law, buy them. Yet nothing would stop crossover art films from moving up to commercial venues once their reputations were established, as occasionally happens now between regional theatre and Broadway.

To paraphrase de Tocqueville, the tragedy of democracy is that it gets the culture that it actually deserves. The antidote to this is supposed to be the meritocracy of talent that Jefferson envisioned as the brightest flower of democracy, strangled nowadays in the weeds of media. Some current thinkers even say mass culture might just as well devour the fine arts, which are seen as useless remnants from an odious, best forgotten era anyway. But the overwhelming popular success of regional theatre is all the proof we’ll ever need for the abiding intelligence of the audience, and the stupidity of such an argument. It only remains to do something similar for the movies.

Richard Squires
2133 R Street, NW
Washington, DC 20008